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How does it feel to grow up poor at school?

Article Poverty Proofing

'Poverty Proofing' the school day

Free school meal and pupil premium funding is there to help but there are many more barriers to school life that exist if you’re living in poverty.

As the cost-of-living pressures continue to bite and more children and young people are tipped into poverty, we’ve been speaking to a charity which specialises in supporting schools to remove every single barrier to pupils who are growing up poor.

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Lorna Nicoll is Poverty Proofing Team manager at Children North East and also a governor. She tells us why understanding children’s lived experience matters and what can be done to help. 


Lorna, what does living in poverty actually mean? I know there are different definitions.

Yes, that's right. The definition most often used by the government is that if you’re living in a household with an income below 60% of the median that year, you are living in relative poverty - but that is a measure of income alone and often doesn’t include housing costs. However even without housing costs included, government figures show that around one in six people in the UK are on a relatively low income.

You work with a much broader definition of poverty, why is that?

We use a broader definition because poverty is more than just not being able to afford the basics or the essentials. It’s about more than money - it’s about a lack of choices and opportunities. Being poor often means you can’t afford to take part in the things that most people in society enjoy and take for granted.

So for example many people have a holiday in the UK once a year, even if that’s a week in a caravan or a campsite somewhere. However lots of children don’t have that opportunity. Having a holiday is considered a routine part of our society and we often assume in schools that everyone (including colleagues) have managed to get a break. The discourse round it in society is that those who go on holiday deserve it, but what’s it like for those who never get away, not even for a night?

There are lots of children who don’t own a warm winter coat or don’t have access to regular meals. We have to broaden that definition to really fully understand how poverty can affect children's lives in different ways. In school, it often leads to a feeling of missing out. Attending a summer fair at school is something most pupils would take for granted. But for those children and young people who can’t go because their parents or carers are unable to afford it or they can’t afford to get there, that’s another example of not being able to join in with what everyone else is doing.

As governors and trustees, we know about free school meals and pupil premium funding, but the charity says there are children who’re growing up poor who may not even qualify for that additional support?

Yes, that's right. There are many families who’re in low paid work, but don’t qualify for free school meals due the stringent criteria. The threshold is much lower than that figure of relative poverty being a household income of less than 60% of the median. Just recently, the Food Foundation released statistics that show there are 800,000 children in England living in poverty who are not currently eligible for free school meals. It’s calling for the government to extend free school meals to more children.

The work of your charity, Children North East, involves going into schools to carry out a Poverty Proofing(c) audit. How did the programme come about and what kind of things do you uncover?

We developed the concept of Poverty Proofing in 2011 following a consultation with children and young people across the twelve local authorities of the North East. We distributed disposable cameras throughout our networks and we got thousands of photos back. We went through the photos with children and young people and we talked about their hopes, dreams and challenges. One of the major findings was that, for so many of them, the worst place to be poor was in school. This is something we weren’t really expecting. Schools are meant to be great drivers of social mobility. We followed this up with two primary and two secondary schools to explore what being poor in school can feel like.

There is a rightful emphasis in social research at the moment on ‘lived experience’ and this is what we were doing back in 2011. We went into schools and asked pupils if they know who’s poor and what it feels like to be poor in school. Children would say, ‘Well we know who’s poor in school. They’re the ones that get the brown paper bags on school trips because they’re on free school meals.’ We had children in secondary schools saying, ‘Yeah they’re the ones who can’t have certain drinks and where it flashes up, ‘FSM’, on the till in the canteen.’

At a school I was in recently, pupils talked about ‘the walk of shame in food technology’. It’s great that the children had ingredients provided by the school, but pupils spoke of having to walk to the front of the classroom to collect them at the start of each lesson. It can be stigmatising. 

Another example might be some of the events that take place throughout the school calendar: ‘World Book Day’, ‘Dressing-up Day’ or a day where you’re asked to wear a yellow t-shirt. If you don’t have a yellow t-shirt, someone needs to go out and buy you one.  

So a Poverty Proofing audit helps us to understand what that lived experience is like in terms of the structures, routines and procedures in school. Every organisation that we work with has a plan for how things should happen that’s exemplified in policies and procedures, but things sometimes differ on the ground.   

An example of this recently was when we asked pupils in a school what happens if they don’t have a water bottle. They said, ‘Well, you can’t drink’. The staff at the school told us there was a cup on the side in most classrooms for these kind of situations, but the children would say, ‘Oh no, that cup hasn’t been there for three weeks’.

