The plight of children living in poverty in the UK is, it seems, well known by those who teach them. A poll of 400 ATL members last year found that 41% thought they had pupils whose families rely on food banks, with some of those teachers bringing food in for hungry children. From reports by organisations such as the Trussell Trust showing that demand for emergency food supplies rises significantly in the summer months, to children arriving back at school hungry after the summer holidays there is no doubt that for families feeling the squeeze of austerity, ensuring that children are adequately fed can be impossible without extra assistance.
According to the children’s charity, Barnardo’s, “Poverty is the greatest threat to the wellbeing of children and families.” For children living in poverty, every aspect of their development is affected, whether social, emotional or educational. Poverty steals joy, can destroy health and has a detrimental impact on educational attainment. Is it any surprise that teachers seek to ameliorate the impact of poverty on the children they teach? The eradication of poverty is essential, but until there’s the political and social will to achieve that, teachers will find ways of reducing suffering.
Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group, is absolutely clear on the devatstaing effect of poverty on the children and young people in our care. She told eteach that: “The evidence on the impact of poverty on children’s well-being is clear. On education, the evidence shows poverty at home is the strongest statistical predictor of how well a child will do at school. If there isn’t money at home for books or a computer or even space to do homework, you’re not getting a fair start. Teachers in most schools see the effects of hardship like this on a daily basis.”
It’s not just the very practical aspects of learning that are affected by poverty, however. As Alison explains: “On health, apart from alcohol abuse, every single indicator of poor child health has a social gradient. In our recent survey with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health more than two-thirds of doctors said poverty and low income contribute ‘very much’ to the ill health of children they work with. Forty per cent had even had difficulty discharging a child in the last 6 months because of concerns about housing or food insecurity.”
The bottom line is that if you are a child living in poverty, the chances are you will be an adult living in poverty. With nine children in every class of 30 living below the official poverty line (according to Child Poverty Action Group), we cannot ignore such troubling statistics. “And rising inflation and stagnant wages, coupled with big cuts to universal credit and a four-year freeze on benefits, will push the number up,” says Alison. “The IFS projects another million children will be poor by the end of the decade, taking the total to 5 million.”
Making a difference
Child Poverty Action Group is campaigning for some specific changes to be implemented so that children can grow and develop unimpeded by poverty. The causes and effects of poverty need addressing. They explain that, “the first steps in that process should include adding £5 a week to child benefit, giving children’s benefits a ‘triple lock’, scrapping the benefit cap and the two-child limit on tax credits and universal credit and making universal credit fit for working families.”
For teachers wanting to find out more about the current campaigns to eradicate child poverty, the Poverty Action Group network of campaigners is a good place to start. When we know from numerous research studies how detrimental hunger is to children’s ability to learn, we have no option as a society but to do all in our power to end child poverty, if we’re serious about raising standards of education.
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About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for eTeach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.