We need to end child poverty

by Professor Meg Maguire, King’s College London

What is poverty?

Let’s start with some headline data. Today 3.5 million children are living in poverty in the UK, almost a third of all our children (www.barnardos.org.uk). Approximately 63% of the children living in poverty are in working families. These are not ‘problem families’ – the real problem is that these families do not have enough money to meet their needs.


Taxpayers’ money is being used to pay working and child tax credits to supplement the low wages paid by employers who don’t pay a living wage and therefore sustain high child poverty levels. Barnardo’s claims that ‘by 2020/21  another 1 million children will be pushed into poverty as a result of the Coalition Government’s policies’. The problem is real and it’s growing.

What is poverty and what is it like to live in poverty? What is meant by poverty is contested. The UK uses an OECD measure that people are poor if they have to live on 60% of the median income. Barnardo’s explains that many of the families living in poverty have approximately £12 a week to spend on each family member. This money has to cover food, household bills, travel costs, school visits and activities for children as well as phone bills and electricity.

Polly Toynbee and David Walker (2008, p. 75) talk about the ‘hurt of being poor’ because of the lack of what ‘others enjoy as every day necessities’. Here they mean children who never go on a holiday, who may not even have waterproof shoes or a warm winter coat. That’s what poverty means at an individual level. If you want to get an account of what poverty means to children, for yourself, or to share with your colleagues or anyone you are talking with about the need to end child poverty, you could watch the BBC 2011 documentary Poor Kids on YouTube.

If you are a child, being poor can make being at school hard and can produce feelings and experiences of exclusion and oppression. Sam lives in Leicester with his Dad and his sister. His is one of the stories from Poor Kids:

“They call me ‘ankle boy’ because I have ripped trousers that are too small for me,” …   His 16-year-old sister Kayleigh admits she is concerned about Sam being bullied. “I worry about Sam all the time – once you’re marked, you’re marked for life.” … She admits to worrying about money constantly and says poverty is a burden for children.

“Sometimes it does feel like you’ve got a big hefty secret and you need to keep it hidden. It puts you in that mindset that you’re lower than everyone else.”

How does poverty affect education?

A great deal of research has explored the relationship between poverty and educational outcomes. Findings suggest that less than half of all five year olds entitled to free school meals have a ‘good level of development’ compared to nearly 70 per cent of all other children. Only 36 per cent of children on free school meals gain 5 GCSEs at grades C and above including English and maths – a benchmark met by 64 percent of children who are not eligible for free school meals. Joseph Rowntree puts it starkly:

There is strong evidence that households’ financial resources are important for children’s outcomes, and that this relationship is one of cause and effect. Protecting households from low income is unlikely to provide a complete solution to less well-off children’s worse outcomes, but ought to be a central part of Government efforts to promote children’s opportunities and life chances. (http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/does-money-affect-childrens-outcomes).

What can be done – an anti-poverty strategy

There are lots of things that can be done in schools to ensure that children growing up in poverty are not disadvantaged by in-school practices and policies. Schools can be proactive to possible challenges that face some of their students such as bullying and harassment and can encourage high aspirations through holding high expectations of these students. (see http://teaching.monster.com/counselors/articles/8164-what-you-can-do-for-students-living-in-poverty)

In Stand Up for Education the NUT has made policy recommendations to support good early years provision such as more funding for nursery education, smaller classes and well qualified teachers. The NUT has called for a concerted attack on youth unemployment. All these things need to be done.

However, while in-school policies and supportive practices can make a difference, of themselves these tactics are not going to alter the structural conditions that perpetuate poverty and child poverty. That is why educationalists have to advocate for wider social change and political action as well as for change in schools. ‘The relationship between poverty and education is unlikely to be disturbed unless fundamental issues of power and interest, advantage and disadvantage are addressed’ (Raffo et al., 2007: xiii).

Making a difference – really tackling poverty

  • Ensure the state takes and maintains a formal responsibility for poverty reduction. Social welfare is becoming the provenance of various venture philanthropists. We cannot leave dealing with poverty to the whims and interventions of charitable individuals however well intentioned or well organised they are.
  • Campaign for a decent living wage while reducing the high costs of living in essential areas such as heating, transport and food.
  • Support and extend Sure Start Children’s Centres.
  • Campaign for higher taxation to provide a decent society that protects and supports its members and dismantle tax-avoidance schemes (Toynbee and Walker).
  • Pay women an equal wage; ‘in 2012, comparing all work, women earned 18.6% less per hour than men’ (http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/2013/11/equal-pay/). Many women who are bringing up their children on their own are going to stay trapped in poverty unless this pay gap is addressed.

Basil Bernstein wrote that ‘education cannot compensate for society’ and it can’t. But society can change if there is the political will to dismantle the barriers that prevent our children from living a decent and fulfilling life. We can kick poverty out!

Professor Meg Maguire, King’s College London   meg.maguire@kcl.ac.uk

Further readings


Raffo, C., Dyson, A., Gunter, H.; Hall, D.; Jones, L. and Kalambouka, A. (2007) Education and Poverty. A critical review of theory, policy and practice. Joseph Rowntree Foundation: York.

Toynbee, P. and Walker, D. (2008) Unjust Rewards. Exposing Greed and Inequality in Britain Today, Granta: London.


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