Category Archives: Education

“Erring on the side of kindness…”


Yesterday, along with Sara Bryson from Children North East, I presented at a FUSE / ASO conference on school meals, inequality and obesity. The event was called ‘Could I have some more please, sir?’ and the focus of our presentation, which can be found by clicking the image below, was on the administration of Free School Meals (FSM) within the school environment.

Stigmatisation discrimination and the administration of FSM

The main part of the presentation focused on Sara’s work with children and young people, staff and parents from four schools in the North East as part of the ‘poverty proofing the school day’ project they are currently carrying out, with support from the North East Child Poverty Commission. This work has highlighted how children are generally very easily able to identify who receives FSM as a result of the way in which they are administered: some schools administer cash-less systems but when these break down, children receiving FSM are identified by being given a different coloured ticket to their friends who pay for their meals; some schools still collect dinner money with register at the start of the week (those receiving FSM stay in their seats while those that pay give their money to the teacher); and some schools have separate tills for FSM pupils despite having cash-less systems.

The presentation focused on the stigmatizing effect that this has on the children. These are, after all, the children of ‘scroungers’ or ‘shirkers’, the children whose parents are probably still in bed by the time school starts, still ‘sleeping off a life on benefits’. Children in receipt of FSM are easily identifiable as a result of a stigmatizing, discriminatory and divisive national policy which is often implemented in a stigmatizing, discriminatory and divisive fashion at the school level. Sara’s findings highlight the role of street-level bureaucrats as the ‘ultimate policy makers’. The work with children, involving them in the design and the carrying out of the research, has also highlighted how children are able to negotiate and resist nutritional standards in schools through the provision of alternatives, with a thriving ‘black market’ in ‘non-permitted items’ a consistent feature in secondary schools.

What is unsurprising is that this stigma is nothing new. Other presenters highlighted that the provision of FSM to certain sections of the school population pre-dates the turn of the last century and one of the slides we used in the presentation contained a quote from a study carried out by John Veit-Wilson in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1971:

‘There is no doubt that this stigma is both ascribed by widespread public values and experienced by recipients. It is bad enough to have to admit that one cannot feed one’s own children by one’s own labour – but that indignity can be kept within the family. It is worse to have to apply for public assistance in feeding them – but that indignity could perhaps be kept a secret between the family and the Local Education Authority. However, the greatest indignity is when one’s children are publicly displayed in the classroom or dining room as the children of a financial incompetent – one who cannot even earn enough to pay for their food’

And stigmatisation within public programmes has consequences. Professor Mike Miller, writing in the introduction to a book on Richard Titmuss writes:

‘Stigma threatens the person stimgatized, the programme, and the society which condones stigmatization. The stigmatized person experiences the fact of being separated from the rest of society, of being treated as someone different, marginalized, as less than others, as not worthy of the everyday exchanges and transactions that make up the community. This experience often produces a ‘spoiled identity’, a self-image which is damaged and diminished, impeding the autonomous actions of the individual.’

He goes on to argue that ‘programmes aimed at stigmatized people tend to be of low quality’ and that funding is often inadequate. We know this to be the case for FSM as many children who are living in poverty (including some who, by the DWP’s own estimates, are in the ‘deepest’ poverty) are prevented from receiving FSM as a result of the criteria which largely excludes children who have a working parent in the household. Miller argues that, in cases such as this, ‘Inhumanity becomes a social policy because it keeps the costs down.’ (p16) One might think, as Titmuss himself argued, that ‘the primary purpose of the system and the method of discrimination was, therefore deterrence (it was also an effective rationing device)’ (p153).


