What is Poverty?


This appendix is meant to be read in conjunction with the Poverty Proofing the School Day report and action plan you have been sent. In it, we cover the following topics:

  • What is poverty?
  • How does poverty affect different socio-demographic groups?
  • Poverty and education
  • Poverty Proofing© and Ofsted
  • The consequences of poverty on health, housing, education and employment

We also provide a list of references you can consult for further reading about any of these topics.

What is Poverty?

Government statistics from March 2020 show that there are approximately 4.3 million children living in poverty in the UK today. This is around 31% of all children in the United Kingdom. [1] This is not set to improve, as forecasts suggest that by 2022, 5.2 million children in the UK will be living in poverty, the highest since modern record keeping began. [2] All of these statistics are based on data that we have before the emergence of the pandemic, whilst the full impact has not yet fully been researched or understood preliminary predictions from the IPPR estimate that an additional 200,000 children will fall in to poverty as a result of Covid-19. [3] In schools, poverty is often equated with children and young people in receipt of Free School Meals and Pupil Premium. While this is a superficially useful indicator, we know that many children and young people trapped in poverty are not eligible for, or in receipt of, Free School Meals or Pupil Premium. As a result, this project utilises a broader definition of poverty that seeks to understand the ways in which poverty is experienced at school and how it restricts children and young people’s opportunities to flourish.

A more useful definition of poverty, and one that Poverty Proofing© has adopted, is therefore:

“Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities, and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged and approved, in the societies to which they belong. Their resources are so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are, in effect, excluded from ordinary patterns, customs and activities.” [4] Peter Townsend

In other words, being in the grip of poverty means that children – and their parents – have to go without things that everyone should be able to have in a decent society. At present, our economy is locking families into poverty by restricting their options and presenting them with impossible decisions, such as choosing between heating their home and putting food on the table. More than seventy percent of children living in poverty live in a household where at least one parent works, [5] largely because low paid, temporary, or insecure jobs are often not enough to provide a sufficient income. This, combined with rising living costs, a lack of affordable housing, and ongoing reforms to the benefits system means that families are facing difficult situations and are restricted in their ability to access basic amenities and participate in social life.

Whilst the full effects of Covid-19 are yet to be understood, findings indicate low-income households and families have been disproportionately affected by the crisis. Research from the Standard Life foundation found that within the first three weeks of the UK lockdown, an estimated 7 million households (a quarter of all households in the UK) had lost either a substantial part or all of their earned income as a consequence of the Covid-19 crisis. Families with children, and lone parents were most impacted with 42% experiencing serious financial difficulty or struggling to make ends meet, compared to 24% of other households. [6] For those families experiencing financial difficulties prior to Covid-19 the effects of the pandemic are likely to push them deeper into poverty.

How does poverty affect different socio-demographic groups?

Anyone can be affected by poverty and life changes such as unemployment, illness or family separation can happen to us all. Increasing costs, especially for essentials such as food, housing and fuel, affect most people. However, there are some groups that are much more at risk of being in cpag.org.uk poverty including minority ethnic groups, lone parents and working families [7] as well as the disabled [8], and those with caring responsibilities [9].

What is Poverty

What is Poverty

Poverty and Education

Despite the wider economy’s role in locking people into poverty, we often hope – perhaps even expect – that our schools can address or compensate for this situation. However, research overwhelmingly shows that there is a significant gap in attainment between disadvantaged and nondisadvantaged pupils at every stage of their education. At the end of Primary School poor pupils are over nine months behind their peers in reading, writing and maths. [10] Students eligible for Free School Meals are half as likely to achieve a good pass at GCSE in English and Maths in comparison to other students. [11] Moreover, the Education Policy Institute has recently reported that progress to eradicate the attainment gap has stalled and is beginning to increase again. [12] This, all prior to Covid-19 school closures, which the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) predicts is likely to reverse almost a decade’s worth of progress in closing the attainment gap between children in poverty and their more affluent peers [13] . Findings from the ‘Cost of learning in lockdown [14] report show that 40% of lowincome families reported missing at least one essential resource to support their children’s learning at home during Covid-19 school closures. Furthermore, one third of the families who were most worried about money had to buy a laptop, tablet or other equipment and were more likely to say they found it difficult to continue their children’s education at home.

