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Back to school – supporting children from low income families

September 1st 2020

Returning to school is an exciting and nervous time for children.

But those feelings are sure to be even stronger this year.

Mary van den Heuvel, Senior Policy Officer, National Education Union Cymru set out what can be done to support children from low income families as schools return.

School children walking up stairs

So, pencils and paper at the ready – it’s time to dust down the book bags and get everything ready for the return to school in the next few weeks. Children and young people will be excited, and probably a bit nervous too, about going back.

For various reasons, I moved schools when I was 9. It was a bit of a culture change. Not least going from a white and grey uniform, where grannies knitted all our jumpers, to a red and navy one, you could only buy in Marks or the posh uniform shop. Mum and dad couldn’t afford the school-logo emblazoned school jumper. No worries, they got me one from the second-hand school uniform shop. I loved it. Until I got there.

Unless you have turned up in the ‘wrong’ clothes, you will have no idea what this feels like and what this does for your confidence. Especially when you are a child. And especially when you supposedly in a local school, meant to be providing opportunities for all. Our schools do a great job, but for me, changing the uniform policy to ensure the items are affordable for everyone is something we still need to champion.

It is a strange time. It won’t be back to school as usual for everyone – some children and young people will be facing more challenges than others, more challenges even, than they usually face. If Covid-19 has shown us anything, it is that we still face large inequalities and that a situation like this only throws them wide open – through a lack of money and resources available to everyone to mitigate the impact of the virus itself and the economic downturn. If you come from a low-income background the feeling of panic as your options become narrowed is a very frightening one.

We know that the impact of Covid-19 is not felt equally. It impacts most, we know now, on our poorest communities. On disabled people, people with long-term health conditions and people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. Trouble is, we know too that of the 28% of children living in relative income poverty, they are more likely to live in a household where someone is disabled and/or the head of the household comes from a “non-white ethnic group”.  The very people then, most likely to be affected by this virus.

So what can we do to help these very groups, most likely to be living in poverty, most likely to be at risk from Covid-19? Well, I’ve mentioned school uniform. Welsh Government supplies £125 towards school uniform for reception, year 3 and year 10, and £200 for year 7 learners. Great.  But better surely that a family can spend their “Access” funding on more items of uniform, some things to grow into maybe, than on one or two specialised, school specific items? Yes, there is Statutory Guidance which requires governing bodies to take “cost and affordability” into account, so surely now is the time to start consulting with parents, young people, and communities, to make the changes to support those who are struggling financially?

There are other things which would help too, of course. Although learners are going back to school, there will likely be times in the coming months when classrooms are closed to most pupils again – because of local lockdowns, if the virus returns. It is important then, that every learner has access to the technology to learn at home. We have been lucky in Wales that the Education Minister acted quickly to commit £3m in support for local authorities in providing Mifi and computer devices to young people who needed them.

Around 20,000 items of kit went out to support online learning. But, more support is needed to ensure the 28% of children who live in relative income poverty, and indeed every child or young person, who needs support with access to the internet and/or devices. More money yes, but it is vital that all children and young people are able to access learning alongside their peers.

Of course there are other things Welsh Government can do to mitigate the inevitable financial and wellbeing impacts of Covid-19. This year has shown us that the exams system needs close examination. We hope the planned independent review will do that. Holiday hunger needs to be made a thing of the past, with free school meals made permanently available all year round. These are things that will likely influence how our young people vote, when 16-17 year olds cast their votes for the first time in the Senedd elections next year.

And for now, a real focus on uniforms would help make life just that bit more affordable for everyone going back to school this autumn.

Mary van den Heuvel Senior Policy Officer, National Education Union Cymru. If you’re interested in learning more about what we can do to support children trapped in poverty in Wales then take a look at “Lifting children out of poverty, the role of the Welsh Benefits System“, a report published by the Bevan Foundation earlier this summer. 

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