We ended the presentation by suggesting that the best way of addressing this situation was by providing Universal Free School Meals and Universal Breakfast Clubs. Campaigns such as the current Children’s Society ‘Fair and Square’  which aim to extend FSM to all children living in poverty run the risk of simply giving all poor children the opportunity to be singled out and stigmatized at school. Universal Free School Meal pilot projects, started by the last government, in Durham and Cornwall (with an extended FSM programme running in Newham) have suggested that the provision resulted in an increase in uptake of school meals across the board. Evidence from the qualitative case studies indicated that ‘this may be because universal provision decreases the stigma attached to taking free school meals’ (p11). There was also an increase in attainment across the board, with the largest increases being seen by children who would were previously eligible for FSM. The Impact report for the pilot project suggested that, as attendance at the schools had not been affected, ‘the increases in attainment evident in the universal pilot areas must arise as a result of improvements in productivity whilst at school’ (p9) which highlights the crucial role of food in ensuring that children are ready and able to learn.

Titmuss argued that there could be ’no answer to the problems of poverty, ethic integration, and social and educational inequalities without an infrastructure of universalist services. These are the essential foundations’ (p139) Of course, universal FSM provision would also benefit the ‘hard working families’ that the government is fond of talking about and it may also help the ‘welfare system’, which currently divides, become more binding, something which David Cameron has (sort of) expressed concern about in recent days. Universal services may also be the most efficient and cost-effective way of targeting services at those most in need. In a book entitled ‘Not Only the Poor: The Middle Classes and the Welfare State’, Goodin & Le Grand make the point that:

‘If our concern is primarily with reducing poverty and making sure everyone achieves certain minimum standards, then targeting might simply not be worth the cost. From that perspective, there would be nothing fundamentally wrong with ‘erring on the side of kindness’ and paying benefits to some people who do not strictly need them, if that is the least cost way of guaranteeing that they reach everyone who does need them.’ (pp217-218)

The philosophy of welfare : selected writings of Richard M. Titmuss, London: Allen & Unwin

Goodin, R.E. & LeGrand, J. (1987) Not Only the Poor: The Middle Classes and The Welfare State, London: Unwin Hyman

Those of you on Twitter can see some of the audience comments by searching for clicking here or searching, on Twitter, for #schoolfoodchat

We will provide a link to the FUSE website were all of the presentations can be found once they are uploaded.

We’ll also provide a link to the digital story that one of the young people involved in the project produced, exploring the entreprenurial side of food of schools.


“A boon to be sparingly conferred upon the multitude…”

I spent much of yesterday afternoon working on a presentation for school governors on the links between child poverty and educational attainment. Serendipitously, yesterday was also the day that the OECD published its 2012 Education at a Glance report. The country notes for the United Kingdom make some interesting comments, including:

The socio-economic composition of UK schools poses significant challenges for disadvantaged students as well as students with an immigrant background: 80% of students with an immigrant background attend schools with a high percentage of immigrant students. Even immigrant students with highly-educated mothers are more than twice as likely to be in disadvantaged schools as non-immigrant students.

No country saw a steeper increase in spending on tertiary education than the UK, but most of that was funded from private sources.

The impact of socio-economic background on student performance at age 15 remains moderate to strong in the UK, depending on the methodology used for measurement. This signals significant scope for improvement.

In 2011, schools in England had the greatest decision-making authority, after the Netherlands, among all OECD countries (35 percentage points higher than the OECD average) in 2011

The average public primary school class has about 26 students, more than the OECD average of 21 students per class. But private institutions in the UK have significantly smaller classes of around 12 students

(my emphases)

The above table from p17 of the report shows that the UK ranks 24th out of 32 countries in terms of the % of total public expenditure which is spent on education – 11.3% against and OECD average of 13%. The table also notes that the UK ranks 4th out of 30 countries when the share of private expenditure on educational institutions in measured – with 31.1% against an OECD average of 16%. Excluding tertiary education (and therefore tuition fees) the figures for the UK are 21.3% against an OECD average of  8.8%, putting us in 3rd place behind Chile and South Korea. So nearly 22% of funding for primary, secondary and post secondary, non-tertiary education in the UK comes from private sources and, almost certainly, goes mainly to private institutions.

