Placing schools at forefront of child poverty work

Health news

The government must form a national plan to tackle child poverty with schools and nurseries at the forefront, the authors of a new report say.

Produced by the Child of the North research group which includes University of Leeds academics, and the Centre for Young Lives think tank, the report argues that schools and nurseries are anchors in the most deprived communities and should play a leading role in those areas with the worst child poverty.

It sets out a series of evidence-based recommendations which the authors are calling for the next government to adopt, including:

  • A new Government plan to support schools to reduce the impact of poverty as a first step of a national plan to reduce child poverty.
  • A targeted programme of funding to support schools in those areas with the highest child poverty to coordinate services and support to reduce the impact of poverty on children.
  • The targeted extension of universal Free School Meals in schools with high levels of child poverty. 
  • A Child Poverty Unit in No. 10 and a Government Poverty Tsar to drive improvements in education for disadvantaged children. 

A national Scientific Advisory Group for Children to ensure evidence, evaluation, and data-sharing lie at the heart of the programme. 

The weight of scientific evidence shows we must act and work with and through educational establishments to give every child the best possible start in life.

Professor Mark Mon-Williams, School of Psychology

With over four million children in the UK living in poverty – 1m of them in the North of England – the report highlights the negative impact poverty is having on many children’s education, health, and future employment.

It shows that children who experience persistent disadvantage leave school on average 22 months behind their peers and are far less likely to pass Maths and English at GCSE. 

Children born into families with the lowest incomes in the UK are almost 13 times more likely to experience poor health and educational outcomes by the age of 17 years. Only four in 10 of the most disadvantaged pupils will reach the expected attainment at the end of their time at school, while school leaders say they are spending more time on dealing with the impact of poverty in schools, including teachers providing food to hungry pupils.

Professor Mark Mon Williams, from Leeds’ School of Psychology and Child of The North report series editor, said: “Education is the most powerful tool available to a nation that wishes to invest in its future.

Poverty is eroding the life chances of millions of children in the UK and fuelling inequity and economic stagnation. There is hope for the UK’s future, but it requires immediate investment in the eradication of child poverty and the removal of poverty related barriers to education.

“The weight of scientific evidence shows we must act and work with and through educational establishments to give every child the best possible start in life.” 

The report highlights the link between child poverty and the current school attendance crisis, with new data from over 60,000 pupils across the Bradford District collated by the Connected Bradford project which shows that over half (57%) of those identified as persistently absent from school were eligible for Free School Meals (FSM).

It found that children eligible for FSM were three times more likely to become persistently absent at some point over their school career compared to their peers who did not receive FSM. This grew to 4.5 times more likely for those who were persistently absent for two or more years across their schooling. These findings suggest that children growing up in poverty are likely to be at increased risk of not attending school. 

‘Anchor institutions’

The report draws on evidence to show how many educational establishments have already become anchor institutions within some disadvantaged areas, particularly during the pandemic when schools and nurseries played a major role in supporting the needs of children, young people and families living in poverty. It calls for schools to be supported to mitigate the problems of poverty within the classroom and beyond. 

It highlights existing initiatives that show the positive impact that projects within the school gates can have on alleviating child poverty, and sets out how universities can play an important role in raising attainment of children in their local areas. 

Further recommendations in the report, to address child poverty and remove the barriers to education, include:

  • Addressing the issue of child poverty as a public health problem and adopting a proportionate universalism approach, including funding universal Free School Meals to individual schools and nurseries where data already highlights existing high levels of child poverty. Universal Free School Meals should be a long-term ambition for all schools and should be initially targeted in areas and wards with the most disadvantaged populations. 
  • Expanding Free School Meals to children in all families receiving Universal Credit or legacy benefits, ensuring the automatic registration of eligible families for Free School Meals to be implemented immediately.  
  • Improving resources for more pastoral support, family workers, educational psychologists and youth workers, breakfast clubs, after-school clubs, extended school opening, enrichment activities and holiday play schemes for all primary school age children. 
  • Reversing the current situation where children in disadvantaged areas are less likely to benefit from the education system. Children in the most affluent schools received larger funding increases from the National Funding Formula (8-9%) between 2017 and 2022 than schools in deprived areas (5%). 
  • Ensuring Integrated Care Boards (the commissioning bodies for health and social care) involve education leaders in their plans and prioritise education as a major lever for improving population health. ICBs should work together to create a single regional “point of truth” where families, expectant families, practitioners, and educational providers can obtain evidence-based advice on the help available to low-income families. 

Deep inequalities

Anne Longfield, Executive Chair of the Centre for Young Lives said: “The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the critical supporting role that nurseries and schools play in the lives of many families, and reducing child poverty must include strengthening the role of schools as part of a national plan. 

“It also highlighted the deep inequalities in educational achievement and the barriers to children’s life chances that come with high levels of poverty. 

“Schools are on the frontline of the battle against child poverty but are overwhelmed by what is being asked of them. We need to give our schools and school leaders the tools – and, crucially, the funding – they need to poverty-proof their schools. 

“Intervening within the school gates to target the most vulnerable children to make sure they are provided with the support they need with pastoral support, family workers, educational psychologists, youth workers, breakfast and after school clubs, enrichment activities and holiday play schemes, can make such a difference to breaking down barriers and inequalities. 

“Child poverty has become the elephant in the room in Westminster. Both parties have an opportunity at the forthcoming election to look at measures to tackle the root causes that are holding so many children back in their education. Free School Meals should be a long-term ambition for all schools, but we should start by targeting individual schools in local areas with the most disadvantaged children and young people. 

“The evidence is clear that investment in the UK’s education system is being squandered because the effects of poverty are not being addressed as an integral part of educational provision. Schools should no longer have to use sticking plaster solutions to tackle poverty.”

Further information

The report, “An evidence-based plan for addressing poverty with and through schools”, is available via the N8 Research Partnership website.

For media enquiries, email University of Leeds press officer Lauren Ballinger via