How to poverty proof Christmas in schools

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