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Teachers urge government to address child poverty

The government needs to address child poverty as a matter of urgency, a poll of teachers has urged.

The National Education Union surveyed more than 10,000 teachers, leaders and support staff from across the UK and in all school and college settings and more than two-thirds (68%) said that a rise in child poverty – exacerbated by the economic downturn – was an urgent matter for government to address as we emerge from Covid.

One respondent said: “I called home during the first lockdown and spoke to an older sibling who was panicking because the Free School Meals vouchers email hadn't arrived. It was the evening before a bank holiday weekend and there was no food in the house. I will never forget the panic in that girl's voice. No school child should have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.”

The NEU said that it is important to note that these figures represent staff not individual schools. Even so, 52% of those responding to the survey are working with intakes where more than a fifth are economically disadvantaged.

The report found:

- Half of all who responded (51%) believe poverty affects pupils/students to a "large extent" (compared to 49% in 2019)

- An additional 35% said poverty affects pupils to "some extent" (compared to 33% in 2019)

- A further 9% said poverty was an issue to “a small extent” (compared to 10% in 2019).

Another respondent said: “We have had pupils and their families move in to hostels during the pandemic when they were evicted. They were rehoused - but literally were given a house. No furniture, ovens, fridge, washing machine, no carpets. Nothing. We rallied as a school and furnished two homes.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “It is now beyond doubt that child poverty is on the rise. The effects can last a lifetime, and young people have one chance in education. There is no doubt, too, that schools and colleges have been going beyond the call of duty for them during this past year, as they always do.

“The government, by contrast, spent much of 2020 voicing warm words about its concern for the disadvantaged including when mounting arguments for the wider opening of schools and colleges in September and January. Yet, sadly and unsurprisingly, it has persistently failed to deliver for the young people in poverty whose families need real support and action,” she added.

The NEU also asked members to reflect on the previous year and the impact of Covid. Respondents were asked which working conditions that have been adapted since March 2020 should be retained as we emerge from the pandemic.

- 69% members had welcomed new ways of working with technology in teaching, believing it had gone well.

- More than a third (37%) appreciated the greater levels of communication they had experienced with families by telephone and video call, and 57% said online parents’ evenings had been a good innovation.

- 46% had found smaller class sizes rewarding.

- 49% welcomed the greater public recognition of the needs of disadvantaged pupils.

- 37% of respondents said that focusing on core concepts rather than the full curriculum was another valuable takeaway from learning in lockdown.

The NEU says that most striking are the low rankings for government priorities and proposals, including the extension of school days and a change of term lengths with just 2% backing the plans. Only one-in-five think that tuition programmes are an important mechanism for supporting recovery.

When asked what interventions the government could be making at this time, respondents named the following as the top five most important.

- Keeping staff workloads at an acceptable level (85%)

- Focusing first on recovery – addressing the social and emotional wellbeing and mental health impacts of the pandemic on pupils/students (80%)

- Reducing the pressure on staff from accountability measures (such as performance tables or inspection) for 2021/22 (77%)

- Reducing levels of child poverty (68%)

- Access to external support such as CAMHS (63%)

Dr Bousted added: “Learning has continued throughout lockdown, although precious little appears to have occurred at the Department for Education. The message is clear: we need to steer a course beyond Covid which rights the historic faults of the education system in this country and the distorted priorities of those who run it.”

“If the government is serious about building back better, then they should take on board these views. Education professionals have been on the frontline, either virtual or physical, throughout the last twelve months and it is their insights on what has worked best that should be taken forward. The genie is out of the bottle so there is no reason to stick by the dead wood of a bloated curriculum, excessive accountability and oversized classes. All are now discredited, not just in the eyes of school and college staff but of parents too. The world has changed because of Covid and the education system should change with it,” she concluded.

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