ASCL survey reveals rising tide of pupil poverty

15 March 2019

Hundreds of secondary schools in England and Wales have reported a rising tide of pupil poverty in a survey conducted by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

The survey1, published as ASCL’s annual conference in Birmingham begins today (Friday 15 March), was completed by 407 headteachers representing 11 per cent of state-funded secondary schools in the two countries – 374 from England and 33 from Wales2.

Ninety six per cent said the extent of pupil poverty has increased over the past few years.

  • 91 per cent provide items of clothing for pupils suffering from high levels of disadvantage

  • 75 per cent put on breakfast clubs

  • 71 per cent provide pupils with sanitary products

  • 47 per cent wash clothes for pupils

  • 43 per cent provide food banks or food parcels for pupils/ families

The survey also found that:

  • 92 per cent said there have been cutbacks in local authority support for vulnerable families and young people in their area over the past few years

  • 98 per cent have experienced difficulty in accessing local mental health services for pupils who need specialist treatment – with most attributing this difficulty to a combination of service cut backs and increased demand

  • Nearly all respondents – 405 – reported increased demand for in-school mental health support, with commonly cited reasons being the pressures associated with social media, poverty, cuts to local services, and exams

These findings come against a background of intense pressure on school budgets. Almost all respondents (404) have had to cut their budgets since 2015 with 60 per cent saying they have had to make severe cuts.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “A decade of austerity has wreaked havoc with the social fabric of the nation and schools have been left to pick up the pieces while coping with real-term funding cuts.

“They have become an unofficial fourth emergency service for poor and vulnerable children, providing food and clothing and filling in the gaps left by cut backs to local services.

“Politicians must end their fixation with Brexit and work together to build a new sense of social mission in our country. We simply must do better for struggling families and invest properly in our schools, colleges and other vital public services.”

Commenting on the extent of pupil poverty, Sarah Bone, headteacher of Headlands School in Bridlington, said: “We have far too many children with no heating in the home, no food in the cupboards, washing themselves with cold water, walking to school with holes in their shoes and trousers that are ill-fitted and completely worn out, and living on one hot meal a day provided at school.”

And Edward Conway, headteacher of St Michael’s Catholic High School in Watford, said: “Pupil poverty has increased significantly over the past eight years with us providing food, clothing, equipment and securing funds from charitable organisations to provide essential items such as beds and fridges.”

Other comments from headteachers included:

Every day I wonder: is this a developing or a developed country? Every evening I lose sleep thinking about the challenges my pupils face and the fact I can only do so much.”

“Some of our students do not have a winter coat for the freezing weather. Some have a free breakfast at school and free lunch because they are FSM (free school meals) and then do not have dinner at home. Some feel they have to help with the earnings and provide food for the family even though they are only 11/12 years-old themselves.”

“Meeting the learning needs of so many children linked with deprivation is very costly. We have to get the children's mental, physical and emotional health into a better position before they can learn academically. My staff have become parents to many children in our school and are spending their own money supporting them.”

“Additional funding used to be able to try and close the disadvantaged educational gap but now is more routinely used to reduce issues caused by family poverty such as provision of food and clothing.”

“It is shameful that in one of the richest countries in the world that we have children who do not have access to the basics of housing, food and clothes.”

“When schools have to buy shoes for children to wear to school on a regular basis we must have a problem.”

“The lack of support from social care for our most vulnerable children is leading to our system being almost broken. They cannot access learning because they are not in an emotional state to do so. Their needs are not being met because there is insufficient funding to provide the support they require.”

“We have students who come in to school hungry. They cannot focus and learn effectively whilst they are hungry. We should be ashamed of ourselves as a country.”

“The removal of nearly all support services has seen families falling off the radar. Schools are continually being asked to provide services that historically were provided by the local authority or healthcare.”

“This is the biggest block to pupil progress. We now have children who have parents who are third generation unemployed with little or no aspirations and no role model or sense of a way out. It is a crisis.”

“In 24 years of education I have not seen the extent of poverty like this, children are coming to school hungry, dirty and without the basics to set them up for life. The gap between those that have and those that do not is rising and is stark.”

“Our schools are increasingly impacted by the rise in social deprivation and the reduction in support from other services. We often have to make unfair choices between providing educational resources for the many or intensive pastoral support for the few. Without schools acting swiftly to support children and families the social outcomes could be even worse.”

“There has been a significant rise in pupil poverty (and the associated issues of hunger, neglect, poor behaviour, mental health issues etc) at a time when schools have had to drastically reduce their pastoral staffing due to funding cuts, resulting in many vulnerable students being hit twice.”

“Parents have been plunged into poverty and many have lost properties/homes as a result. We have seen an increase in the number of families needing support for basic human needs, food, hygiene and basic equipment to access school. The loss of most other services means that parents and families have nowhere to go for support or help.”

Table results

1 The survey was conducted via email during January and February 2019.

2 There are 3,436 state-funded secondary schools in England. Schools, pupils and their characteristics: January 2018. Department for Education. And there are 195 secondary schools in Wales. Schools’ census results, 2018. Welsh Government.