Schools acting as ‘first responders’ to families impacted by Covid

Katy Morton
Thursday, October 14, 2021

The pandemic has driven more families living in poverty to turn to schools for ‘basic needs’ such as adequate food and clothing, finds new research.

The research by UCL reveals how schools are helping to support families impacted by the pandemic Photo Adobe Stock
The research by UCL reveals how schools are helping to support families impacted by the pandemic Photo Adobe Stock

Published today (Thursday) by UCL, the briefing report, based on in-depth interviews with parents and staff across seven schools in England, reveals those schools serving populations with high levels of poverty have seen significantly more families turn to them for support due to pressures linked to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Among the issues schools reported dealing with included – children in need of food and clothing, families living in inadequate housing, families with limited digital connectivity, individual pupils facing mental health crises and children experiencing difficult domestic circumstances, including domestic violence.

Addressing food insecurity was the most immediate priority for all the schools interviewed. They went to considerable lengths to ensure that all their pupils received at least one meal a day, in some cases distributing food directly from the school to families’ doors.

One headteacher said, ‘What we’ve noticed over time was that the people who were coming to our food pantry, and we still run it now, weren’t the free school meal parents. […] It was this tier just above, the people who’d been furloughed, the people who had always had a job.’

Schools also raised concerns about children living in sub-standard housing, which was wholly unsuitable for learning.

Another headteacher said, ‘[They] living in a flat, which was temporary accommodation, that was infested with rats. I mean, it was just awful.’

Co-author Professor Gemma Moss, from UCL Institute of Education, said, ‘We know Covid-19 has directly and indirectly affected schools and families in very different ways. Communities where children were already living in poverty but also those where families suddenly faced new financial distress due to Covid have been very badly hit. 

‘Funding offered through Pupil Premium does not cover or adequately reflect the work schools do to support children living in poverty or struggling with difficult issues at home. [The fact] That families are so reliant on schools highlights fundamental weaknesses in our current welfare system that urgently need repair.’

Co-author Professor Alice Bradbury, also from UCL Institute of Education, added, ‘Our research shows that the lack of services that support children, particularly Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and emergency housing for domestic violence cases, puts schools in the position of first responder, coping with families facing complex challenges.’

The pair go on to say that policy funding for education needs to focus on ‘building system resilience over the longer term’. The current settlement on offer is not enough to fix the many issues the school system in England faces and which Covid has so ‘sharply’ revealed.

The ‘Learning through Disruption’ research project ran between May and August this year, with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

'Urgent Government action is needed'

The National Education Union (NEU) warned that ‘schools cannot act alone’ and called for ‘urgent action’ from the Government to tackle the ‘scourge of child poverty’.

Joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said, 'We know that even before coronavirus, 4.3 million children and young people were growing up trapped in poverty and this is only going to be made worse as the pandemic continues to take its toll.

'Through the NEU’s own research, we know the shocking levels of poverty that education staff are witnessing daily. Schools having to set up food banks and teachers reporting they personally provide food and snacks to their pupils to ensure they have eaten during the school day have become part of everyday life in many schools. 

'Adding to this, millions of families have now had a £20-a-week cut to their Universal Credit. The impact that this cut will have on rising rates of child poverty is a concern to staff in education and those who lead schools.

‘The Chancellor needs to do the right thing and reinstate the £20 to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit at the Autumn Budget and ensure families on legacy benefits are included.’ 

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT (National Association of Head Teachers) added, 'Rightly, schools are at the centre of the efforts to improve equality of opportunity. But it would be wrong to expect schools to solve the problem on their own. The issues that underpin inequality reach far beyond the school gates and exist throughout the communities that schools serve. Cuts to local authority budgets have greatly reduced the sources of support for families on low incomes. Similarly, schools are less able to access local authority support for pupils and families that need it. Poverty and inequality will remain entrenched in the UK unless the Government takes urgent action.”

  • The report is available here 

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