I was also reading an article by Diane Reay yesterday afternoon called ‘The Zombie Stalking English Schools: Social class and educational inequality’. In it she raises concerns about the ability of the education system to ‘positively address social class in the classroom when contemporary initial teacher training rarely engages with it as a relevant concern within schooling’ which is something we are interested in, especially given the profile of organisations such as Teach First in the new educational landscape*. She also provides a quote  from William Lovett, a working class campaigner and Chartist, from 1837 which I thought was very approrpiate given the launch of the report yesterday:

Possessors of wealth … still consider education as their own prerogative, or a boon to be sparingly conferred upon the mulittude instead of a universal instrument for advancing the dignity of man and for gladdening his existence.

Best wishes,


*Another interesting (and short) paper related to the issue of teacher education which I was sent recently is It’s Not the Culture of Poverty, It’s the Poverty of Culture: The Problem with Teacher Education, by Gloria Ladson-Billings

Surviving or Thriving case study: Scotswood Natural Community Garden

Guest post by Amanda Hannen (VONNE)

Q & A

Scotswood Natural Community Garden

August 2012

The Scotswood Natural Community Garden aims to promote learning about nature, the environment and sustainable living in Scotswood, Newcastle upon Tyne. The Garden itself is a beautiful and wild site of more than 2 acres where a range of activities for children and adults are run. The Garden’s activities include educational workshops for schools, Forest Schools, volunteering opportunities for adults, a weekly youth club and regular community open days.

VONNE talked to Chris Francis at Scotswood Natural Community Garden about the impact of the spending cuts and the recession on their youth work programme:

Can you describe the impact of the spending cuts and the recession on your organisation?

At the moment there’s been very little impact because our youth programme is funded by Children in Need and we are just in our first year of a three year tranche of funding from them, so in terms of the general work we do there has been no reduction there. We have also applied for some small amounts of funding to top up the Children in Need fund to cover some of the activities that the organisation does with children and we’ve been successful with £1,000 here, a £1,000 there – that sort of level of income. If you’ve got three years of funding then in that time you’re quite comfortable and happy to continue, it’s when we reapply that we’ll be in a more competitive market and the situation could become more critical. I guess in two years time we’ll be thinking about resubmitting when the money runs out the end of October 2012. The concern is when we go back to Children in Need in two and a half years time, we’re aware that there is going to be more demand on those funds.

In terms of the [impact on] people we work with, this part of Newcastle is fairly deprived so the fact that there are fewer jobs around, increased pressure on families and less people working for local authorities with their cutbacks, there is less support available to families out of work.

Can you tell us about changes you have seen around you which might have an impact on your organisation or your sector in the future?

We know that in the west of Newcastle there’s been a change in the city councils tender process for delivery of youth work in the area, resulting in the latest contract going to a large organisation who didn’t really have much of a presence in the West End of Newcastle. One or two smaller organisations that are based here have missed out on that funding and it’s certainly caused a bit of uncertainty and anxiety amongst those groups that had the [city councils] funding. There’s meant to be dialogue between those groups to see how all that moves forward. We didn’t have money from that source so we haven’t been directly affected.

It’s a tricky one because I’ve been here for about 11 months now and the whole tendering process is something I’ve not been involved in before this job. I’d been on a few training courses and the advice we were given then was basically follow the money. If you apply and don’t get it, and a larger or national organisation does go and talk to them to offer your help in delivering it and subcontract.

The other change I’m conscious of is the number of local authorities that are moving their services out into new charitable organisations – I’m aware that North Tyneside has done that with their leisure services – their country parks. They’ve created a new charity, which will be able to apply for sources of funding that in the past the local authority couldn’t possibly have applied for. This will obviously put them in competition with people like us for those sources of funding. So, I can see that being a problem, I can’t define the problem but it will mean there’s more demand on funding pots as they [Local Authorities] create more charities to do this work and they all apply to the same pot. That will have an impact.

What do you think your organisation might do in the lead up to the funding coming to an end?

We’ll certainly talk to Children in Need who have funded us so far, going back to them for further funding. They are impressed with what we do and I think what we do here is fairly impressive, the kids do benefit enormously. So going back to them would be the first point of call. If that wasn’t successful or we had indications that that wouldn’t be successful we would look at other grant making bodies really. We have looked at tendering but the issue is that if you do start chasing tenders you lose sight of what you’re actually good at and end up doing things that don’t quite fit so that would be a concern really. But they do sound really attractive – you put in a tender, you get paid to cover the overheads of the organisation and away you go.

