Mitigating the impacts of poverty on educational attainment
As part of our 2021-2022 annual report (Estyn, 2022), we published an overview of the work of providers that were particularly effective at tackling the impact of poverty and disadvantage on their learners. This year, we expand on that overview by providing further examples of strong practice and also highlighting what needs to improve overall.
Mitigating the impact of poverty on children’s educational attainment continues to be a significant challenge in Wales and remains a Welsh Government priority (Welsh Government, 2022). Children and their families are considered to be living in relative income poverty if the household’s total income is less than 60% of the median average UK household income (after housing costs). A recent Welsh Government report found that around 28% of children were living in relative income poverty during the three-financial-year period ending April 2022 (Welsh Government, 2023a).
A review of UK poverty research conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests that, in general, there is a gap in educational attainment by parental income level, which continues throughout different stages of a child’s education (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2023, p. 107). This report suggests a 27-percentage point attainment gap between pupils aged 16 eligible for free-school meals and those not eligible in Wales (p. 109). They indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic generally widened the attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged pupils in the UK, as a result of factors such as digital divide, varied home learning environments and potentially deepening poverty (p. 111).
The Welsh Government is prioritising the need to address socio-economic inequality. This is strengthened by the Socio-economic Duty (Welsh Government, 2020), which came into force on 31 March 2021 and makes addressing the impact of poverty a statutory duty for local authorities.
What’s going well
Our inspection work provides an insight into providers’ approaches to tackling poverty and inequality. Our evidence from inspections in 2022-2023 showed clearly that strong leadership, where leaders understood the challenges, identified appropriate actions and evaluated their effectiveness, was key to mitigating the impact of poverty on attainment.
Effective leaders demonstrated that:
- Their clear, inclusive vision set tackling poverty as a key priority. Their vision was based on inclusivity and the need to address inequity. For example, leaders at Blackwood Comprehensive School developed their vision of a nurturing and aspirational learning environment in which pupils and staff feel safe and supported, and where they strive to succeed.
- Effective, collaborative decision-making recognised the importance of working in partnership with parents to overcome barriers to learning. For example, leaders and staff members at Borthyn V.C. Primary School, Denbighshire, cultivated strong relationships with parents and the community to support pupils to become aspirational and ambitious learners. This helped most pupils, including those with additional learning needs, to make strong progress in their learning across the curriculum. Leaders at Camau cyntaf – Cylch Meithrin Rhydyfelin, Pontypridd, operated an open-door policy and practitioners worked very effectively with parents. Parents felt confident to turn to staff members at any time to ask for advice. The involvement of all staff and the strong relationships with wider stakeholders meant that tackling poverty and removing barriers to learning was everyone’s business. This was also evident at schools that adopted a community school approach and worked collaboratively with a range of agencies. For example, leaders at the Western Learning Federation Riverbank Special School, Cardiff, worked purposefully with a range of partners and carers. This work was supported by the school family liaison officer who provided sensitive help and advice across a range of areas. This contributed positively towards mitigating the impact of poverty both on pupils’ wellbeing and their attainment.
- They knew their communities well, enabling them to target their funding effectively. For example, Markham Primary School, Blackwood, employed a pupil and family support worker who effectively established and embedded a comprehensive programme of parental and family engagement. The school also secured the involvement of a wide range of relevant agencies as well as members of the local community.
- They reduced barriers to learning effectively and maximised the learning opportunities for children and young people. For example, Bridgend’s adult learning in the community partnership ensured that nearly all tutors took account of learners’ responsibilities and commitments beyond the classroom which could act as barriers to their learning. Similarly, Rhondda Cynon Taf used its youth service effectively to support young people in their schools and in their communities across the local authority’s areas of greatest need. These included communities that had few local facilities.
- Care was taken to consider the financial costs to parents of their child’s participation at school. For example, at Llwydcoed Primary School, Aberdare, leaders were working thoughtfully with external agencies, such as the Child Poverty Action Group, to audit school provision and identify and address areas for improvement. As a result, the changes made to school practice helped to mitigate the impact of poverty on learners’ attainment and well-being. Similarly, at Greenhill Special School, Cardiff, leaders made certain that family finances did not become a barrier to learning by introducing initiatives such as schoolfunded trips. This contributed to improvements in pupils’ engagement and motivation to learn.
- Grant funding was targeted appropriately to support children and young people who were eligible for free school meals or were from low-income households. They allocated resources carefully to meet the needs of all pupils of all abilities and recognised the intersectionality of the impact of poverty on pupil attainment. For example, at Idris Davies School, Abertysswg, which is an amalgamation of two primary schools and one secondary school, leaders approached national priorities positively, particularly in relation to tackling the effect of poverty. Leaders planned purposeful strategies to raise the aspirations of pupils in low-income families from an early age. Leaders made effective use of grants, including the pupil development grant (PDG). This contributed positively to the opportunities for pupils from low-income families to access experiences that financial constraints would otherwise prevent.