Despite all of this, schools can act as the key to loosening poverty’s hold on children and young people. All organisations, including schools, have a responsibility to get behind the changes that can solve poverty by showing compassion to each other and looking out for those that are going through a difficult time. Our education system does not have to mirror the society and economy within which it is situated. On the contrary, if we can ensure that policy and practice in schools is orientated towards challenging and removing the restraints that poverty places on people, we can begin to move towards a more just society that is inclusive, non-discriminatory, and which ensures equity of opportunity for all.

Poverty Proofing the School Day was developed by children, young people and teachers to help schools better understand the ways that they can do this. It is based on the guiding principle that:

All activity and planned activity in schools should not identify, exclude, treat differently or make assumptions about those children whose household income or resources are lower than others.


Poverty Proofing the School Day aims to support schools to identify and overcome the barriers to learning faced by children and young people from families with fewer financial resources. This process is about schools reflecting on their day-to-day practice to reduce the stigma and discrimination pupils’ face, with the aim of ensuring that all pupils can participate fully in all aspects of school life. While the causes of poverty can be attributed to our economy schools have a crucial role to play in supporting children, young people and their families to loosen the grip that poverty has on them.

Poverty Proofing© and Ofsted

Schools have been given the Pupil Premium to target support to children and young people in order to improve outcomes. Schools are free to spend the funding in the best interests of children, but will be judged and held accountable for closing the gap. This is an increasing Ofsted priority. The latest Ofsted handbook makes it explicitly clear that schools ‘can powerfully address social disadvantage.’ [15] There are a number of aspects of the new Ofsted framework which Poverty Proofing© is able to support, both in terms of providing evidence and also giving the school some suggested development actions.

In the ‘Quality of Education’ chapter of the School Inspection Handbook there is an emphasis on the breadth of curriculum that all pupils, but particularly disadvantaged pupils, have access to. Ofsted is also keen to explore schools’ curriculum intent, more specifically ‘how the intended curriculum will address social disadvantage by addressing gaps in pupils knowledge and skills.’ [16] The ‘Personal Development’ Ofsted requirements can also be linked to Poverty Proofing©. Ofsted has stated that: ‘schools are crucial in preparing pupils for their adult lives, teaching them to understand how to engage with society and providing them with plentiful opportunities to do so.’ [17] Linked to curriculum intent and personal development is the notion of cultural capital, another central aspect of the audit process. Ofsted are not only looking to see what opportunities are available for pupils, but also which pupils access them and if the opportunities really are for all. This is a core component of the Poverty Proofing© ethos. This report contains detailed information on the opportunities the school provides for pupils and also identifies potential next steps. Poverty Proofing© is all about how schools addresses social disadvantage, what they are doing well, and how they could improve, and therefore supports schools in working towards the demands of the new framework.

The sub-headings for each area of the report provide a more detailed explanation as to what will be discussed in each thematic area, including how these areas are linked to the Ofsted framework.

Consequences of Poverty

Righting the wrong of child poverty is crucial because it has devastating effects for children (not just in their childhood but in their adult life as well), their families and for society more generally.


Poverty has a significant impact on children’s health. These health inequalities are present from birth, and there are more babies born with low birthweights in more deprived areas than those born in less deprived areas. [18] Birthweights of children born in deprived areas are on average 200g less than those born in more affluent areas. [19] Low birthweight has been linked to increased health problems in later life. [20] Infant mortality levels in deprived areas of England are also nearly twice as high as in more affluent areas. [21] cpag.org.uk

Startling health inequalities continue throughout childhood and can be observed over a large number of key health indicators. Not only are incidences of chronic illness such as asthma more common in children growing up in poverty, the impact of these illnesses on children’s lives seems to be greater among poor children. [22] Poor children are more likely to experience emergency hospital admissions. [23] In England’s most deprived areas, over 41% of children are overweight or obese compared to 24% in the most affluent areas. [24]

Research has shown that poverty has a significant impact on life expectancy, in particular healthy life expectancy. [25] Men in the most deprived areas live on average 18 years less in ‘good’ health compared to men in the least deprived areas; for women they gap is even wider at nearly 20 years. [26] Those who live in less deprived areas spend about a sixth of their life in poor health, compared to nearly a third for those in more deprived areas. [27]