We did look at a tender for alternative education provision for 14-16 year olds in Newcastle but again it’s a very complicated process to go through and we weren’t quite ready at that stage, but that would have involved working with children who either had been excluded or at risk of exclusion from mainstream education. Many of the kids we work with now are in that bracket but we weren’t quite sure how we’d deliver that, we’d need to invent some new system and it all takes time and effort really. We only had about two weeks to complete the tender so we decided to leave it. We certainly would look at tenders but I think there are dangers for organisations who deliver quite a direct service really.

How would you describe the long term future of your organisation?

I think the future is looking fairly good…I think. We’ve just got some money from the Big Lottery Local Food Programme for two years of working with local schools to develop their food grown in the schools. There’s lots of interest in the work we do because we’re linking people with nature, the value that brings in all sorts of ways. There aren’t that many organisations in this particular neck of the woods that can do that so easily and I think we do get to the heart of some of those issues.

But we are aware that Children in Need might come back in two and a half years and say ‘no, actually you’ve had your six years now, go somewhere else for your money’ and that then puts the whole youth programme at risk and for the kids involved it’s important stuff.

Lastly, what would your key messages be to central government, commissioners and funders?

They must be aware of the fact that if they reduce the amount of money being made available to local charitable organisations then they are going to increase the competition between those groups. That can be a good thing, it could make us work more creatively and in partnership to try and deliver the same for less, so I can see in some respects that will be a positive driving force for change. But clearly when it goes too far you see things being cut that are essential to the local community. Government knows the value of the voluntary sector, they know what it brings to society, and they already know that, they’ve got the figures. If all these people providing services on a voluntary basis stop doing it, it’s a massive cost to society if that wasn’t being done. I do think it is a danger when you make every decision based on the cost of it rather than the value of it. I suppose we have seen it before from government of similar colours, where you save the money centrally and pass the problem on to people further down the line, with no real thought for the impact on the communities who rely on them and who benefit enormously from the local charities who do tremendous work.

Government has all the evidence on how important it is to engage people with the natural world. We tick so many boxes from the point of view of the mental health of people who get involved, local food production is a massive part of what we do and certainly organisations now are looking at that aspect of the local area for all sorts of reasons, including sustainability of a local food supply. The Big Lottery has put a lot of money into local food projects and we just got money from them for this.

Government know the value of what we do and there is a deluge from the top at the moment to the bottom but if there’s no money there it’s not going to happen. When we talk about individuals, all of the kids benefit enormously from the experience they have and the relationships they develop with the staff and other members of the group are just so important to them. If we weren’t doing that, that would be another group of kids not getting that level of support from anywhere really. The impact of the young people involved in the project, meeting positive role models – if those things suddenly stop, the reality is they’re back on the streets doing things that kids of those age who don’t have role models get involved in. How do you pick up the cost of that?

Amanda Hannen


Chris Francis

Scotswood Natural Community Garden

This interview forms part of work carried out by North East Child Poverty Commission, with support from VONNE, to identify the impact of the spending cuts and recession on VCS services to children and young people in the region. It forms part of the sector-wide campaign, ‘Surviving not Thriving’, led by VONNE.

Preventing the poverty premium?

On the 22nd August, the Big Lottery Fund announced that it was ‘Preventing the poverty premium’ and was investing £31million to help achieve this. I was, as one might expect, heartened when I saw this news because,as Martin Lewis, the ‘Money Saving Expert’ points out in the press release ‘it costs more to be poor’. Save the Children estimated in 2011 that the ‘poverty premium’ costs an average low income family around £1280 per year and a report by Barnardo’s at the end of 2011 highlighted the impact of high cost credit on the lives of low incomes families, calling it ‘a vicious cycle’. CPAG , in their ‘manifesto for success‘ in ending child poverty identified ‘ending the poverty premium’ as one of ten vital steps. The document states:

An authoritative analysis of the problem (with the telling subtitle: ‘the limits of competitive markets in the provision of essential services to lowincome consumers’) shows that poorer consumers get a worse deal with food, housing, water supply, telecommunications, public transport, financial services and energy.

