The one place where it can be particularly miserable to be poor is in school. The Poverty Proofing the School Day initiative seeks to help schools identify and tackle the many financial barriers that prevent pupils from fully partaking in school life. Emma Lee-Potter explains
Poverty affects nearly one in three children in the UK today. School can be a daily struggle for youngsters from low-income families, especially if they experience stigma and barriers to their learning.
Some find it difficult to do their homework because they lack IT resources at home while others miss out on school trips and extra-curricular activities because their families can’t afford to pay for them.
These are the type of issues that Children North East, a charity based in Newcastle upon Tyne, is determined to tackle.
It launched its Poverty Proofing the School Day initiative seven years ago and has since worked with hundreds of schools in the North East and beyond to improve awareness and develop equity of opportunity and experience for pupils.
“Our aim is to make school a more equitable place for all students, so that no activity or event within school life excludes those who have fewer financial resources,” said Luke Bramhall, Children North East’s school research and delivery lead, who leads the work on Poverty Proofing the School Day.
“I remember talking to one girl who did her homework by borrowing her mum’s smartphone and sitting on the bus. She had a free bus pass and could get free wi-fi on the bus so that’s how she managed to access her homework.”
The Poverty Proofing team began its work by consulting more than 1,000 children and young people in the North East. They handed out disposable cameras and asked children to take photographs of what poverty looked like to them.
“We got 11,000 photographs back,” said Mr Bramhall. “They provided a unique insight so we went back to the groups involved and asked: ‘What is the one thing we can do to help?’ The response was really clear. The one place that it can be miserable to be poor is school.”
The team subsequently spent two years working with two secondary schools and two primary schools in the North East – “unpicking and understanding what disadvantaged pupils’ experience of the school day was like”.
One of the first questions they asked students was: “Do you know who is poor in your school?”
“The students said ‘yes, of course we do’,” Mr Bramhall explained. “We asked how they knew, because you think of schools as places with uniforms and equality of opportunity. But students were able to identify who was eligible for free school meals (FSM) and who wasn’t.
“In primary schools FSM might be written in the register or there might be a blue dot next to a pupil’s name which gets projected on to the wall. In secondary schools with biometric systems students said they paid with their thumb or finger and 0.00 or FSM would immediately appear on the screen so everyone could see.”
The students mentioned many other ways in which children receiving FSM felt stigmatised, from being handed a packed lunch in a brown or white bag on school trips, to being provided with food for food technology lessons and having to walk to the front of the classroom to collect it.
“They talked about ‘the walk of shame’ as they walked to the front of class to get the support that the school was trying to provide,” said Mr Bramhall.
“We also looked at extra-curricular provision and found that Pupil Premium students weren’t proportionally represented within school trips, after-school clubs and music provision.
“Sometimes it was because of the cost but there were also issues like students not going on school trips because they might be able to afford £10.50 for the theme park but their friends were all taking £30 spending money. They told us: ‘I don’t want to be sat on the bench eating my free school meal out of a brown paper bag while my friends are off spending money in the fast food shop.’”
Sports kit and clothes can be problematic too. Some pupils said they avoided after-school sports clubs because they couldn’t afford the kit. Others revealed that they loathed non-uniform days because peers wore the latest designer coats and they couldn’t afford to.
“Students told us they couldn’t pay £30 for the school’s extra-curricular sports kit and they weren’t going to wear the one in the PE department’s office because it looked different and didn’t have their initials on,” said Mr Bramhall. “So some students were choosing not to take part because of their finances – despite their interests and skills.
“Every school is different and the culture within every school is different but it’s important to understand what it’s like to be facing these things through the eyes of a child living in poverty.
“Fundraising is another issue. For example, is the form teacher going round the class and asking everyone for their donation for the food bank? It’s not staff being nasty or unkind but it’s important to understand that some students experience real pressure and embarrassment that they haven’t brought in a donation because there isn’t the money at home to provide these things.”
Following the pilot, the Poverty Proofing the School Day audit was born. Schools register for the scheme (there is a cost for this) and a member of the Children North East team spends up to five days conducting an audit at each participating school and questioning pupils, teachers, support staff, parents and governors.
In secondary schools the charity trains up a team of peer researchers (schools choose these and they range from year 7 pupils to year 13s) who visit different classes, help to gather information and take notes.
Children North East then develops a personalised action plan to address any stigmatising policies or practices and advises on the most effective ways to spend the school’s Pupil Premium allocation.
So far the charity has worked with schools in the North West, Lincolnshire and Brighton and Hove as well as the North East (often using delivery partners) and the results have been positive. An independent evaluation by academics at Newcastle University in 2016 found that the scheme had helped to increase attendance, attainment, FSM uptake and participation in school trips and music tuition.
“State schooling is supposed to be free,” said the report’s co-author Liz Todd, professor of educational inclusion at Newcastle University. “In fact, the cost to families is high – uniform, food, equipment, study support and other activities central to becoming a successful adult, not optional add-ons. Our research suggests that attainment gains follow when schools take action.
“Schools already pay a lot of attention to the social needs of students. However, this research has demonstrated that there are many ways that school systems unwittingly stigmatise poorer students. It takes Children North East’s poverty-proofing audit process, a critical friend talking to everyone in the school, for the school staff to see what is happening and to evolve solutions that are respectful to students.”
Tips on poverty-proofing your school
- If you’re planning a school trip ask every student to opt into a “grab bag” option for lunch. On the morning of the trip every student goes into the school canteen and collects their “grab bag” – instead of giving FSM students packed lunches in brown or white paper bags.
- Providing food for food technology lessons can be expensive. Some schools ask for a donation of, say £5 a term. If a parent is unable to pay this the school can use the total it has received to buy food for everyone.
- Non-uniform days can be “incredibly high pressured”, particularly for secondary pupils. In a bid to avoid pupils feeling embarrassed about their clothes, some schools have introduced instead odd sock days or asked everyone to wear a certain colour item (perhaps a sock, handkerchief or bobble).
- Fundraising and supporting charities is important but teachers should avoid asking pupils to come to the front of the class with their donation. Organise a drop box or bucket for students as they come into school – so it isn’t an issue for those who can’t afford to make a donation.
- Take care with the wording on letters about key educational trips and activities. Use wording like “if you are struggling, come and talk to us”, thereby encouraging students and families to discuss the challenges they may be facing.
- Monitor disadvantaged students’ access to extra-curricular activities. Review what the cost of the activity or trip is and check whether everyone can access the opportunity. If not, what is the purpose of it and is there an alternative that every child can access?
- Avoid asking questions like “where has everyone been on holiday?” or “what did you all get for Christmas?” As Mr Bramhall explained: “Some pupils haven’t got things they want to share and for some of them Christmas hasn’t been the exciting opportunity that we would hope for.”
- There has been widespread media coverage of schools banning pupils from bringing in expensive pencil cases and designer items in a bid to stop children from low-income families feeling stigmatised. Some schools now provide items like stationery and ask pupils to use standard backpacks rather than designer items.