Best Practice

Cost of living crisis: Conversations with students

The cost of living crisis is biting hard. Pupils, families, and school staff are all suffering. In two articles, Sean Harris considers how to support both pupils and school staff. He begins by focusing on how we might respond with our pupils and their families

Families across the UK are feeling the impact of the cost of living crisis. Too many of the pupils and families that we serve in schools this will be more than a pinch.

Rising energy costs, bills and inflation look set to create a harsh winter for so many, both in and beyond our schools.

Indeed, research by NASUWT (2022) found that 58% of teachers said they had personally given food or clothing to their pupils in the last academic year and 63% said their school had done so. Six in 10 said they had made referrals to outside agencies, with 35% saying they had helped a pupil’s family get access to a food bank.

It is important that we continue to understand that the cost of living is a true crisis. In this article, I am focusing on conversations with pupils; you can read my article about conversations with school staff here.

Crisis conversation

In a recent survey by YoungMinds and Beano Brains (2022), the cost of living crisis was identified as the leading cause of anxiety in young people, with 56% of the respondents saying it had triggered negative emotions, disrupting everyday life, with diet and sleep identified as most heavily affected.

Teachers and school leaders want pupils to be positive and develop resilience. However, it is important for us to use the language of crisis when acknowledging the hardship that many communities are now facing.

By regularly talking about the cost of living crisis we are ensuring that our main stakeholders – our pupils and our families – understand that money and anxiety are real issues in our communities.

As such, school leaders and governors might consider:

  • Ensuring that the cost of living crisis is included as a set agenda item for each senior leadership/governors meeting.
  • Regular reference to the cost of living crisis in communication with stakeholders.
  • A dedicated area of the website that includes your school(s) acknowledgement of the crisis and signposting to links/sources of support for students and families.
  • Visual displays that discuss the cost of living crisis and signpost support for families in school entrances/reception areas.

Meanwhile, teachers and support staff could consider:

  • Identifying key aspects of the curriculum/topics that can be explicitly related to the cost of living crisis.
  • Discussing the cost of living crisis through assembly, tutor time discussions or through extra-curricular activities (e.g. philosophy clubs, friendship groups, sports)
  • Explicitly referencing the cost of living crisis with families when you are talking to them – using this as a means to check-in with families that may be struggling.

SecEd Podcast: Tackling the consequences of poverty in our schools: This episode considers the impact that poverty has on children, families, and education – and what schools can do about it, offering lots of practical advice & ideas for school leaders and teachers. Guests include the author of this article, Sean Harris:

Talking beyond money

It is imperative that our conversations with pupils move beyond bills and income.

Breslin et al (2013) reported how young people are clear that poverty is more than simply a matter of money. One young person in this study commented: “Living in poverty without much money, you are more vulnerable to discrimination, bullying, stigma, stereo-typing.”

Schools will be acutely aware that a lack of money limits the opportunity of pupils to participate in extra-curricular activities and will have sought to address this. However, it is important that pupils are given the opportunity to share how the cost of living crisis may also impact wider aspects of school and community life.

Practical suggestions might include:

  • Providing an open door policy before or after school for students to specifically talk about the cost of living crisis.
  • Routinely and consistently reminding all pupils that support is available to access activities because the school is aware that the cost of living is a crisis for many.
  • Providing physical or virtual message boxes for pupils to share anxieties or worries specifically linked to the cost of living.
  • The creation of a peer-mentoring project. We could support and train older pupils to listen to other children and signpost to pastoral staff or other sources of support.

Communicating charity

The research shows that engaging pupils with charity and social action is a good idea. Arthur et al (2017) suggest that if children are involved in charitable actions before the age of 10, they are twice as likely to sustain the action of serving and giving to others compared to young people who only start between 16 and 18.

Social justice and charity are an important part of our agenda in schools, and we want pupils to be engaged in these. However, it is important for school leaders and teachers to be mindful of the cost of living crisis as we frame and craft these opportunities for pupils.

I recall a time in the run up to Christmas when I challenged pupils to get involved in an international charity project that sends items to children overseas. One pupil, Casey, asked me: “Sir, I want to do this, but I also know some of the kids in my street hardly get anything for Christmas. Can I not help them instead?”

International aid is vital. Presently, local needs may be equally vital in your school’s context. Carefully select the charities that you may be supporting as a school and be clear about why you have chosen to focus on those specific causes.

Consider involving pupils in selecting a specific charitable cause and then actively involve them in raising funds and awareness about its work. This might support pupils in making clearer links between the cost of living crisis and the school’s renewed sense of social justice.

Also act as a circuit breaker so that you don’t end up with the school supporting too many causes and adding to the financial (and social) pressure that many pupils and families feel to donate.

One important note to add is that social action and charity need to continue to be on our curriculum and we shouldn’t reduce this because of the cost of living crisis.

Even from a young age, pupils can often display a strong and consistent willingness to share with others and it can result in a greater sense of wellbeing for them too (Warneken et al, 2010). Acts of charity are also good for wellbeing and will spread. Habitual giving to others and observing others give can lead to pupils and adults growing a desire to serve others in times of need (Allen, 2018).