The reason for these market failures are complex and intertwined. Access to some lower-cost goods or services may be closed to low income consumers, for example, through redlining (advertising to some groups and not to others), while access to the same cost or similar quality services may be limited because of credit records.

Differential pricing for different forms of payment exclude or disadvantage poorer groups. For example, direct debits (which exacerbate problems like fuel poverty) are more likely to be used by the well-banked majority, rather than the financially excluded. And access to cheaper goods, for example, bulk purchases at supermarkets which may need a car to access, systemically disadvantage poorer people.

However, on closer inspection of the Big Lottery programme, none of these issues are being addressed. Instead, according to the accompanying press release the focus of the projects will be on helping ‘an estimated 150,000 tenants across England become more financially aware and more confident in money management’ and it notes that ‘there has been close to a 10 per cent surge in debt relief orders since the same quarter last year’. With these comments and others throughout the document, the press release gives the impression that the fault for paying a poverty premium lies with the individuals for not being ‘savvy’ enough to negotiate what the Chair of BLF England called ‘ the maze of modern money management’. It appears to be an admission that the system is unfair and complex and the answer is to make people more aware of how unfair and complex it is, rather than making the system fairer and simpler.
There is, however, lots of evidence that suggests that the vast majority of low income families are very skilled at managing their money.Ruth Lister highlights some of this evidence in her book Poverty (2004, pp133-134), noting that Gilliat (2001)states:

many of the poor are very good managers of their poverty. They are resourceful and use their money and time with great expediency. They are precise about planning hosuehold accounts and ruthless about expenditure, savagely cutting back to keep out of debt. They set priorities and cut out luxuries. Despite this they understandably describe such work as sacrficie and relentless struggle.

Vaitlingham (2002) notes that: in general, poor people manage their finances with care, skill and resourcefulness. There is no evidence to suggest that there are two types ofpoor families – those who can cope and those who can’t although McCrone (1994) suggests that whilst a distinction can be made, it represents ‘a very fine line’.

The problem, I would argue, appears to be that there are many families who do not have sufficient money to meet their needs. An insufficient income will always be insufficient, no matter how carefully it is eked out. One might achieve, in the words of Spike Milligan, ‘a more pleasant form of misery’ with a bit of financial nous, but it is hardly likely to be life changing. George Orwell made a very good point in The Road to Wigan Pier when he wrote that we, as a society, allow families to live with in poverty and then have the cheek to tell them how to spend their limited income more wisely: ‘First you condemn a family to live on thirty shillings a week, and then you have the damned impertinence to tell them how they are to spend their money’. And it all, of course, contributes to the narrative that people with an ‘income and resources so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living considered acceptable in the society in which they live’ are somehow to blame for their circumstances. If these people are to blame for their circumstances, then it naturally follows that poverty can be solved by focusing on them, and not problems caused by wider society.

There is, however, sufficient wealth and resources in the UK to ensure that no-one lives in fear of poverty. The problem is with how the wealth and resources are distributed and used rather than a problem of an absolute lack of resources, which is in contrast with the families highlighted above. Finally, and in another example of what a strange society we live in, there is also the slightly unfortunate irony that it is left to a charitable fund whose sole source of income is from a form of gambling to support advice to low income families on how to manage their money better…..

What we’re up to…..

We’ve added some new information on the About Us page of this blog which provides a bit more detail on the range of projects that the North East Child Poverty Commission is involved with in the region.

The Commission first met on 8th June 2011 and since then we’ve been involved with a variety of different pieces of work including helping local authorities prepare their Child Poverty Needs Assessments and Strategies, supporting Children North East with their photography project and conference, working with a local councillor to prepare a report on child poverty for the EU Committee of the Regions and securing funding to continue the project beyond March 2012.

