For children, the hardest place to be poor is school. Here's why.

Written by Lorna Nicoll, Poverty Proofing© the School Day Team Manager at Children North East.

Our Poverty Proofing© work began in 2011 with a consultation with children and young people throughout the North East of England, to find out what their lived experience of poverty was like. Children North East distributed disposable cameras throughout the 12 local authorities in the region and hundreds of photos were submitted. Going through these photos with the young people, talking about their hopes, their dreams and their challenges, one of the most striking things that came out time and time again was that one of the most challenging places to be poor was school. Thus began what has been a 10-year journey so far, gathering pupil voice of the lived experience of school.

Many of the common threads that came out, and continue to do so, are linked to the stigma that comes with living in poverty. Pupils telling us that they can spot whose family is struggling financially because their uniform is obviously threadbare, washed so many times that white shirts are grey, or the Year 8 student who was bullied because her family could only afford one blazer for her whole time at Secondary school and so bought one so large that the sleeves went way beyond her hands. If she rolled them up she got a detention for being incorrectly attired; if she left them down, she got called ‘Shorty.’ She did a lot of detentions.

Non-uniform days are also days when children living in poverty feel different. Many schools we have worked with have discovered that particular pupils and families do not attend school on these days due to the pressure to have certain clothes or brands. Or the difficulties they have affording costumes for dressy up days. Many families simply cannot afford to buy additional items, even something seemingly as simple as a green accessory for the school play. Nor does everyone have the time nor skills to make a costume or prop for the book parade.

Children regularly tell us that they feel left out at break or lunch, times of significant friendship-building. That they are not able to join in the trading cards games because they don’t have the cards or enough of them (there are estimates that to complete the Panini Qatar World Cup sticker book, it could cost up to £883). Or there are children spectating rather than joining in skipping games because they don’t have a skipping rope. There are other times where they can feel excluded, for example when it’s toy day and, once again, they haven’t been able to bring anything in, or others have commented that their toys are old or ‘rubbish.’

Certain times of the year, such as summer holidays, Christmas or birthdays can be particularly problematic for those children who have not done something special. ‘They wouldn’t believe it if they knew that I only got two presents.’ ‘I got a (school) skirt for my birthday.’ ‘I didn’t do anything (in the holidays)…so I made stuff up….it felt awful.’ Many of us are lucky to have never felt the dread of being asked publicly what we got for our birthday, or how uncomfortable it can be to write about what the teacher did for the holidays because you did nothing.

Other research highlights this. The Parent, Pupil and Learner panel omnibus surveys for 2021 to 2022 show that secondary pupils in England reported that those eligible for Free School meals were more likely to experience bullying (26% compared with 19%):


Top five tips

There are things that schools and their staff can do to support pupils and their families. Here are our top five suggestions:

1. Uniform: ensure that help is available for families unable to afford uniform. Our guide supports schools with this. When putting policy into practice, be very aware that some pupils who appear to be defying the rules may actually be masking an inability to afford uniform items; always use it as an opportunity to enquire further. Together with the Child Poverty Action Group and The Children’s Society, we have created this resource to support schools to implement the latest DfE uniform guidance.

2. Resources: make everything that is required at school available for all. We cannot assume that we know of every family who is struggling financially. Be wary of items like pencil cases and toys – if they are not required in school then discourage them from being brought in. Consider how items such as ingredients for Food Technology are distributed if not everyone is being provided with them – how can this be done discretely in order that those who need this help are not inadvertently highlighted.

3. Classroom conversations: avoid public discussions about what pupils did over the holidays or on special days. Having one-to-one conversations is one way around this. Staff teams can come up with alternative sets of questions, such as ‘Who did you spend time with?’

4. Raise awareness: incorporate lessons to raise awareness of issues surrounding poverty in the PSHE curriculum. The End Child Poverty Now coalition has created a toolkit designed to start conversations around poverty with 16 – 24 year old. Children North East offers face-to-face and remote workshops for Key Stage 2 and 3.

5. Support for families: Timing communications – ensure that everyone is given advance notice of anything that has a direct or implied cost. We regularly recommend that schools publish a yearly calendar of this so that families can plan ahead. This cost of the school day calendar, created with our partners Child Poverty Action Group, highlights key dates throughout the year.

Ultimately, like Kidscape, our work is about inclusion. That those living in poverty are not made to feel different at school. That they have the same opportunities to participate in all the fantastic things that are going on in schools throughout the county. We do not want any child to miss out because they cannot afford to join in.

To find out more about investigating the school day from the perspective of children and young people, please contact our team on If you have found this blog useful, you might also benefit from other material in our Resources Hub.


Lorna Nicoll


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