Making Ends Meet: Portsmouth Teachers Combat Child Poverty

At two schools in Portsmouth, NUT members have taken the initiative to combat their pupils’ poverty, reports The Teacher. But they are having to fork out their own money to meet the costs.

The Primary School
‘I was talking to teacher friends the other day and we estimated we spend £100 a term of our own money on non-curriculum related materials for students,” says one teacher at the primary school. Fruit is delivered for free nationally for reception and KS1 children, but teachers at the Portsmouth primary make sure all children have access to fruit by bringing it in themselves.

In addition, teachers often end up buying shirts and underwear for children who are wearing the same clothes Monday to Friday. Teachers get the children to change and then take the clothes home themselves to wash overnight, as the parents cannot afford to do so.

Meanwhile, school meals staff are quietly asked to give larger lunch portions to some children as ‘it might be the only thing they eat all day’ – something that has to be done “very discreetly”. The teacher says: ‘We don’t make a fuss of it. We just do it.’

The Secondary School
‘Poverty is a serious problem at our school. These are the kids who often turn up late, and late means the other kids notice and they get bullied. They’re often hungry and therefore disruptive in class because they can’t concentrate,’ a teacher explains.

Poverty is so endemic at this Portsmouth school, and government funding so little, that teachers now fund a breakfast club for all pupils from their own wages. Each teacher pays in £6 to £10 a month to fund it, as well as bringing in boxes of cereal or milk for the children to make sure there’s always enough. It has now been going for 18 months and the difference is astonishing.

‘The children are definitely more productive,’ the teacher says. Children are now in school from 8.15am and because it’s not just the children on free school meals who attend, the stigma has been removed.
 The struggling children are in on time and already integrated with the other members of their class.

‘We might not be spending money on traditional academic resources but ultimately I think if someone feels involved and cherished by the school they feel better.’

Money’s too tight to mention

As teachers use their own cash to stop children going hungry, the NUT is stepping up efforts to understand and tackle the poverty problem.

Poverty blights the lives of millions of children in the UK – and teachers, who see its effects in the classroom every day, are going to extraordinary lengths to help.

The stats are already shocking – 3.5 million children live in poverty – and they are rapidly getting worse. By 2020, the number of children living in poverty is expected to hit 4.7 million.

Our case studies below show just
how deeply NUT
members are 
digging into their
own pockets, spending up to £100 a term to ensure their pupils are adequately fed and clothed.

These teachers – and others like them around the country – are generously providing a discreet lifeline for their students, but one that should not be needed in one of the world’s richest countries.

A worrying 85% of teachers have seen 
an increase in the number of children coming to school hungry, says NUT General Secretary Christine Blower. ‘That should simply not be the case.’

She adds: ‘Children’s learning is affected when they are hungry and, along with their amilies, are coping with the stresses and strains of poor housing and lack of spending money.’

Child poverty is a complicated spider’s web of a problem with many tangled strands that affect children in different ways. Hunger might be the starkest issue, but there are hidden strands too, from lack of money for arts materials to the disruption in schooling that follows when families are evicted or rehoused far from their own local areas.

A Children’s Commission on Poverty, led by a panel of 16 young people aged ten to 19, heard from a series of witnesses, including Christine Blower, last year. They found that parents and children were struggling to cope with our supposedly free education system.

Panel member India, aged 17, reported: ‘I was very surprised to find out what getting everything together for school actually costs – we always think that education is cheap or free.’

The commission found that seven out of ten parents struggled with the cost of school, and over half said they had to cut back on clothing, food or heating to afford these costs. School uniforms, school meals, materials and trips were the main problem costs.

On average, parents spend £108 a year on primary school uniform and £126 on secondary school clothing, but some parents reported having to spend up
to £500 a year. For those in minimum wage jobs or on benefits, these costs are frightening.

The law states that schools cannot charge for materials that aid delivery of the national curriculum – but a third of children who are ‘not well off’ have fallen behind in school because they haven’t been able to afford the materials they need.

For poorer children, the curriculum and subject choices can be distorted. Last year, an investigation by the NUT, the Child Poverty Action Group, Kids Company
and the British Youth Council found that children who were eligible for free school meals were less likely to choose creative subjects because of the cost of materials.

Lack of computer access cuts across subject areas. The commission found that three in ten children whose families were ‘not well off’ said they had fallen behind at school because their family could not afford the necessary facilities at home.

Children told the commission panel how poverty isolated and stigmatised their classmates. ‘You can always tell when someone is having free school meals because they hold up a card and have their card inspected,’ one said.

New government policies such as the bedroom tax and the benefit cap, which limits the total amount people can claim, are making life even harder for the worst- off families.

The bedroom tax adds to the threat of homelessness or housing insecurity that many families face. This has a serious impact on education and teaching as children are shunted from one lot of temporary accommodation to the next or are decanted out of their local area – often forcing a change of school.

In the NUT’s manifesto for education,
we have called for the bedroom tax
to be axed, as part of a range of recommendations to tackle child poverty.

There is little hard information on the correlation between home insecurity and school moves, children’s wellbeing and education.

Now the NUT is planning to fill in the blanks, in coordination with children’s charities and campaign groups, with new research and case studies to investigate the impact of policies such as the benefit cap and the bedroom tax, with its serious implications for poorer families’ housing.

Ros McNeil, the NUT’s Head of Education and Equality, says: ‘We hope that these real examples of children, teachers and schools will illuminate the effects on children being forced to move home and school.

‘We will use the evidence to further our campaigning against child poverty and its devastating effects on children’s education.’


This article first appeared in The Teacher, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) award-winning magazine.