Currently, and despite the resources available to the Commission being reduced from last year, we are still involved with numerous different projects that we hope will help to improve the lives of children in the North East and help to end child poverty in the region. Below are some of these projects:

Working for North East Families – Around 60% of children growing up in poverty live in a household where at least one adult works. Work does not always offer a route out of poverty and, when it does, it is often on an insecure and precarious basis. Employment practices and ‘Terms and Conditions’ can all have a bearing on whether or not wrok really does offer a genuine, lasting route out of poverty. Together with partners, the Commission is developing a 3 year project looking to engage with employers in the region to make them aware of the role that they can play in ending child poverty as well as the benefits that it can bring to them, both in the short term and the long term. For more information on this project, please visit the Working for North East families page on this blog.

Poverty proofing the school day – Children North East are working with the Commission to develop a toolkit to help schools to ‘poverty proof’ the school day, from a child’s perspective. This work will include working with children, staff and governors from four schools in the North East to explore how policy and practice within these schools can inadvertently add to the marginalisation and stigmatisation of children living in poverty. This work has developed as a result of the Children North East photography project and exhibition last year and is funded by the Policy and Representation Partnership at VONNE. A copy of the project proposal can be found here

Child Poverty and Education – the Commission are developing a training session for school governors in the region on the links between child poverty and educational attainment and how the Pupil Premium and other resources might be used to help raise the attainment of children living in poverty. This work has developed following discussions with teachers and child poverty leads and governor services within local authorities. Nine authorities in the North East are taking part in the pilot programme.

Regional Seminar Series – the Commission organises and hosts seminars on topics related to child poverty on a regular basis. The aim of these events is to share research findings with policy makers and practitioners in the region. Topics explored so far have included low income families use of brands, maternal deprivation, potential uses of the Pupil Premium and how government discovered early childhood. Future topics include Understanding welfare differently (with Paul Spicker), Poverty & Ethnicity (with JRF and Gary Craig) and the Living Wage (with the Living Wage Foundation). You can be kept up to date with these events by joining our mailing list here

North East Child Poverty Policy Network –as well as supporting the work of the Commission, the regional child poverty co-ordinator also supports a child poverty policy network for local authority leads and voluntary sector officers working on child poverty. This group meets bi-monthly and discusses issues of common concern and policy developments. Officers from Child Poverty Action Group and the Child Poverty Unit regularly attend the network as well. As well as meeting formally as a group, the co-ordinator also supports local authorities with individual requests and advice and support. We have also developed strong links with CPAG and JRF which ensures that the work of these organisations-  and others – are shared with a wide audience in the NorthEast.

‘Local authorities, lcoal duties & local action’ – a report has just been completed that explores how local authorities in the North East have fulfilled their ‘local duties’ under the Child Poverty Act which requires them, along with their partners, to publish a Child Poverty Needs Assessment and a Child Poverty Strategy. The report looks at emerging themes within the region from these documents and highlights some potential policy options that local authorities could pursue. The report will be posted on our blog when it is published.

Awareness raising – the Commission also raise awareness of the issue of child poverty in the region through our own communications (the blog, the e-newsletter, Twitter, regional events etc) and those of other partner organisations such as VONNE, the Regional Youth Work Unit and the regional Children England network. The co-ordinator often responds to requests for comment and information on local media stories relating to child poverty.

If you’d like any further information on any of these projects, please feel free to get in touch with us.

Best wishes,


CPAG Guest Post: Going hungry despite Free School Meals

Guest post by Rys Farthing

New figures published by the Child Poverty Action Group and the British Youth Council reveal that many poor children are going hungry at school, including those entitled to free school meals.

 Some 3.6 million children live below the poverty line, and while not all of these will be in school, only 1.27 million children are registered for Free School Meals. This means that many young people living below the poverty line are not entitled to FSM. And for these young people, the price of school meals – at around £9.40/week – is prohibitively expensive.

