When exploring big issues in education, it seems increasingly bizarre that while “learning styles” and “brain gym” (have they actually done any harm?) receive a disproportionate amount of airtime, the most significant factor impacting children and young people gets barely a mention in some circles.
Child poverty, however, remains a major factor, dramatically impacting wellbeing and achievement in devastating ways. And it’s on the increase, too.
With the impending festive celebrations, many children will not be looking forward to fun and abundant times. According to the recently published Joseph Rowntree Foundation annual UK Poverty Report child poverty has been rising since 2011/12 and there are now 4.1 million children in the UK locked in poverty. That is a rise of half a million in just five years. To put that into context, that means that in a typical classroom of 30 children, nine are now living in poverty. It’s almost too much to take in.
In addition to the shocking figures on poverty, recent research from YoungMinds has revealed that A&E attendances by young people with psychiatric conditions has almost doubled in the last five years.
The Independent also reports that child homelessness is also at its highest point in 12 years, with over 123,000 children in emergency accommodation.
With child poverty so prevalent, and mental health difficulties faced by children and young people such a prominent feature of life for so many, there is a clear need for sensitivity towards those for whom the festive season is a source of additional stress. Tom Madders, Director of Campaigns at YoungMinds is all too aware of the challenges faced by some children around Christmas time. “Christmas can be a magical time for many people, but it can bring about a break to the everyday routine which many children rely on for stability. Some children may struggle with the lack of structure that comes with not going to school, not getting up as early in the morning, having later bedtimes and not having a clear sense of what each day will involve.
“If a pupil’s behaviour changes around Christmas, it can help for teachers to be mindful of different factors that they may be affected by, including bereavement, poverty, family issues, being a young carer, and many other situations that make them more vulnerable during the festive period.”
While schools must primarily be concerned with the task of educating children and young people, there are many points of intersection between the wellbeing of the child and their ability to reach their full potential at school. This is not about stepping in to ease society’s ills; rather it is about doing what we can to remain mindful of the significant and growing difficulties faced by many families in our communities.
- Your local authority should carry information about local support services for families in need. It would be worth getting in touch for information to share if your school doesn’t already do this. Signposting just might help to prevent a family falling into crisis and early intervention is key.
- Avoid discussions about what the holidays will bring/have brought. For some in our care disappointment will be the over-riding experience. While counselling services for vulnerable children are not always adequate in some areas, signpost any children in need to what is available in your locality. Make sure that the numbers of charity helplines are fully visible in your school (for example, Childline: 08001111).
- According to one child counsellor I spoke to, some children and young people may appreciate being given ideas on how to maintain some structure in each day over the holidays. Naturally this will depend on each child but a reading challenge, writing or art project, or some kind of physical challenge for example may help.
- There may be some holiday clubs in your locality that have been set up to help prevent holiday hunger and isolation. Local charities and your local authority may have more information to pass on to parents.
- While many festive activities targeted at families during the holidays will have costs associated, there are likely to be many free activities that children will enjoy. It might be worth considering developing and maintaining a list of what’s free in your area. Your local library would be a great place to start if you have one, and local churches may be offering games and crafts sessions. There may be other community resources filling time in holidays. Local Facebook pages can be good sources of information.
Of course, the effects of child poverty may be heightened around the festive period, but it is not just a seasonal problem. But then, we know that don’t we? So maybe every time brain gym or learning styles are cited as causing low standards of teaching and attainment maybe we can call that out and point to the far more pernicious issue of poverty and its impact, not least during the festive season.
Find out more…
- Place2Be offers support to schools, parents, teachers and other staff in addressing behaviour, emotional difficulties, transitions, the effects of poverty and more. More information here
- For more resources and tips on helping pupils with their mental health, teachers can sign up to YoungMinds 360° Schools’ Community here
- Family Action offers grants to families in need. More information here
eTeach staff have been raising money over the festive period for a number of children’s charities including the homeless charity The Camberley All Night Café and the children’s charity The Teenage Cancer Trust.
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.