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Young people across the country including the North East spent their half term taking part in the NCS (National Citizen Service) Autumn Programme. Across the week, they occupied their time getting to know each other, taking part in fun activities and most importantly developing social action projects that mean something to them and their community.

Children North East were invited by Headliners, who run NCS in South Tyneside, to be one of the ‘dragons’ to listen to pitches young people had been working on, inspired by the format of the popular TV programme Dragon’s Den. To offer feedback and support with their next steps, Georgina from our Schools Team was delighted to step into the shoes of Deborah Meaden and attend. Here are some of her thoughts about the experience.

It was a pleasure and privilege to listen to the young people’s plans for their social action projects. Virtual pitching did not faze the young people in the slightest, and they talked with passion about the topics they had researched and their plans to do something about the important issues they had identified. They also managed not only to make their pitches informative, but also entertaining, incorporating some signing and even some guitar playing.

What is particularly interesting is that both groups of young people that presented are working on projects addressing food insecurity and hunger within their local communities. The first group that presented are going to undertake a sponsored walk to raise money to make hampers to be given to a local food bank. They explained in their pitch that they are planning to not only include food basics, but some recipe cards for meals and some extra items such as baking kits for families to have valuable family time together. The second group of young people described in their pitch that they are going to make hampers to be distributed to a primary school to support families in need, with younger children. The second group have agreed that the way they will achieve this will be by working with local businesses to source donations of food that can be included, and running food collections in their own schools. The young people showed a real awareness and understanding of the debates that have taken place around Free School Meal provision and hunger, led by Marcus Rashford. It must be recognised that young people are not only affected by this issue, but as the groups NCS have shown, they are also committed to working practically to do something about this.

After the presentations the group of dragons had some time to talk about the pitches and consider the feedback that we gave to the young people. We all agreed that they did a brilliant job- particularly with the challenges of presenting virtually! We gave them some hints and tips on next steps for the projects including how to promote them, which organisations they should get in touch with for donations, and things that they might need to consider such as timelines and contingency planning if COVID restrictions meant that any of their planned activities could not go ahead. The young people shared their thoughts on how they found taking part in the ‘Dragon’s Den’:

“I found the feedback useful as it provided problems we would face before beginning the project” – Ethan

“I liked the feedback as it helped us improve our projects” – Katie

“I do business and it helps me understand how to present a piece of work similar to what you do within jobs. It helped me develop team skills as we worked as a team to create the presentation” – Eve

“It was entertaining and valuable getting teamwork experience as well as learning how to improve presentation skills” – Lamar


It was really great to be a ‘dragon’ for the morning. In spite of all the challenges that 2020 and the pandemic has thrown up our young people continue to show resilience, creativity, and an unwavering enthusiasm to make a difference to their communities. With all of the current uncertainty it is vital that opportunities for our young people to be heard, and make a positive contribution to issues that matter to them, are protected.

As the North East sees the UK’s biggest rise in child poverty levels outside London, Francesca Hogg, our Poverty Proofing Practice Adviser, explains why it’s time all schools were poverty proofed


End Child Poverty has just released new research showing the extent of child poverty over the past four years. Shockingly, the North East has seen the UK’s largest increase in child poverty since 2014/15, rising from 26 per cent to 35 per cent which means that, after London, the region has the highest rate of child poverty in the UK.

This is of huge concern, given these statistics do not take into account the disastrous impact that Covid-19 has had on family finances. However, we have already seen unemployment in the region rise to 6.6 per cent in August 2020*, making it the highest rate in the country, so it is reasonable to assume that Covid-19 will mean more families struggling to stay afloat and those families that were already in poverty prior to Covid-19, being pulled deeper into poverty.

These rising levels of poverty, a result of the structures within our society, will have had an impact on children’s health and wellbeing, but we also need to be asking, how does it affect their participation in school life?

In a classroom of 30 children, there will be an average of nine children living in poverty and through our Poverty Proofing the School Day programme, we know that living in poverty means turning up at school with an empty stomach and not being able to afford school uniform costs. It means events like non-uniform day become far from fun and the simple homework activity of making a volcano becomes unattainable.

“As a charity, our mission is to ensure ALL children and young people grow up to be healthy and happy, so it is our duty at Children North East to support children and their families so they can fully participate in the school day.

These shocking statistics, mean that now more than ever, our work is vital.”


Through our Poverty Proofing the School Day programme, we work with schools across the country to explore barriers to learning that children in poverty face. We help and support schools to further the excellent work that they do and explore what the school day looks like from the perspective of the poorest child in their school.

This leads to small, practical changes to policies and everyday practices, so that all children and young people can enjoy and participate in the learning and fun that school offers.