 The research aimed to examine the adequacy of the current Free School Meal scheme. Currently, only young people whose parents are on out-of-work benefits are entitled to receive free school meals (FSM). If FSM are meant to benefit ‘poor kids’, out-of-work entitlement  is poor targeting indeed; 62% of children growing up below the poverty line come from households that have at least one adult in employment. Estimates suggest that around a third of schoolchildren living below the poverty line are not entitled to receive free meals, their parents are not on out-of-work benefits, rather they might be in part time or low paid work.

2013 presents an opportune moment to address this inadequacy. The introduction of Universal Credit will mean that all ‘out-of-work’ and ‘in-work’ benefits are combined. The current rules around entitlement have to be redesigned. This presents both opportunities but also real risks. Firstly and importantly, if entitlement remains inadequate children from low income families will miss out on hot, healthy lunches, with all of the knock on effects for their health and education. Children from lower income households often go hungry and have poorer health outcomes and educational attainment than their better off peers. FSM can help realise their right to food, and help close health and education gaps. Secondly, if we don’t get entitlement right, FSM could work against the stated intention of ‘making work pay’ that is driving the Universal Credit.  Setting an income threshold for entitlement introduces a big ‘cliff edge’ into family finances and could make families financially worse off for taking a job. Thresholds can mean that getting a small pay rise or taking on an extra shift could cost families dearly; if they move just above a threshold, they will lose £376 worth of FSM per child.

However, the report highlights a second type of inadequacy that affects the children who are entitled to FSM. In most secondary schools (and some primary schools) children receiving FSM get an “allowance” to buy their lunch at the canteen.

 However one in seven of the young people surveyed in this research said that their allowance did not allow them to buy a full meal.

 Young people from eight schools around England gave their lunch menus as evidence; a full meal could be purchased from their allowance from only 2 of the menus. For example, in one school the allowance given to FSM students was £2.00, but painfully the “meal deal” was £2.05. Most places gave an allowance that was enough to get a slice of pizza and a drink, or a main meal but nothing to drink. This inadequacy means that schools are breaching the regulatory guidelines that have so improved school food since the days of the Turkey Twizzler … but perversely, this breach only affects children who live well below the poverty line.

 Many students suggested that this lack of money, and the small size of their school meal left them hungry. One of our youngest respondents, who is under 11, said that “I don’t get a lot to eat, (I’m) always hungry after having dinner… As we don’t get much food that’s why mummy still cooks us a meal at home but soon as we get home we eat lots while dinner is cooking”. Another said “there’s not enough money allocated to us and I go home hungry most days.”

Inadequate amounts left a number of poor children in the difficult position of having to take back food, or pay for what they overspent on attempting to buy a healthy meal. One student detailed their concerns (about getting detention for buying fruit):

“I think that the system honestly is a bit crap because you don’t know how much you have spent and if you overspend you’re given detention and you have to pay back what we spent!”

The best way to make sure that poorer children enjoy a meal is to entitle all families who receive Universal Credit to FSM. While this would almost double current entitlement, such an investment is the only way to make sure the FSM scheme works.  The Department for Education will be launching a consultation into entitlement in the coming weeks, and when it does, we should be wary of options that replicate current inadequate entitlement. We also need to make sure that for their part, schools are pricing meals and providing allowances that make sure a Free School Meal is what is says on the tin.

High hopes…….

Last week, Joseph Rowntree Foundation published 3 papers exploring the role of Aspirations, Attitudes and Behaviours (AABs) in educational outcomes. We have already blogged on this subject a couple of months ago, following a seminar led by Professor Liz Todd, the lead author of one of the JRF reports. This post aims to provide an update following the publication of the JRF reports and attempts to demonstrate why this issue is so important to policy and practice around improving outcomes for disadvantaged children and young people.

As part of a piece of work looking at how local authorities in the North East fulfilled the ‘local duties’ of the Child Poverty Act, I looked at a  number of their Child Poverty Needs Assessments and strategies. Four authorities (out of 12) highlighted ‘raising aspirations’ as a priority for them. Below are a selection of quotes from these documents:

Raise aspirations and expectations of deprived children, families and communities Transforming the aspirations and ambitions of children growing up in poverty and their families is essential if we are to tackle child poverty. Parental aspirations and ambitions for their children can have a significant impact on life chances

There are parents who have had bad experience of schooling and do not see the benefit of education; this attitude perpetuates the continuous cycle of low aspirations.

