Addressing the impact of poverty

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Absence rates for those eligible for free school meals (FSM) are higher than for other students. In this article, Alex Colclough provides insight into the issue and considers what schools might do to help.

Summary

  • Poverty can lead to obstacles preventing pupils from attending school as often as they should.
  • A drop in attendance could be one of the first indicators that something is wrong.
  • Schools can help poor families with effective communication, by working with other agencies and by looking at how they apply their practices and procedures.

The Children’s Society states that currently four million children in the UK are living in poverty. This equates to one third of children.  This number is predicted to increase to five million in 2020.  Outcomes for this group of children are desperate, with many underachieving.

The North East is the region with the highest overall absence rates across all State-funded primary, secondary and special schools (5.1 per cent). Out of the 20 most deprived areas in England, 15 are in the North, with Middlesbrough being named the most deprived part of England. 

Absence rates are higher for pupils who are known to be eligible for claiming free school meals. The overall absence rate for these pupils was 7.6 per cent, compared to 4.3 for non-FSM pupils. The persistent absence rate for pupils who were eligible for FSM (23.6 per cent) was more than twice the rate for those pupils not eligible for FSM.

So, how might families’ financial problems impact on school attendance?

The impact of poverty on attendance

Poverty affects school attendance for a variety of reasons.  Some children are unable to attend school as their parents cannot afford fuel and travel costs, or they are more likely to be absent with sickness as their families cannot afford heating, hot water and a healthy diet.

Research has shown that for some children, not having the right uniform and missing breakfast, things that we take for granted, were barriers to children setting foot in school.  One child support worker reported that children are having to take days off school due to unwashed, ill-fitting or shabby clothes.  This may lead to another issue, bullying, which is a huge concern when children are unable to dress like their peers, and have poorer quality clothing, shoes and school bags. 

As they get older, children are more likely to truant if they come from poor families and there is a close link between poverty and truancy among primary school children.  Parents have reported ‘forgetting’ about their children’s schooling due to the mental and emotional demands of experiencing money trouble.  Logically, truancy rates will not be cut by prosecuting or fining parents of absentees; we need to get alongside these families and build trusting relationships rather than alienate them.

A key role

As an attendance officer, you are in a good position to be able to support the children whose attendance is suffering due to poverty.  A drop in attendance can be an early indicator that something is going wrong. Crucially, you can help indicate the need for early intervention, especially in a primary school setting. This might include supporting low-income families to ensure they are able to get into good habits of regular school attendance from the outset.  As with any issue, once the problem is entrenched, it will be more difficult to solve.

As teachers, we are committed to the principle that education can make an enormous difference to transforming children’s lives. It may be the way that children find their way out of poverty in the future and into better-paid employment, thus breaking the cycle.  

It’s important for the attendance officer to be person-centred in approach.  They should ask children and parents about the support families on a low income might need, rather than making assumptions. If possible, providing a universal approach with activities and provision open to all is likely to engage disadvantaged families without stigmatisation.

Ensuring access

The pupil premium grant might be used to help ensure that disadvantaged children are able to have full and equitable access to activities and materials. Lack of money should not be a barrier to school attendance and schools should monitor disadvantaged pupils closely to identify if there are problems with access to school trips and school clubs.

Do these children have the access to computers and the internet that they might need to complete some homework? If not, you may wish to build in opportunities for them to complete homework in school.

Are families able to purchase the uniform and in sufficient quantities? A second-hand uniform sale could be an option.  Governors may wish to set aside some money to support some pupils in particular cases of hardship.

Helping families

It isn’t just about propping up families but also assisting them, where possible, to find solutions for themselves. Signposting parents in terms of benefits, health and well-being, job opportunities and access to leisure opportunities will also have an impact and it is important to include positive praise for achievements. 

Coffee mornings, workshops and information sessions might be beneficial if they are targeted carefully. They might include topics such as simple budgeting or how to plan, shop and cook economical family meals. This targets parents of children from disadvantaged homes but in a sensitive and discreet way. 

Plan these events carefully.  A convenient time and location, face-to-face recruitment, trusting relationships and an informal, welcoming environment have been found by the Education Endowment Foundation to be the most important factors in parents attending group sessions.

Effective communication

You should work closely with your senior leadership team to impress upon them the importance of being visible and approachable to engage parents. Some of these parents will find entering school difficult and meeting parents at the school gate can encourage engagement. 

Consider offering regular home visits for younger children with greater needs.  This can be an effective approach for parents that struggle to attend meetings, and for building relationships. Look for alternative venues for meetings and different methods of getting in touch. Make sure your correspondence is neither condescending nor haughty and that you understand the difficulties that some families may be operating under. 

Be prepared for aggressive contact with parents that can be fuelled by financial difficulties. Schools can sometimes be the first example of authority that parents have access to. As attendance officer, you can be on the frontline as they vent their feelings and frustrations at situations that are not of your making. Keeping calm and understanding in these situations is a challenge but essential if the pupil’s interests are to be kept as the priority. 

Work with other agencies

It is not possible for schools to do this alone. Providing a directory in school of associations and State and voluntary bodies that might be able to help can be useful. In some more severe cases there may be a need to engage more formally with other services.

The Early Help Assessment has replaced the Common Assessment Framework (CAF) as an early assessment and planning tool to facilitate coordinated multi-agency support.  It enables professionals to efficiently identify the emerging needs of children and young people at risk of poor outcomes. The aim is to reduce duplication of assessment and improve involvement between agencies.

Look at your practices

Take time to look at your school policy and practices from the point of view of a family struggling to feed and clothe themselves. There are times when flexibility rather than zero tolerance is needed and staff should be sensitive to the additional pressures that can make it easier not to come to school at all rather than struggle to dry the trousers in time or bring a child in late when you’ve overslept.   

There may be events and activities within school that are currently disadvantaging children whose families are struggling financially. Some schools are abandoning non-uniform days due to the pressure this places on children and some schools purchase school bags for all children on entry, so everyone has the same.

The curriculum is a key tool for attempting to break the cycle of deprivation which exists in some areas. This is not only in terms of equipping your students with the qualifications and the life skills that they need for the future, but also by helping them to be aware through PHSE, for example, how to keep healthy and make the most of the resources they have.

By creating a nurturing environment, somewhere both pupils and parents feel comfortable and well supported, you are more likely to keep pupils attending when family difficulties bite. The school can be a welcome retreat for the pupil whose home is under-heated and where parents are stressed by the circumstances they find themselves in.

Toolkit

Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

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About Author

Alex Colclough

Alex Colclough has more than 10 years’ experience in primary education as both acting headteacher, deputy headteacher, virtual school deputy headteacher, designated safeguarding lead and SENDCO. She is passionate about inclusion and ensuring all children have equal access to education and good life chances.

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