Crisis in the curriculum

Crafting a well-thought-through and carefully implemented curriculum is central to our work in schools.

Our curriculum is one of our core levers in helping to address the barriers to learning that surface because of socio-economic disadvantage in communities.

Rowland (2021) reminds us: “Pupils are not at risk of underachievement because of any particular label, such as Pupil Premium. Rather, it is because of the impact of socio-economic disadvantage on their learning.”

In SecEd last year, I discussed how teachers can design and implement curriculum with socio-economic disadvantage in mind (Harris, 2021) and I will be speaking at SecEd’s forthcoming online curriculum design conference on this very same topic.

Links to social justice can be made beyond the classroom curriculum too. In one of my schools we invited a leader from Christians Against Poverty to talk about the work of the charity, how they support families through hardship and the importance of social justice. The organisation provided excellent resources for follow up with pupils in subjects including humanities, RE, PSHE and other subjects.

Curriculum thinker Christine Counsell (2018) talks about the value of curriculum in helping adults and pupils understand power. She writes: “Curriculum is all about power. Decisions about what knowledge to teach are an exercise of power and therefore a weighty ethical responsibility. What we choose to teach confers or denies power.

“To say that pupils should learn ‘the best that has been thought and said’ is never adequate. Start the conversation, and questions abound: ‘Whose knowledge?’; ‘Who decides on best?’.”

Practical suggestions for linking curriculum with the cost of living crisis might include:

  • Selecting reading texts for use in English, whole-class reading or tutor times that explicitly talk about poverty, mental health, or social justice.
  • Using books or extracts of books that may make implicit links to poverty and hardship (e.g. Andy Weir’s novel The Martian). Teachers could use these sources to open up discussion about the cost of living crisis, the wider impacts of hardship and coping with struggle.
  • Designing a thematic assembly outline for the year with regular touchpoints for pupils to learn about social justice, disadvantage, and responding to others in need.
  • Inviting local community champions and charities to talk about their involvement in supporting local people and responding to the cost of living crisis locally.
  • Pupils could be given the opportunity to write to the government and their local MP to raise their own views about the cost of living crisis and what their local government is doing to respond to it.
  • Review the milestones in the curriculum where pupils will encounter concepts such as social justice, social mobility, equity, and poverty. If these are not obvious, carefully sequence them into the curriculum and ensure that teachers explicitly link them throughout different subjects to support pupil understanding and learning about the importance of these concepts.

Professional development

Sometimes there is an over-emphasis on the Pupil Premium as the main ways of making sense of poverty and what we mean by it. But commentators have previously highlighted the limitations of using the Pupil Premium as the solo proxy for identifying and responding to socio-economic disadvantage in schools (Gorard, 2014; Montacute & Cullinane, 2021).

Rowland (2021) reminds school leaders that there are a number of critical questions that need to be clearly understood. One of these, argues Rowland, is to be clear about what we mean by the term disadvantage: “We must ensure that our pupil needs, not labels, drive strategy.”

It follows that our schools should be professional learning environments that engage our staff, at all levels, in research, thinking, dialogue and strategic planning in response to the persistent problem of poverty.

In my multi-academy trust, we have made social justice and equity strategic and moral imperatives of our improvement strategy. You can find out more about how we have framed this priority and how it is leading partnerships with other schools and organisations on our website.

Alongside this, our school leaders are actively supporting colleagues to pursue research and professional development opportunities that will enable them to think more strategically about the response of our schools to the crisis and our post-pandemic world.

Opportunities such as these must not be limited to established teachers or school leaders. Burn et al (2016) explored the effects of asking early career and trainee teachers within a well-established teacher training partnership to adopt a research orientation towards the use of Pupil Premium funding. The research found that projects helped student teachers to ask critical questions about current practices in schools and make greater sense of the needs of children in receipt of Pupil Premium funding.

Other suggestions might include:

  • Inviting teachers/leaders to focus on topics of educational disadvantage as part of other professional learning opportunities (e.g. NPQs, accredited training with other providers).
  • Encouraging roundtable discussions for support staff and teachers in school meetings to collaboratively discuss the cost of living in relation to specific families or pupils.
  • Accessing funding from scholarships, universities or local charities for support staff or teachers to lead on specific aspects of the disadvantage agenda as part of a local action-research project.

Finally, independent think-tank New Local and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have launched a “call for learning and ideas” to explore local approaches to addressing the cost of living crisis.

Schools are invited to submit proposals, and this could provide colleagues with an opportunity to share best practice and learn from others (see further information).

A final thought

Jawaharlal Nehru, the former prime minister of India, once said: “Every little thing counts in a crisis.” This is especially true in our classrooms and school communities. We are in a crisis alongside our pupils and families. Every little thing counts.

  • Sean Harris is a doctoral researcher with Teesside University investigating the ways in which system leaders can help to address poverty and educational inequality in schools. He is also a trust improvement leader at Tees Valley Education, an all-through multi-academy trust serving communities in the North East of England. You can follow on Twitter @SeanHarris_NE and read his previous best practice articles for SecEd via

Further information & resources