Research carried out in 2010 … revelaed low aspiration levels in some areas, in many cases as a result of second and third generation family unemployment. Further work in other areas has also shown low aspirations to underpin many ‘negative outcomes’, such as poor attainment, teenage conceptions and anti-social behaviour.

Raising aspirations in our children and young people is important because they influence outcomes.

Some of the most disadvantaged children in the borough suffer from low aspirations and limited ‘mental geography’

Local authorities are not the only organisations in the region who believe that young people (and parents) from poorer backgrounds may need their aspirations raising. Each of the 5 Universities in the region have participated in programmes designed to raise aspirations amongst local children and young people. Newcastle University advertised for a manager for the ‘NE Aspiration Raising Partnership’ in March of this year. For those interested in finding out more about these, using a search engine brings up results for each of the universities but the language is very similar to that which local authorities use:

helps to raise educational aspirations among ‘harder to reach’ groups

We are delighted to be working in partnership … to raise the aspirations and opportunities available for people in the region

There are more examples. The school where I am a parent governor has ‘We seek to raise aspirations…’ as the first words of it’s Vision Statement and a regional conference was organised in 2009 focusing on ‘Raising and Realising Aspirations’. In summary, there appears to be strong consensus that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have low aspirations which need to be raised and, given the involvement of the universities, one would expect some good evidence to support these policies.

However, the JRF reports offer up an alternative view, with one of the main issues being around the quality and quantity of evidence available in this area. Below are some quotations from the 3 reports that were published last week:

If attitudes and aspirations do cause higher levels of attainment, then appropriate interventions can be developed. But if they do not, then money and effort is being wasted on approaches that may even have damaging side effects. (1)

 The review confirmed the association between children’s expectations/aspirations and their attainment. However, the evidence falls short of that needed to assume that it is a causal influence, because no relevant rigorous evaluations of interventions were found. There were no good indications that a child’s aspirations could influence later participation (1)

Our research reinforced the insight that children and parents from low income families have high aspirations and value school, and that parents by and large try their best to support their children’s education. There is evidence that teachers and other professionals may underestimate the aspirations of socio-economically disadvantaged children and parents and not appreciate the importance with which school is viewed. (2)

 The widespread emphasis on raising aspirations, in particular, does not seem to be a good foundation for policy or practice (2)

 Teachers and other professionals may need to revise upwards their estimation of the aspirations of parents and children. (2)

The immediate focus should be on rolling-out and monitoring the implementation of interventions where there is already good evidence, particularly in the area of parental involvement. Interventions in this area should have a clear focus on providing information, support and advice to parents and children, rather than continuing to seek to raise aspirations which are already generally high (3)

It is worth repeating what the Todd et al report says:

The widespread emphasis on raising aspirations, in particular, does not seem to be a good foundation for policy or practice

For what it’s worth, I have yet to come across a parent who didn’t want the best for their child or children and I have not come across many young people in the region (or elsewhere) who have wanted to ‘under-achieve’. Our previous blog highlighted that ‘aspirations’ is used in many different ways and to mean different things and it perhaps isn’t helpful to look at them as linear (low- high). People have very different aspirations for themselves and/or their children, many of which don’t relate to educational attainment or going on to higher education.

As this has been identified as such an important area for tackling child poverty and improving educational attainment amongst poorer children in the North East, it will be very interesting to follow how their policies unfold and develop and whether the JRF research has any ‘impact’. It is worth noting that JRF have already been very supportive of getting this work disseminated in the region and supported the event that Liz Todd presented at recently.

I’ll end by recounting what a prominent and well-respected academic in the North East told me when I broached this subject with them a few months ago:

‘Frankly, some of the stuff I read about young people’s aspirations makes me want to puke.’

What do you think?

Best wishes,


What do people think?




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