Impact of poverty

30% of children live in poverty in the UK, creating a massive risk to their aspirations, health, achievements and wellbeing. Schools are an essential resource in mitigating this impact and creating opportunity.

The problem is expected to worsen as the earnings gap grows and planned benefit cuts are implemented (House of Commons, 2018).

The children’s life chances are dependent upon a complex combination of low household income, a lack of equal opportunities and social exclusion. While some children who grow up in low-income households will go on to achieve their full potential, many others will not. Poverty places strains on family life and excludes children from the everyday activities of their peers. Many children experiencing poverty have limited opportunities to play safely and often live in overcrowded and inadequate housing, eat less nutritious food, suffer more accidents and ill health and have more problems with school work leading to low educational attainment as these children become adults they are more likely to be in poorly paid employment or economically inactive continuing the poverty cycle.

Tackling child poverty will help to improve children’s lives today, and it will also enhance their life chances: enabling them to make the most of their talents, achieve their full potential in life and pass on the benefits to their own children.

There are links between poverty and child protection – children living in the poorest areas are 11 times more likely to be on a child protection plan than those in the most affluent areas. So when does poverty become a safeguarding issue?

poverty and safeguarding

Parents struggling to make ends meet can feel anger or sometimes guilt at the unfairness they see impacting on their children. They do a tremendous job of minimising the impact wherever they can, and ensure their children are well cared for and feel valued.

Poverty can be a factor in children being at risk due to the stresses it creates in families and the limitations it places on choice. In itself it is not grounds for a referral, but be aware in particular of:

  • basic needs not being met (food, warmth, clothing)
  • social isolation
  • impact of stress within a household (including emotional abuse or domestic abuse)
  • impact on home learning
  • impact of long working hours (relationships, supervision)
  • caring responsibilities
  • self esteem and emotional health issues (in child and parent)
  • risk of substance misuse in areas of deprivation (in child and parent)

Where you have concerns that a child may be being neglected, consider what help the school can offer and follow your safeguarding procedures.

Children living in poverty, face social exclusion and lack of opportunity and social mobility, thus perpetuating the poverty cycle. UK Poverty 2017 highlights that overall, 14 million people live in poverty in the UK – over one in five of the population. This is made up of eight million working-age adults, four million children and 1.9 million pensioners. 8 million live in families where at least one person is in work (JRF, 2017)

Work does not provide a guaranteed route out of poverty in the UK. Two thirds of children growing up in poverty live in a family where at least one person works (CAPG, 2018)


“Typical holistic measure of ‘poverty’ is the standard of life enjoyed by an individual, measured principally by their level of income, and then incorporating a number of factors, including environmental, social, material, health and educative indicators. Child poverty is widely perceived as a particularly problematic and disturbing facet of poverty, as the innocence of youth and helplessness of children to change their situation generates particular social concern”


Children from poorer backgrounds lag at all stages of education:

  • by the age of three, poorer children are estimated to be, on average, nine months behind children from more wealthy backgrounds
  • by the end of primary school, pupils receiving free school meals are estimated to be almost three terms behind their more affluent peers
  • by 14, this gap grows to over five terms
  • by 16, children receiving free school meals achieve 1.7 grades lower at GCSE
  • children born in the poorest areas of the UK weigh, on average, 200 grams less at birth than those born in the richest areas
  • higher infant mortality rates from low income families
  • more likely to suffer chronic illness during childhood or to have a disability
  • children living in poverty are almost twice as likely to live in inappropriate housing
  • effects on both their physical and mental health, as well as educational achievement
  • poverty can cause household tensions and increase the risk of domestic abuse

Spotting the signs

Schools are in a key position to support children in poverty. When looking at children and young people’s behaviours consider whether poverty may be a factor:

  • ill-fitting clothing
  • low weight
  • poor concentration
  • lower attainment
  • non-attendance on school trips
  • presenting at school as hungry

What you can do

Create an environment based on quality and informed choice – help young people think about the issues and attitudes behind poverty, particularly in relation to equality. Create aspiration and opportunity through high quality teaching, while being aware of the limits and pressures on families, children and young people.

  • be aware of the effects of child poverty
  • support pupils and families
  • sign-post to supportive services
  • any concerns should be raised with the designated safeguarding lead

Consider how vulnerabilities might impact on individuals – think about the increased risk of exploitation and the barriers in place to attainment or to making safe decisions. Talk to children in advance about holiday periods and assess the risks of ‘holiday hunger’, loneliness and neglect. Recognise the stresses around key times of year such as the commercial pressures around Christmas.

Spot the signs & know what to do – use the checklists above, your safeguarding procedures and be confident in raising poverty as a possibility.

Take action – and keep taking action until you know they’re safe.

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