In addition to physical health, research shows that poverty and growing up in poverty affects mental health. The Social Mobility Commission concluded that: ‘people who live in more deprived areas typically have lower life satisfaction scores, are less likely to think that the things they do are worthwhile, less likely to feel happy yesterday, and are more likely to be anxious.’ [28] Suicide rates are also higher in deprived areas than more affluent areas. [29]

23% of parents with children under eighteen reported skipping meals in order to make ends meet and feed their children. [30]

During Covid-19, it was estimated that five million people in the UK, living in households with children under 18, experienced food insecurity and 200,000 children had to skip meals because their family couldn’t access sufficient food during lockdown. [31]

The number of people accessing food banks has substantially increased in recent years, with more than 2.5 million emergency food parcels being distributed by the Trussell Trust in the 12 months prior to April 2021. Of these, almost 1 million were provided for children. [32]

During April 2020 the Trussell Trust reported an 89% increase in emergency food parcel demand compared to the same month last year, including a 107% rise in parcels given to children. [33]

It is estimated that 3 million children in the UK are at risk of suffering from ‘holiday hunger’. [34]


Children who live in poverty are more likely to live in bad housing. They are a third more likely to suffer respiratory problems such as chest problems, breathing difficulties, asthma, and bronchitis than other children. [35]

Many families living in poverty struggle to keep their home warm enough. Households with children under 10 are a significantly greater risk of suffering from fuel poverty than adult only households. [36] A cold home exacerbates underlying healthy conditions and can affect weight gain in babies in young children, impacts negatively on children’s mental health, educational attainment and attendance at school and increases feelings of helplessness. [37]

Over one third of people living in the UK and over half of 18 to 24 year olds have had to go without hygiene or grooming essentials or cut down on them due to lack of funds. [38]

People who live in poverty are more likely to be the victim of a crime. The most deprived areas in England have a much higher rate of reported crimes (26.2 per 1,000) compared to those in the least deprived areas (15.3 per 1,000). [39]

Nearly two-thirds of all children in the UK – were living in families with savings less than the average monthly income (£1,569). More than half of all children live in families with no savings at all. [40]

Education and Employment

There is a strong stigma attached to living in poverty and poor children are often bullied at school.41 Not wanting to appear poor means that a lot of children who are entitled to Free School Meals don’t actually take them and poor families will often go without other items to protect their children from this stigma. [42]

Poverty also affects children’s friendships at school with children growing up in poverty more likely to play alone, fall out with their friends and less likely to talk to their friends about their worries. [43]

Only one in eight children from low income backgrounds will become a ‘high earner’ when they are adults. [44] The UK has very low ‘social mobility’ which is sometimes expressed as ‘poor children grow up to be poor adults’.

It has been estimated that 20% of the nation’s schools budget is spent on tackling issues associated with poverty. [45]

There is an ‘attainment gap’ between pupils who receive Free School Meals and those pupils that don’t receive Free School Meals. By the end of reception, 45% of pupils eligible for Free School Meals did not achieve a good level of development in 2019 in comparison to 26% of those not eligible. [46]

In 2019, 71% of pupils eligible for Free School Meals reached the required standard for the phonics check compared to 84% of non-Free School Meals pupils. [47] Furthermore, in 2019, 51% of pupils in Key Stage Two who were eligible for Pupil Premium achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, compared to 71% of non-Pupil Premium students – a gap of 20%. [48]

The attainment gap persists for pupils throughout secondary school. In 2019, the average Attainment 8 score of pupils eligible for Pupil Premium was 40.2, compared to an average score of 53.7 for pupils not eligible for Pupil Premium. [49] Thirty percent of pupils eligible for Free School Meals achieved a pass (grades 9-5) in Maths and English in comparison to 57% of non-Pupil Premium pupils.

