Beating the poverty trap

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: iStock

Continuing her focus on child poverty and its impact on education, Karen Sullivan looks at what schools might do to mitigate the negative impact that disadvantage can have

In my last article, we looked at the growing incidence of poverty, and the challenges that students caught in the trap experience – and the very real scars that it can leave (Talking about child poverty, SecEd, September 2018).

Despite teachers and other staff often helping out students suffering from deprivation – with food, the occasional hand-out or loan, clothing and even tampons – these types of short-term actions are unsustainable. No school has a budget for this, either, and with funding cuts digging deeper, there is little prospect that there will be spare money to help even the neediest of children.

So what can we do?

First and foremost, it is extremely important to talk about poverty to all students, to disable pervasive myths and to create a discussion that will open hearts and minds, and perhaps encourage student-led action that can be part of the solution.

Poverty is not a choice, and it is not the result of bad decisions, laziness, immorality or irresponsibility. Poverty is largely due to social structure, or how our society operates. It is important to remember that issues, such as sexism, disability and racism (to mention just three) do result in inequalities, and they create barriers to things like education, employment and income.

Even something as simple as attempting to get a job in another city can prove impossible without money for fares or childcare. And remind your students that 67 per cent of deprived children have at least one working parent.

Victim-blaming is not acceptable – poverty is structural and related to a vast range of things.

In 2016, Shelter revealed that one in three working families (three million people in the UK) is only a single pay cheque away from losing their home – they could not afford to pay their rent or mortgage for more than a month if they lost their jobs. How many of us could manage if our jobs disappeared?

Although perhaps aimed at younger readers, Mr Stink by David Walliams contains some insights that can be examined and shared. The protagonist is homeless because his house burnt down and his wife died – traumatic events that, although fictionalised here, can help young readers to see that poverty isn’t a personal choice.

It’s worth noting, too, that poverty can often be a short-term situation, and there is every reason to provide support not only to help people get through it, but also to maximise their chances of leaving it.

Official statistics show that between 2010 and 2013, 7.8 per cent of the UK population would enter poverty for the first time – however, 48 per cent of those in poverty will also leave it, usually within a year. Statistics from 2014/15 indicate that 33 per cent of those in poverty no longer fell into the same bracket the next year.

Next, we should be talking to children about the poverty experience, making it real for them. Encourage some creative writing or some dynamic discussion. Show them the Guardian piece referenced in my last article – see further information. Ask them to imagine the powerlessness involved. What would they not have, what would they miss, if the money disappeared? What do they take for granted? What if they lost their home, or a parent lost a job? What if there was an accident, and a parent became disabled?

Discuss what factors can cause poverty. Stimulate some discussion around this in particular. It is extremely important that young people understand the wide variety of reasons that people fall on hard times, and the almost instant implications. It is through understanding that empathy can develop. Putting themselves in the shoes of the less fortunate is the best way to achieve this.

If someone is confident about talking about a period of poverty in their own lives, let them do so. Is there a successful alumni from your school who came from a deprived background and might be willing to come in and share their experience, and how they transcended it? This is a useful and inspirational exercise for all children, but perhaps most of all for children whose futures seem unremittingly bleak.

Taking this a step further, ask students what we can all do to help. If some students are regularly missing school trips or celebrations, going without meals or appropriate clothing, what can the school as a community to do make thing easier? Can money be raised for a bursary fund, which can be allocated by teachers or other school staff who are aware of individual circumstances?

Can a donation area be set up on Parent Pay or the like? When topping up lunch money or paying an instalment for a school trip, parents could be encouraged to add an extra pound or two every time, to help those in need. If all students are aware of how important it is to provide some relief for their school mates, they can perhaps apply some gentle pressure on their parents.

And don’t hesitate to contact parents and let them know how many members of the school population are in genuine need. Donations of clothing, food, money, books, old phones – anything that can help to make life more bearable on a day-to-day basis should be encouraged.

Their dispersal can be confidential, of course, but there is no harm is letting parents and students know that you are there to support, and all requests will be handled with complete discretion. Ask the students to be alert, too, and provide a space where they can share concern about another pupil’s wellbeing in confidence.

Create an after-school, student-run café, where students can socialise with peers; this is particularly useful for young people who cannot bring friends home, for whatever reason. Brainstorm other ideas. There will be many...

Ultimately, by demystifying the concept of poverty and ensuring that there is no shame, no blame attached, we can help to reduce the emotional impact on those affected, and work together to find ways to limit the challenges, some so very basic, faced.

It’s a very sad truth that things are not going to get better for a lot of families any time soon, and an increasingly number are going to fall into the trap. With the knowledge that there will be a safety net beneath them, those students who are affected will be able to cope that much better. We can’t eradicate poverty, but in our school communities we can, at the very least, try to create equality.

Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email To read her articles for SecEd, including the previous article in this series, go to

Reading & references

In their own words: Children’s experience of poverty in schools, The Guardian, October 2014: http://bit. ly/2paDLut


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