The links between poverty and relationships

Written by: Anna Feuchtwang | Published:
Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive, National Children’s Bureau
From experience, the other factor that affects childhood friendships is the divisive grammar school ...

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Poverty can undermine children’s personal lives. Anna Feuchtwang considers what schools can do to help

The relationships that young people have with their peers and families are hugely important. Not least because they can make them more resilient when things go wrong, whether it be bullying at school or family breakdown at home.

So it is vital that these relationships are not damaged by other factors. We know that family income can affect children and young people’s lives, undermining their education, future employment and health. But does growing up in a poor household also scupper their friendships and family lives too?

Our research centre has been exploring this question by looking at data from the Millennium Cohort Study. MCS is following a sample of approximately 19,000 children born in the UK in 2000/01. Five sweeps have been conducted so far, at ages 9 months, 3, 5, 7 and 11 years, with the sixth survey, at age 14, underway.

The publication of data about the cohort at age 11 provided an opportunity to look at the function of poverty in children’s relationships with peers and parents. At this age, children are approaching the move to secondary school and becoming more independent. While parents are still central to their lives, their friends play an increasingly important role.

We found that living in poverty, and particularly persistent poverty, was related to children having certain problems in their personal relationships. Specifically, living in persistent poverty was associated with children falling out more frequently with their peers and being more likely to bully others.

These children were also more likely to report having been bullied themselves and were less likely to talk to their friends about their worries.

Poverty also affects what goes on in the family. For example, children who had been persistently poor were less likely to talk to someone at home about their worries, and less likely to talk to their mothers about things they cared about, compared to those with no experience of poverty.

However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of children, including those with persistent experience of poverty, said they were happy with their friendships and families. In addition, we found that factors other than poverty influence the quality of children’s personal and social relationships. Issues such as bullying, falling out with friends, and difficulty in confiding in others affect children in more affluent homes too.

That children living in poverty are more likely to experience some of these problems than their peers is due, at least partly, to their exposure to other, inter-related, risk factors: maternal mental health problems, lower levels of parental education, and SEN all have an effect on a child’s relationships with friends and family.

While the findings reinforce the case for ending child poverty, children from all backgrounds need to be provided with the skills and support they need to develop and maintain positive relationships.

There is an important role for teaching and other school-based activities which help to develop socio-emotional and relationship skills, for example, through PSHE or pastoral tutorial time, alongside accessible advice and support for parents around helping children with these issues.

What our research didn’t look at was how teachers themselves can be a significant person in a child’s life. That they can be a role-model when one is missing at home, or the person who listens when a child feels isolated from their friends. If turning around child poverty should be a long-term goal for our society – then putting relationships at the centre of what we do at school is something we can achieve straight away.

  • Anna Feuchtwang is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit

Further information

A copy of the report, undertaken with the Centre for Longitudinal Studies and funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, is at

From experience, the other factor that affects childhood friendships is the divisive grammar school system. I live in a coastal area where there is 40% child poverty, and where getting into grammar school is sold as the way to social mobility. Under these circumstances what parent would want their child to go to the alternative "bad" or "coasting" school? I would argue that coastal grammar schools depend upon child poverty to incentivise perpetuating academic selection. Any good school would be able to raise the attainment of all children across the so-called ability range. Instead, we still have a divisive education system that encourages gaming the league tables (and I include secondary modern schools in my observations as being part of the selective system that do not speak out about the injustices of segregation of expectations at such a young age). The selective school system has harmed our coastal communities in such a way that not only does it segregate childhood friendships and parents, it alters the perception of employers towards young people wanting to do work experience, in that they prefer grammar school students, and it has far reaching implications for self-esteem and mental health. Many children of professional parents and local politicians go to grammar schools, no wonder then that they describe those families at the bottom as hard to reach, as troubled. This language is wrong. It should be "don't want to reach, "can't be bothered to reach".
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