The Covid pandemic has laid bare the extent to which pupil premium funding does not support the wider work that schools do to "support children living in poverty or struggling with difficult issues at home", a new report concludes.
The UCL Institute of Education report, Learning Through Disruption: Using schools' experiences of Covid to build a more resilient education system, finds that families were heavily reliant on schools to cope during the pandemic, and that this "highlights fundamental weaknesses in our current welfare system that urgently need repair".
The research ran from May to August this year and was based on 50 in-depth interviews in seven primary schools to ascertain the kinds of support that schools had provided as they emerged from the spring lockdown.
It shows that some schools were impacted by "sudden and unexpected changes" caused by the pandemic, with one school "hugely affected" by the closure of an important local employer, leading to an increase in families' need for food and support.
While some schools had a high proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals, others with a low proportion of families entitled to FSM faced different pressures.
"A school with amongst the lowest proportion of families entitled to FSM reported pressure during the first lockdown from some parents for the kind of synchronous, small-group online provision they associated with private schools, and the levels of home resourcing private schooling implies," the report says.
Covid 'reveals the fragility of support for families in poverty'
"Yet this school actually had a very diverse catchment, and were prioritising support for families who had few resources, evident in the comment that some families had ‘no computer or they had four children sharing a phone’. Managing such different needs and expectations was not easy."
Schools reported that their most immediate priority was addressing food insecurity, with some schools distributing food directly to families' homes.
"That schools felt impelled to react in this way reflects the fragility of support for families living in poverty," the report says.
It notes that in some schools the families who were hardest hit were those living just above the poverty line; for example, those impacted through parents being furloughed.
Schools serving disadvantaged communities became more aware of the difficulties families faced, with one head reporting that a family lived in temporary accommodation with a rat infestation.
"One head commented, ‘The absolute basic need … I’d never thought you’d be thinking about that.'"
Heads also reported that food deliveries helped them to keep in touch with vulnerable parents, such as one mother who was facing domestic violence.
Heads noted that the delivery of government laptops did not address the root difficulties that families faced.
"We had families saying, ‘We’re not using that, Miss, because my child will break that. I’m not doing it because if I have to replace it, I can’t afford to replace it,'" one headteacher told researchers.
The research also highlights heads' frustration with the lateness of government guidance.
"Any guidance was released late at night, they didn’t ever show what the guidance changes were. So you had to reread all the guidance where you get told you had to open the school and they give you the guidance 24 hours before," a headteacher reported.
When prioritising education recovery for the 2021 summer term, interviewees reported a desire to focus on a broad, balanced curriculum that also highlighted pupil wellbeing.
"The idea of ‘catch-up’, imagined as a tight focus on meeting pre-pandemic targets expressed in test scores, was not a priority for any of our interviewees, staff or parents," the report says.
"Some voiced disappointment that the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) seemed to be predicated on hiring in someone unfamiliar with the school, its pupils and their curriculum, in ways that were wasteful of effort and wouldn’t effectively respond to local needs."
One headteacher said: "The reason we haven't engaged with [the NTP] is because I need my children to be taught by people that they know because it's about relationships, and my understanding of the National Tutoring Programme is it's a tutor from anywhere, and online at the moment.
"And the member of staff tells the tutor what to do anyway, and then does it, and tells the member of staff."
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union the NAHT, said: “The government’s record on child poverty is shameful.
“Austerity is not just a temporary phase for some families to endure, it is a day-to-day reality.
"Parents and carers are not the only ones who worry about poverty. Tragically, children are well aware of their family’s money troubles. Our members tell us that children’s worries leave them unable to learn and enjoy school, and in need of help in the form of food, clothing and basic supplies.
"They are often embarrassed and ashamed. It’s a situation that sticks in the throat of everyone who has young people’s best interests at heart."
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “UCL’s research reflects the stark reality that life for many families is so hard that they have to turn to schools and colleges for basic needs such as food, clothing and other support.
“This is a product not only of the Covid pandemic but of a decade of austerity.
"The Social Mobility Commission calculates that around 4.3 million children – almost one-third of children in the UK – were living in poverty as of March 2020. This is an increase of around 700,000, or 3.7 percentage points, from March 2012.
"Whatever the government’s mantra of ‘levelling up’ is supposed to mean, there surely cannot be any greater need than that of tackling the scourge of child poverty.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU teachers' union, said: “This research demonstrates the determination of schools to deal with the effects of poverty in their classrooms. But schools cannot act alone and urgent action to tackle the scourge of child poverty is needed from the government.
'We know that even before coronavirus, 4.3 million children and young people were growing up trapped in poverty and this is only going to be made worse as the pandemic continues to take its toll.
"Covid-19 has exposed the endemic levels of poverty and inequality in the UK."
A government spokesperson said: “Throughout the pandemic we ensured schools supported the most disadvantaged children by staying open to vulnerable pupils, and delivering free school meals to those learning remotely.
“We have also increased pupil premium funding, expanded the holiday activities and food programme, and extended breakfast clubs, in addition to our investment of more than £3 billion to make up for time lost in the classroom.
“But we know families have struggled, which is why we have provided billions in welfare support for the most vulnerable, made the largest investment in affordable housing in a decade and expanded mental health services to thousands more children and young people, including through our Mental Health Recovery Action Plan.”