By age 19 over 50% of disadvantaged students leave schools without at least a level two qualification in English and Maths, compared to just 25% of non-disadvantaged students. [50]

Students that are persistently disadvantaged (have been eligible for Free School Meals for at least 80% of their time at school) are on average 22.6 months behind their better off peers by the end of secondary school. [51]

In general, the poorest students are four times more likely to be permanently excluded from school than their peers. [52]

Even with the same qualifications disadvantaged students are 50% more likely to be Not in Education, Employment, or Training (NEET). [53]

Young people who have grown up in poverty and attend university have a 33% higher dropout rate than those that didn’t. [54]

Those that graduate with a degree are still more likely to be unemployed than their better off peers, and graduates who were eligible for Free School Meals at school are paid on average 11.5% less than their peers with the same qualifications. [55]

People with a poorer background are often paid less than those that grew up in more comfortable circumstances. Twenty seven percent of people from a working-class background are paid below the voluntary living wage, in comparison to 17% of those with an advantaged background. [56]


[1] Department for Work and Pensions (2021) Households below average income: for financial years ending 1995 to 2020.
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[2] Institute for Fiscal Studies (2017) Living standards, poverty and inequality in the UK: 2017–18 to 2021–22. [online] Available
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[3] IPPR, Estimating Impacts of Coronavirus Pandemic. [Online] Available at: <https://www.ippr.org/files/2020-06/estimatingpoverty-impacts-of-coronavirus.pdf> [Last accessed 29/07/2021]

[4] Townsend, P. (1979) Poverty in the United Kingdom. [online] Available at: <http://www.poverty.ac.uk/free-resourcesbooks/poverty-united-kingdom> [Last accessed 29/07/2021] p.31.

[5] Department for Work and Pensions, Households below average income (note 1).

[6] Standard Life Foundation (2020) Coronavirus Financial Impact Tracker. [online] Available at:
<https://www.standardlifefoundation.org.uk/en/our-work/publications/april-2020> [Last accessed 29/07/2021]

[7] Child Poverty Action Group (2020) Child Poverty facts and figures. [online] Available at: https://cpag.org.uk/childpoverty/child-poverty-facts-and-figures [Last accessed 29/07/2021]

[8] Child Poverty Action Group (2020) Who is at risk of poverty? [online] Available at: <https://cpag.org.uk/child-poverty/whorisk-poverty > [Last accessed 29/07/2021]

[9] Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2020) UK Poverty 2020/21 [online] Available at: < https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/uk-poverty2020-21> [Last accessed 29/07/2021]

[10] Hutchinson, J; Bonetti, S; Crenna-Jennings, W. and Akhal, A. (2019) Education in England: Annual Report [of the Education Policy Institute] 2019. [online] Available at: <https://epi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/EPI-Annual-Report-2019.pdf> [Last accessed 30/07/2021]

[11] Department for Education (2019) Key stage 4 Performance 2019 (Revised). [online] Available at: <
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[12] Education Policy Institute (2020) Education in England. Annual Report 2020.[online] Available at: <
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[13] Education Endowment Foundation (2020) Impact of school closures on the attainment gap: Rapid Evidence Assessment.
[online] Available at: <https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/EEF_(2020)_-
_Impact_of_School_Closures_on_the_Attainment_Gap.pdf> [Last accessed 30/07/2021]

[14] Child Poverty Action Group (2020) The cost of learning in lockdown family experiences of school closures [online] Available
at: <https://cpag.org.uk/sites/default/files/files/The-cost-of-learning-in-lockdown-UK-FINAL_0.pdf > [Last accessed

[15] Ofsted (2019) School inspection handbook: Handbook for inspecting schools in England under section 5 of the Education
Act 2005. [online] Available at <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/814756/School_inspe
ction_handbook_-_S5_4_July.pdf> [Last accessed 21/08/2019], p.41

[16] See note 9, p.43

[17] See note 9, p.58

[18] Public Health England (2019) Health profile for England, 2018: health of children in the early years. [online] Available at:
<https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/health-profile-for-england-2018/chapter-4-health-of-children-in-the-earlyyears> [Last accessed 30/07/2021]

[19] Tucker, J. (2018) The impact of poverty on child health. [online] Available at: <https://www.rcpch.ac.uk/newsevents/news/impact-poverty-child-health> [Last accessed 30/07/2021]

[20] Nuffield Trust (2021) Low birth weight. [online] Available at: <https://www.nuffieldtrust.org.uk/resource/low-birthweight#background> [Last accessed 30/07/2021]

[21] Office for National Statistics (2021) Infant mortality (birth cohort) tables in England and Wales [online] Available at
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[22] Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (2017) State of Child Health. [online] Available at: <
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[23] Nuffield Trust (2017) Admissions of inequality: emergency hospital use for children and young people [online] Available at:
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[24] Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, (2020) State of Child Health, [online] Available at:
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[25] Office for National Statistics (2021) Health State national life expectancies by deprivation deciles, England: 2017 to 2019
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[26] Ibid.