Given that Covid-19 has presented additional challenges, it’s more important than ever that we understand and have an awareness of the full impacts that poverty can have on children and young people. Therefore, we have adapted our programme to be delivered online and to explore barriers specific to Covid-19. So I’d urge schools to get in touch with us about how we can support you to overcome barriers to participation for children and young people in your school.  For more information, get in touch with us at or visit our website at

ONS (2020)

A lot of people are giving themselves a really hard time right now:
“Why am I not coping better?”
“I have a lot to be grateful for, I shouldn’t be feeling low”
“I should be doing something productive”
“People have it much worse than me”

Right now you are experiencing a change in life that came suddenly and unexpectedly. Like all change this brings loss – loss of connection, freedom and even safety- the list goes on.

We are grieving for what we have lost.

Even if there are positive changes, we should not ignore the losses which have brought pain and struggle. Can you imagine saying any of the things above to someone who was grieving the loss of a loved one? Then why say it to yourself?

Even with the knowledge that this will pass eventually, it can be exhausting.

“And yet somehow, you marvellous human being, you have found a way to carry on through all of it.”


So keep going whatever way you can.

Instead of telling yourself off for not being able to meet unrealistic goals, praise yourself for how much you have adapted too. Give your self breaks, rest and do what you need to to feel connected to others.

DO NOT belittle yourself.

You are doing an incredible job and we ALL need kindness right now.

Christmas is a wonderful time for school children, but we must be careful to guard against inadvertently stigmatising poorer pupils says LORNA NICOLL, our School Research and Delivery Practitioner in this seasonal blog:

I can’t believe that Christmas is just around the corner.  The planning might be different this year but necessary all the same. In this, schools are no different, with Christmas Fairs, Nativities and dinners all being important events.  But in all of this, have we truly considered the impact for those families living in poverty?

Social media has highlighted a fascinating and important initiative from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).  Clusters of schools in the North West compared data, identifying that attendance dips on Christmas Jumper day as well as at other times of the year.  The project emphasises the importance of looking for trends and patterns, not just within individual schools, but from a broader viewpoint.  This is a key message and one that we highlight regularly as part of our work.

Whilst there will be a lot to unpick from the ASCL project and we look forward to hearing more as it goes along, I want to pick up the discussion about fundraising events within schools. Christmas Jumper Day is the tip of the iceberg at what for many of us is the most expensive time of year.  There can be Christmas parties to dress up and provide food for, Christmas Fairs where families purchase handmade items from their children, cards to be sent via the school postbox, gifts to celebrate our teachers, sometimes there are plays to buy outfits for, or a charge for families to attend a Christmas concert and the time they need to take off work (not necessarily paid for, nor possible) not to mention the Secret Santas, Advent activities and Santa visits.

The common thread in this is that all of these activities are great, but do they add additional burdens to families who have less money?  What can schools do to support families? We constantly examine this through our Poverty Proofing the School Day work and have seen some excellent examples of practice that makes sure all children can participate. For example:

  • Publishing a fixed calendar of events of everything that incurs a potential cost for each year group or time off work for parents.  By looking at it through the eyes of your families – what’s it like for the parent or carer with children in Reception and Year 3? Years 7 and 9? What about those with siblings in other schools?
  • Having a central point for families to drop off any donations to charity events/fundraisers such as food banks.  This means it’s not possible to know who has or has not made a donation. Bear in mind some of your families might end up receiving some of these donations too.
  • Collecting money discreetly such as having a drop box by the classroom door.
  • Giving parents information about where to make a donation outside of school, for example, a JustGiving page, charity website, or text to donate number through a platform such as Donr.
  • Having a family donation system whereby not all siblings need make a donation.
  • Decorating accessories in school for all students rather than having dressing up days.
  • Creating a school salon for pupils to get ‘big’ hair rather than asking pupils to dress up at home.
  • Enterprise activities where students are given money to make products or arrange services could be sold at local fairs or markets or alternatively, use a token system whereby all students can be given one to make a purchase.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against celebrations nor having fun, in fact I love them. Nor am I saying that we shouldn’t fundraise – charities need and deserve our support.  But having worked with hundreds of schools and hearing pupils talk about their experiences, inclusion is key to a feeling of belonging.  Being different is hard for so many. Schools bring communities together, we rely on them for so much more than learning to read, write and be numerate.  We see this so much more clearly with the pandemic. So as you plan your Christmas celebrations – think about the impact for those that have less money.

NB: At Children North East we explore these issues and many more through our Poverty Proofing Covid-19 Response.  Working with schools across the UK, it is delivered remotely and includes in-depth staff training, pupil & SLT consultation and feedback.  For more details contact

There has been a lot of discussion lately about ‘getting back to normal’, or ‘the new normal’.  As my period of furlough comes to an end and my return to work approaches, I’ve been thinking about what normality looked like for many families before the emergence of Covid-19 and more importantly whether or not returning to ‘normal’ is something that we should be striving for.  I really do think it’s time to consider what we want our society to look like, and in some respects Covid-19 has provided us with this opportunity.

