On 19 May 2019, a panel of three people working with young children in Oxford spoke to us about the impact of poverty on children’s education, well-being and future life chances, and about the challenges of supporting poor children and families in primary schools and in the care system.
Our panellists were:
Maggie Swarbrick, Programme Supervisor for Oxfordshire Treatment Foster Care, supporting children in care, aged 3-11, who have the most complex emotional, behavioural and educational needs
Sue Tomkys, Headteacher of St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Primary School, Headington
Kate Stratford, Home School Link Worker, St Joseph’s and New Marston Primary Schools, Headington and Marston
This is a summary of the key points raised:
Poverty, the care system, and school
Maggie Swarbrick began with the story of Caroline (not her real name), aged 4. She was one of four children growing up in the Rose Hill area. The family struggled with poor and insecure housing, and the parents’ drug and alcohol addiction meant the children were neglected and abandoned for long periods of time, left to care for themselves. Things came to a head and the children were taken into care, and fostered in separate foster homes. This meant Caroline moving to a new community and starting a new school. She and her siblings had many skills (cooking, finding their own way around, changing nappies) but didn’t know how to be children, listen, form bonds, etc – the skills needed to thrive at school and in life.
Caroline and her siblings need consistent and individualised support from Maggie’s team at Oxfordshire Treatment Foster Care, which offers specialist therapeutic care for children with emotional, behavioural or additional needs. The team has a very high success rate in terms of children’s placements in care being successful and not breaking down (leading to further disruption, including changes in school.) Due to cuts in local authority funding, the number of children the team is able to support has shrunk significantly since Maggie began working there 10 years ago. The programme has been cut by 50% due to County Council funding cuts., despite being 80% successful in moving children on to permanent foster placements or adoption.
In school, children who have had to live with severe poverty, abuse or neglect, are often very challenging as students and classmates. Maggie encouraged us all and our children and grandchildren to practice PACE, as developed by the psychologist Daniel Hughes.
PACE stands for:
Playfulness – Acceptance – Curiosity – Empathy
School funding and the Pupil Premium
Sue Tomkys is Headteacher at St Joseph’s, a Catholic state primary school on Headley Way in Headington, which takes in children from across the city. It has a mixed intake, both in terms of family income and in terms of ethnicity and language. 72% of pupils are non-white/British; over 50% have a language other than English as their first language.
Out of 416 children attending St Joseph’s, 55 attract Pupil Premium funding (currently £1320 per child per year, £2300 if the child is in or has been in local authority care). Pupil Premium funding is extra funding for schools ‘designed to help disadvantaged pupils of all abilities perform better, and close the gap between them and their peers’. All children who are eligible for Free School Meals (that is, if their parents receive income support/benefits), or have been at any time in the past 6 years, attract the funding, which goes straight to the school and is spent at the discretion of the head teacher. Sue told us that since free school meals were introduced for all primary children by the Coalition government, it has become challenging for schools to ensure that they’re getting the Pupil Premium funding for all the children who are eligible. It’s up to parents to apply for it, and since there isn’t the incentive any longer of free lunches, it can be a struggle.
It’s important that schools are able to use the funding in a bespoke way to help individual children thrive, whether by paying for specialist support, school trips, extracurricular activities, books to have at home, etc. There is though a school funding crisis, which has meant an 8% real terms drop in funding to schools in England since 2010 (according Institute for Fiscal Studies research). As a result, more and more schools are being forced to use Pupil Premium funding for core costs, such as teaching assistants.
For children with severe difficulties, often related to deprivation and neglect, who need more support than what’s available through special need provision, there are Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs), which attract further funding to pay for support. These are very hard to get, and each school would only normally have a handful of children with EHCPs.
Role of the Home School Link Worker
Kate Stratford has worked as a Home School Link Worker, funded by the local authority (Oxfordshire County Council), for the past 7 years, based at New Marston Primary School (23 hours/week) and St Joseph’s (7 hours). The role of the Home School Link Worker is to act as a contact point and support for families of children who are struggling, especially (but not only) Pupil Premium children. The Home School Link Worker seeks to remove barriers that families have that prevent children from thriving at school. It’s a very busy and crucial role, with a constantly changing case load.
While most state schools in Oxford have Home School Link Workers, there is very uneven provision across the country.
The kinds of issues Kate often comes across are:
- housing problems, rent arrears, homelessness (see more below)
- poor attendance
- problems with benefits bureaucracy
- immigration problems and lack of entitlement to benefit
Austerity, Cuts and Support Services
Kate told us that her job is made harder by the fact that there’s been a very marked reduction in the past 5 or so years in the range and number of support services (children’s centres, mental health support, parenting support, advice, etc) available to families in Oxford. For those services that are there, there are often very long waiting lists.
Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) is a particular problem, with a standard 2-year waiting period to get assessment and treatment. This can be an enormous problem for a child who is suffering from mental health-related problems, and for their families and the school.
Poverty-proofing the school day
Sue talked about her efforts at St Joseph’s to ‘poverty proof’ the school day. This involves ensuring that poverty among the children is taken into account in decision making, and that they are not made to feel excluded or stigmatised. The school uniform is a good leveller, and the Pupil Premium is used to pay for school uniform for children who qualify. There is a strict policy of no logos on shoes, and rules about PE kit (simple white t-shirts, no football jerseys) are strictly enforced. World Book Day has been rethought, so that children no longer come to school in costume; non-uniform days have been scaled back. There is a website offering advice and resources to schools on poverty-proofing here.
Housing & homelessness
All three panellists emphasised how serious the housing situation is in Oxford. Inability to pay or keep up with steep private rental rates, inability to buy houses, or secure council housing, results in lack of security and even homelessness. They see a direct correlation between bad housing and inability to behave, pay attention, and thrive at school. Once a family becomes homeless, the provision for them by the local authority is terrible. One father had to sleep in his car, take his children out of school and send them to live with relatives in London. Another family was housed for months at a time in the Travelodge at Peartree Roundabout, with no where to cook, and no where to buy food except fast food. Maggie told us that a whole wing of the Travelodge is rented by the local authority for homeless families, including some young people in care, who can’t get foster placements and have to live in a hotel room with a care worker in the next room
Cycles of deprivation and parents’ involvement in schools
Kate told us about families in which there are cycles of deprivation over generations. Parents who themselves struggled at school and had bad experiences of education are suspicious of the school that their children go to, and often don’t engage, making it much more difficult to help their children when they face difficulties.
While St Joseph’s has high levels of parental engagement (related to the fact that it’s a faith school where parents make a concerted choice to send their children), New Marston struggles with this – most children attend simply because it’s the local school, and getting parents involved is often very difficult.
What can you do?
- Write to your MPs about school funding and funding for support services and children’s mental health.
- Write to your MPs and councillors about the housing crisis in Oxford and its impact
- Talk to the headteacher at your local schools about poverty proofing the school day
- Volunteers with a range of local organisations supporting children and families, including Schoolreaders, Home-Start, and Big Brothers Big Sisters. See more on our volunteering page.
- Think about becoming a foster carer via Oxfordshire County Council.