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How schools can (and can’t) help tackle child poverty

The most pressing social policy issue is childhood poverty and family destitution. It is this that sits at the very heart of some of the major challenges facing the education system.

Being born into poverty means starting life at a distinct disadvantage to others. That is reality. Not because the individual does not have the capacity to thrive and succeed but because, structural inequality is inequality by design.

To date, politicians have failed to recognise this fact and its logical consequence: that it can be mitigated by design.

The design has to be rooted in an understanding that poverty is neither a choice nor an inevitability. The existence of childhood poverty is a failure of the state. In the sixth richest economy in the world, it is the outcome of two political choices: about the allocation of resources, and about continuing to believe that ‘meritocracy’ delivers for all.

For many, meritocracy is an illusion. Yet it is this very principle that perpetuates damaging myths and stereotypes about those living in poverty or destitution – that in some way it is as a result of their choices, their failure to work hard enough.

This lens on the world continues to drive policy that is often punitive and punishing – achieving the very opposite of what we need social and economic policy to deliver.

Poverty is pervasive. It is not just characterised by lack of resource but with a raft of other impacts on the individual. Lack of resource leads to lack of certainty, a vacuum filled with insecurity that also leads to the lack of the time needed to focus on things other than survival.

Poverty profoundly impacts health and wellbeing because, by its very nature, it overwhelms individuals with a sense of helplessness. It disempowers and disenfranchises.

The response to poverty must be systemic, connected and premised on protecting and nurturing individual dignity. It requires the state to actively reach out, structuring an environment that supports those who are most disadvantaged by society to understand their voice is valued.

For many, meritocracy is an illusion

This is one of the most pressing issues our nation faces as we continue to navigate our way through the 21st century. Until we have addressed this, our efforts to raise educational outcomes, improve opportunities and increase economic growth will always be hampered and less impactful than they could be.

Trusts and groups of schools, alongside local authorities, can be the medium through which we achieve progress in this area. They can be the civic structures that provide insight into the contextual challenges that communities face and the potential for policy and strategy ideas to make a difference.

Collectively, their insights could illuminate our shared national challenges as well as the localised dynamics that good policy also needs to understand. A ‘one size fits all’ approach to policy development is not an effective way of meeting the complexity of this challenge.

For policy development to be the robust process it needs to be, consultation and engagement have to draw from a wide constituency of experience so that the strategies that emanate from such policies ‘land well.’

It is not at all helpful when we create an ‘elite group’ of providers who are always leant upon for advice and feedback. This is insufficient when we have a system that is so complex and diverse.

The experience of a primary head is very different to that of a trust CEO. That of a specialist school leader is vastly different from that of mainstream school leaders. This complexity demands nuance in policy making and a development process that is appropriately informed and system attuned.

The next government must show determination and ambition in its desire to eradicate childhood poverty. If it does, our sector can be pivotal in helping it achieve that aim.

However, our greatest impact will not be realised by treating schools merely as a vehicle for delivering education as a means out of poverty. Instead, we should be integral to the development of cross-governmental policies to transform children’s lives across the country.

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