[27] Public Health England (2018) Health profile for England, 2018: inequalities in health. [online] Available at:
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[28] Social Mobility Commission (2019) Social Mobility in Great Britain- State of the nation 2018-2019. [online] Available at:
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[29] Public Health England (2018) Health profile for England, 2018: wider determinants of health. [online] Available at:
[Last accessed 30/07/2021]

[30] Sustain (2018) 1 in 4 UK parents skipping meals due to lack of money [online] Available at:
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[31] Food Foundation (2020) New Food Foundation Survey: Five Million People Living In Households With Children Have
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[32] Trussell Trust (2019) End of year stats. [online] Available at <https://www.trusselltrust.org/news-and-blog/lateststats/end-year-stats> [Last accessed 30/07/2021]

[33] The Trussell Trust (2020) Summary findings on the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on food banks. [online] Available at:
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[34] APPG Hunger (2019) Hungry Holidays. [online] Available at <https://feedingbritain.org/wpcontent/uploads/2019/01/hungry-holidays-1.pdf> [Last accessed 30/07/2021]

[35] National Energy Action, (2019) Under One Roof. [online] Available at < https://www.nea.org.uk/wpcontent/uploads/2020/11/NEA-Under-One-Roof-FULL-REPORT-FINAL-Feb-19.pdf> [Last accessed 30/07/2021]

[36] Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (2020) Annual Fuel Poverty Statistics Report [online] Available at
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[37] Ibid.

[38] In Kind Direct (2017) Primary School Children in Hygiene Poverty. [online] Available at:
<https://www.inkinddirect.org/primary-school-children-in-hygiene-poverty/> [Last accessed 30/07/2021]

[39] Public Health England, Health profile for England, 2018: inequalities in health. (Note 24).

[40] Action for Children (2020), Most UK children a pay cheque away from going without essentials like food. [Online] Available
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[41] National Education Union and Child Poverty Action Group (2018) Child poverty and education: A survey of the experiences
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[42] Child Poverty Action Group and British Youth Council (2012) Going Hungry? Young people’s experience of free school
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[44] Social Mobility Commission (2016) State of the Nation 2016: Social Mobility in Great Britain. [online] Available at: <
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[45] Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2016) Poverty costs UK £78 billion per year – JRF report. [online] Available at:
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[46] Department for Education (2020) Early years foundation stage profile results: 2018 to 2019 Early years foundation stage
profile results: 2018 to 2019. [online] Available at: <https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/education-skills-andtraining/early-years/attainment-of-development-goals-by-children-aged-4-to-5-years/latest#by-ethnicity-and-eligibility-forfree-school-meals > [Last accessed 30/07/2021]

[47] Department for Education (2019) National curriculum assessments at key stage 1 and phonics screening checks in England, 2019. [online] Available at:
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[48] Department for Education (2019) National curriculum assessments at key stage 2 in England (revised). [online] Available
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[49] Department for Education (2020) Key stage 4 performance, 2020. [online] Available at: <https://explore-educationstatistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/key-stage-4-performance-revised/2019-20> [Last accessed 30/07/2021]

[50] Social Mobility Commission (2019) Social Mobility in Great Britain- State of the nation 2018-2019

[51] Hutchinson, J. et al, Education in England (note 11).

[52] Department for Education (2021) Permanent and fixed period exclusions in England: 2019/20. [online] Available at:
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[53] Impetus (2019) Research Briefing I: Establishing the Employment Gap. [online] Available at:
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[54] Social Mobility Commission (2019) Social Mobility in Great Britain- State of the nation 2018-2019 (note 26).

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid