Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds may suffer from stigma at school that is as much a barrier to their learning as poor quality teaching, a study by researchers at Durham and Newcastle Universities suggests.

Writing in the British Educational Research Journal, Dr Laura Mazzoli Smith and Professor Liz Todd suggest initiatives such as Children North East’s ‘Poverty Proofing the School Day’ help teaching staff to better understand children’s experiences of poverty and how it impacts on their education.

Schools need to listen to children's experiences

Liz Todd, Professor of Educational Inclusion at Newcastle University, said schools need to listen carefully to children’s own experiences of poverty and not rely solely on data such as the number of pupils who receive free school meals.

She said: “The Poverty Proofing evidence suggests how schools could remove an array of barriers to learning and thereby improve the conditions in school for the most disadvantaged pupils.”

Children North East has worked with hundreds of primary and secondary schools in the North East and other parts of the UK since it launched its Poverty Proofing audit seven years ago, with the aim of creating a level playing field for pupils.

An audit garners the views of all students in a school and questions staff, parents and governors on how they see poverty affecting the school day. An action plan is then drawn up to address any unintended stigmatising policies or practices. 

Unintentional marginalisation

Dr Mazzoli Smith, Assistant Professor in Durham University’s School of Education, said the Poverty Proofing audit helped staff “challenge the implicit beliefs of both trainee and practising teachers about families in poverty.”

However the academics believe the current emphasis on school league tables, and all the metrics associated with producing these, creates a culture which can prevent teaching staff taking time out of the curriculum to properly examine how their school may be unwittingly marginalising poorer pupils.

Dr Mazzoli Smith said: “The raft of data that now dominates school accountability leads teachers away from seeing the lived experiences of children in order to focus predominantly on the socio-economic and attainment measures that come to define them. However, most teachers do have a clear desire to explore how to improve their practices.”

An audit gave staff that opportunity. She said:

A number of head teachers noted that there had been no time prior to Poverty Proofing for any meaningful focus on the ramifications of poverty.

The report, ‘Conceptualising poverty as a barrier to learning through ‘Poverty Proofing The School  Day’: The genesis and impacts of stigmatisation’, identifies a number of ways schools, prior to an audit, inadvertently stigmatised or marginalised children from poorer backgrounds.

Some prominent examples included:

  • The administration of free school meals, in which pupils in receipt of these were routinely highlighted through lists on classroom walls, till registers or brown paper bags for trips;
  • The increasing costs of extra-curricular activities and trips, with pupils publicly asked to bring in what is a ‘voluntary’ contribution;
  • The discovery, on reviewing attendance data, of pupils routinely not attending school on non-uniform or dress-up days;
  • Infant pupils asked to talk or write about their holiday when they had not been on one.

The hidden costs of school life

“Particular aspects of schooling were stated by both families and staff as being increasingly costly, notably school proms, international trips, school uniforms and costumes for events such as World Book Day.

“There was evidence from interviews with head teachers and governors that schools had little overall sense of how much money families were being asked for across the school year and when, as well as little planning going into how much time families were given to pay,” the report says.

The study concludes with a ringing endorsement of Children North East’s Poverty Proofing initiative.

It states: “The serious ramifications of stigmatisation, in terms of children’s physical and mental wellbeing, barriers to learning and also attendance and attainment, as well as the likelihood of longer-term social disenfranchisement, are such that the evidence from Poverty Proofing should be viewed as a seminal moment in our developing understanding of the impacts of poverty on education.”

Welcoming the research, Luke Bramhall, Children North East’s school research and delivery lead said: “Our aim is to make school a more equitable place for all students, so that no activity or event within school life excludes those who have fewer financial resources.”

Find out more about Poverty Proofing The School Day and the work the team does: www.povertyproofing.co.uk