I guess the first thing to think about is: what does normal mean?  What was life like for children and families in the UK before lockdown began?  What was their ‘normal’?  For some, it will have been a time of freedom, of opportunity and of choice; a time of regular visits to family and friends, days out, and trips to the shops.  There will be a yearning to return to this way of life.

“However, for too many it is clear that even before the emergence of Covid-19 life was not like this at all.  Statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions show that 4.2 million children in the UK are currently growing up in poverty, a situation which can only have been worsened by the economic impact of Covid-19.”


Furthermore, three million children in the UK were identified as being at risk of holiday hunger – not having enough to eat during the school holidays – and 700,000 children do not have proper internet access.  For these families ‘normal’ is the perpetual, daily choice between whether to feed their children or have the heating on when it is cold outside.  For these families, there is no yearning to return to some blissful, pre-Covid way of life.  There is no wistful nostalgia about better times, only a potential return to the treading of water that for too many families comprises day-to-day life in the UK.

As we look at what we might wish to avoid returning to, we should also consider which aspects of lockdown life we would like to retain.  Within education policy there have been steps in the right direction that must continue and that must be protected.


“For the first time there has been a Government led effort to ensure that all children have had enough to eat during the Easter and May school holidays, and we cannot return to a time where this is not seen as a priority.”


We have also seen the Government agreeing to provide laptops for some vulnerable students to access online learning, acknowledging the digital divide that is a barrier for many children and young people.  Although there is a lot more work to be done, these small steps in the right direction must not be reversed.  We cannot and should not want to return to a time of parents missing meals in order to feed their children and pupils missing out on learning opportunities and socialisation with friends because of a lack of internet access.  The welfare of ‘disadvantaged children’ has been central to discussions in regard to wider school opening, and we need to ensure that the needs and welfare of these children remain at the heart of all policy making as we return to our usual way of life.

As a society that has shown extra care and compassion for each other at this difficult time, we must ensure this continues as we move to the ‘new normal’.  At a time of phenomenally rapid invention and change, and with businesses, organisations and schools adapting constantly to new guidance, we have to keep asking ourselves the key question:

“What do we want to leave behind in the pre-Covid society, and what do we want to keep and take forward with us to ensure that all of our children grow up to be healthy and happy?  The moment we stop asking that question is the moment we start to go back to ‘normal’ – a normal that for too many families and children is defined by hardship, hunger and heartbreaking poverty.”

With pre-pandemic child poverty already at unacceptable levels and more families falling into the poverty trap due to COVID-19, never has our Poverty Proofing the School Day work been more relevant.

The release of Child Poverty Action Group’s ‘The Cost of Learning in Lockdown – family experiences of school closures’  a report of the survey of 3,600 parents and carers, gives us extremely useful insight into what life has been like for those living on low incomes during the pandemic.

Inequalities widened

Many schools have not closed during lockdown and continue to pour time and resources into educating all pupils and students in new ways.  However, many educators, researchers and decision-makers are seriously concerned that inequalities are being exacerbated by the pandemic. Most children have not attended school since the end of March and for them, home schooling has become the new norm. However, as the CPAG survey highlights, too many families are struggling to provide support, not because they do not want to, but because they are unable to.

Around a third of all families who responded said that they were enjoying learning at home, and these families were much less likely to report having money worries or lacking the resources they needed. Families who were worried about money were more likely to say they found it difficult to continue their children’s education at home.

In the survey, 40% of low-income families reported they were missing at least one essential resource to support their children’s learning – one third of the families who are most worried about money have had to buy a laptop, tablet or other device. It is fantastic that money has been made available to resource this but devices need to get to the right students NOW!

Here at Children North East, we have been able to support some pupils with laptops thanks to the generous donations of individuals and businesses. However, we would still like to do more.

There is also a call for more support for children and parents during current and future disruptions to school life – alternatives to free school meals must continue over the summer break as the report was completed before the successful #HolidaysWithoutHunger campaigning of Marcus Rashford, amongst others, to ensure that Free School Meals continue throughout the summer holidays.

Need for dignity

Of course, there is the wider question as to why, in a society that values compassion, children are allowed to go hungry. And there are also more practical questions as to how can we ensure that all children now eligible for Free School Meals are registered and how to ensure that the delivery of this service is done in a dignified way that does not identify those in receipt of them. Looking back to our own school days, we know all too well the stigma that is too often attached to being a recipient of free school meals.

Adapting and building upon our work over the past five years, the survey has helped form our Poverty the Proofing the School Day COVID-19 response. Having poverty proofed hundreds of schools, we know the impact of our work. Our new streamlined, cost-effective version by no means replaces a full audit, but it does provide schools remotely with a powerful tool to identify key issues within their communities and offer solutions that do not inadvertently highlight or exclude those on low incomes. It’s about ensuring schools are fully inclusive.

For more information please contact myself, Lorna Nicoll, at

Our news story about the CPAG/Children North East report is here