This isn’t a criticism of school staff. Teachers are incredibly busy people who’re charged with the hugely important task of trying to reduce the disadvantage gap in teaching and learning. We don't want to blame anybody, but simply to understand these experiences through the eyes of children and young people and where necessary, consider some ways to get around these issues.

School clubs are really important at the moment as families are having to stop external clubs because they can’t afford them. Particularly those who aren’t quite eligible for pupil premium funding. In some parts of the country these families are referred to as the ‘JAMS’ because they’re the ‘just about managing’ families. Any clubs schools can offer are brilliant, but sometimes there are unforeseen barriers to taking part.

You might have a child say, ‘I’d love to go to the football club, but I’m worried I’ll be the only one in my PE kit because everyone else can wear their football kit.’ It might be seemingly small as an issue for us adults but for that child who always feels different, it’s a huge thing. There will always be children who’re at football club, both in school and out, who have the latest boots and shin pads. It's a very different experience than if your family is struggling and you don’t have that parity of experience. 

I was recently in a fantastic secondary school where there is free transport as it’s in a rural area but if you get an after school detention you miss the free bus. If you miss two after school detentions, you’re put into internal exclusion. Children and parents we spoke to in that school said pupils are choosing to go straight to the internal exclusion as they cannot afford to miss the free bus which leaves straight after school.

Schools want children to behave - of course they do - but there’s a correlation between mental health and poverty. We ask schools to look at who is successful in terms of behaviour. We get schools to really think about what it's like if you haven’t slept properly, if it’s cold and damp in your house. We know there are many children in England who don’t have a proper mattress to sleep on.

Do you speak to governors as part of the audit?

We speak to all of the children and we send out surveys to parents, staff and governors. We aim to fully understand the school context. There are very good reasons why schools do things the way they do and every school is different. It’s important to understand the full context of a school. We look at 16 different themes within the audit - things like resources, uniform, homework, celebrations within school and much more.

After that, we give very comprehensive feedback. We look at what’s working well and there is always a lot that is working well. And then we provide some considerations and they often involve aspects of school life beyond what we call the ‘tip of the iceberg’ - this usually involves the question of who is successful in your school and why. Some children even choose certain subjects and pathways, because they can’t afford to do certain courses due to additional costs. We really dig deep. And, of course, it’s great when governors are involved in feedback sessions or attend the staff training we offer - they bring with them an important dimension and perspective.

It’s also about approachability. Schools often say to parents that if they have any difficulties in affording anything, just come and tell them. However, from our experience, many parents would say they’d find it extremely difficult to come to school and say I’m struggling and can’t afford this or that. That is one of the biggest challenges for schools.

What kind of impact do you have when the audit is complete and feedback is acted upon?

Impact varies from school to school, depending on what has been followed up on from our recommendations, but what we tend to find is reduced costs for families and for schools and where possible, reduced stigma for those pupils whose families are struggling. We often help schools to redirect pupil premium funding to the current needs of the student body.

It’s about equality of access to everything that’s happening at school. Everything that’s going on. Giving every child in school the opportunity to participate in, not just the compulsory aspects, but also the additional opportunities. 

Do you work with schools outside of the North East?

We work all over the country, in-person and remotely. We have a full 360 degree audit, which can be five days in school or even longer, and we speak to everybody in the school community. We also have an abridged audit, which can be done remotely, where we focus on five of the sixteen themes and speak to smaller focus groups. We offer staff training that can be done remotely, or in person too, and that’s about taking staff in schools on a real journey of understanding about poverty. We often have governors joining that. It’s a great opportunity for the whole school community, including everyone from the catering staff and governors to teaching assistants, to really look at the reality of what life is like for those struggling financially, some of whom may also work within the school.

We work with delivery partners too - local authorities and trusts, across England and Wales from London to the North West. We’re working with a lot of southern local authorities at the moment as they’re really worried about the cost of living pressures. We train them up and quality assure the work so they can deliver the Poverty Proofing programme themselves.

Find out more

Check out the Children North East website or complete a contact form to get in touch.

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  • Rebecca 24 Oct 2022, 11:34 (20 months ago)

    Wow, what an interesting, but heart-wrenching article. Just wondered how much it is/ who funds an audit at a school?

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    • Lorna Nicoll 27 Oct 2022, 13:28 (20 months ago)

      Thanks for your question, Rebecca. Audits can be funded by schools themselves, local authorities, Academy Trusts, sometimes other organisations such as Dioceses. Cost depends on school roll and we also offer training for staff and governors. Do contact [email protected] to find out more.

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