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Poverty Proofing schools: how to tackle the stigma

By Newcastle University

Removing barriers for students living in poverty could improve educational attainment by making school a fairer place to be, according to new research.

Prof John Wildman and Dr Morgan Beeson from Newcastle University Business School have evaluated the Poverty Proofing© audit by charity Children North East, and shared their new study into child poverty in the North of England. Read on to explore their findings.



  1. Poverty and life chances

  2. The stigma of poverty

  3. Using a natural experiment

  4. Care about poverty


Poverty and life chances

Poverty creates many challenges for children, parents, and schools, and can negatively impact opportunities for children from an early age. The cost-of-living crisis has seen record numbers of people in poverty, with the North East of England being particularly hard hit. The most recent data indicates that 18% of the population lives in absolute poverty, of which 3.6 million are children. Of these children, 2.9 million are considered to be in deep poverty. These are some of the worst figures since the end of the financial crisis in 2008-2009.

Being in poverty affects your education, your emotional health, and your physical health, which in turn can negatively influence your opportunities and chances in life. These factors lead to individuals not fulfilling their potential, to a misallocation of resources and to widening inequalities between individuals and regions.

With education so important to many of our life chances, tackling poverty in schools is crucial, and while schools cannot tackle poverty directly, they can tackle the stigma of poverty. This is the aim of Poverty Proofing©, a school audit by the charity Children North East. The principle can be summarised as:


‘No activity or planned activity in schools should identify, exclude, treat differently or make assumptions about those children whose household income or resources are lower than others’ - Children North East


The stigma of poverty

Imagine being a child from a disadvantaged socio-economic background. It is lunchtime at your primary school, and you are hungry. Instead of joining all of the other children in their lunch queue, you are made to stand in a different line to receive your Free School Meal, which sets you apart from your friends and highlights your poverty. How might that affect your school day? How might you feel? Would you skip lunch altogether, meaning you are more hungry and less able to concentrate? Would you skip school, altogether?

This is just one example from Children North East’s report, ‘Nine things you can do to start Poverty Proofing your school’. It is unfortunate that, according to the North East Child Poverty Commission, 11% of children who are eligible for Free School Meals are not registering for them – perhaps because of the stigma created around the subject of poverty. Previous research has suggested that tackling the stigma of poverty can improve engagement in the classroom and reduce school disruption. By implementing one simple change – getting children to join the same lunch queue – it may be possible to improve the school day for children living in poverty. Also, if children who are on Free School Meals are actually eating their meals, it may improve their concentration and learning.

While these changes are tremendous for the children and the schools on a day-to-day basis, it does raise the question of whether such changes actually improve school outcomes. That was the purpose of the study: ‘Does tackling poverty-related barriers to education improve school outcomes? Evidence from the North East of England’.


Two rows of children at a primary school cafeteria, eating lunch.

Removing the stigma attached to receiving Free School Meals can improve the school experience for all children.


Using a natural experiment

‘The way that Poverty Proofing has been adopted across the North East allows us to think about our data as a natural experiment,’ says Prof Wildman. ‘We have treatment schools that have been through the Poverty Proofing audit, and control schools that have not. By comparing school outcomes before schools have been through the audit and afterwards, we can see whether the Poverty Proofing audit helped to improve the average level of attainment in schools. We used data from before COVID-19 (2015 to 2019) and restricted our analysis to primary schools, where most Poverty Proofing has occurred.’

Poverty Proofing has the potential to positively affect the whole school, not only those pupils in poverty, by reducing classroom disruption and increasing engagement. This means that all pupils may benefit and for this reason the study focused on school-level outcomes.

Finally, because there are many differences between schools, the researchers used a process called 'matching' to ensure that schools in the control group were similar to schools in the treated group to minimise external factors that would affect the results.


Care about poverty

Dr Beeson and Prof Wildman concluded that schools that had been through the Poverty Proofing audit had improved scores in Key Stage 2 Maths and Reading: ‘We also found improvements in Maths and Reading progress, so children improved their test scores between Key Stages 1 and 2. However, we did not find that there was any impact on school absences. We repeated our analysis using only those pupils who were on Free School Meals and found similar results.’

‘One potential limitation of our work comes from the phenomenon called sample selection,’ says Dr Beeson. ‘Maybe the schools who most cared about poverty were selected for the Poverty Proofing audit? This is possible but, in terms of benefits for schools and children, what our results demonstrate is that when school leadership teams care about poverty, they can improve outcomes.’

With the results of this study, we can all agree: anything that can help to alleviate the impact of poverty and tackle inequalities must be something worth pursuing.


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Tags: Cities and Place, Research Excellence