- The effects of provision and grant spending were carefully monitored to ensure that they were having the desired impact, with adjustments made if needed. For example, at Adamsdown Primary School, Cardiff, monitoring and evaluation procedures were robust and leaders had a clear picture of pupils’ strengths as well as any barriers to learning. This enabled the school to provide bespoke support for pupils eligible for free school meals, which helped to minimise the impact of poverty on pupil attainment and achievement.
- There were high expectations of all children and young people regardless of their backgrounds, and the school recognised the importance of high-quality teaching and learning to enable all young people to achieve. For example, at Coedcae Secondary School, Llanelli, teachers had a detailed understanding of pupils’ individual needs. This, together with a comprehensive extra-curricular offer and a wide range of subject choices, ensured that pupils had access to engaging activities that catered well to their individual needs and interests.
- They targeted professional learning appropriately. For example, at Ysgol Gynradd Pontyberem, Llanelli, school leaders had established a comprehensive programme of professional learning to help staff members support children suffering from trauma, and to support the wider well-being of pupils.
- Early intervention and effective support were in place. For example, Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council used a wide range of approaches to help mitigate the effects of poverty in pre-school and children’s early years in education. This began before birth with support for mothers-to-be by, for example, encouraging healthy eating and developing budgeting skills.
- They prioritised and considered the impact of poverty regardless of the area or the school’s socio-economic circumstances. For example, Sketty Primary School, Swansea, adopted a community focused approach to tackling the impact of poverty on attainment. As a result, most pupils, including those eligible for free school meals or from low-income families, made strong progress from their individual starting points.
What needs to improve
In order to effectively mitigate against the adverse effects of poverty, there remained aspects of work that needed to improve.
- Leaders did not evaluate the impact of work to address the effects of poverty on educational attainment well enough. For example, whilst most schools planned their use of grants such as the PDG appropriately, they did not evaluate the impact of their use on educational attainment sufficiently well.
- In general, providers did not make enough use of research evidence to ensure that they planned appropriate provision to address the impact of poverty on attainment. As a result, very few schools sufficiently considered the impact of teaching arrangements, such as pupil groupings, on pupil attainment.
- Local authorities, regions, schools and other providers did not focus professional learning on mitigating the impact of poverty on educational attainment well enough. In a minority of schools and settings, leaders did not target professional learning effectively enough to enable all staff to address the impact of poverty on attainment.
- Leaders did not always carefully consider the financial costs for families of fully participating in school. They did not consider well enough how effective teaching could reduce the impact of poverty. They did not ensure that all barriers to learning had been minimised as far as possible.
- Local authorities did not support schools to gain a better understanding of their communities sufficiently well. In a minority of schools and settings, leaders did not know their communities well enough. Leaders in these schools did not have sufficient information to enable them to plan effective support for pupils, including those from low-income households or eligible for free school meals.
- The attendance of pupils eligible for free school meals or from low-income households needed to improve. Nationally, attendance during the 2022-2023 academic year was worse among pupils eligible for free school meals than for those not eligible (Welsh Government, 2023c). The proportion of sessions missed among secondary school age pupils was 20.6% for pupils who were eligible for free school meals and 10.2% for those not eligible (Welsh Government, 2023b). This gap widened substantially following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic; see our key theme on attendance and attitudes to learning for further details.
Estyn (2022) HMCI Annual Report 2021-2022. Cardiff: Welsh Government. [Online]. Available from: https://www.estyn.gov.wales/system/files/2023-10/Estyn-HMCI-Annual-Report-2021-2022-A1.pdf [Accessed 13 November 2023]
Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2023) UK Poverty 2023: The essential guide to understanding poverty in the UK. England: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. [Online]. Available from: https://www.jrf.org.uk/work/uk-poverty-2023-the-essential-guide-to-understanding-poverty-in-the-uk [Accessed 15 December 2023]
Welsh Government (2020) The Socio-economic Duty: guidance and resources for public bodies. Cardiff: Welsh Government. [Online]. Available from: https://www.gov.wales/socio-economic-duty [Accessed 13 November 2023]
Welsh Government (2022) Child poverty strategy: 2022 progress report. Cardiff: Welsh Government. [Online]. Available from: https://www.gov.wales/sites/default/files/pdf-versions/2024/1/1/1705936422/child-poverty-strategy-2015-2022-progress-report.pdf [Accessed 16 November 2023]
Welsh Government (2023a) Relative income poverty: April 2021 to March 2022. Cardiff: Welsh Government. [Online]. Available from: https://www.gov.wales/sites/default/files/pdf-versions/2023/3/4/1679567757/relative-income-poverty-april-2021-march-2022.pdf [Accessed 13 November 2023]
Welsh Government (2023b) Absenteeism from secondary schools: September 2022 to August 2023. Cardiff: Welsh Government. [Online]. Available from: https://www.gov.wales/sites/default/files/pdf-versions/2023/10/4/1697704660/absenteeism-secondary-schools-september-2022-august-2023-revised.pdf [Accessed 13 November 2023]
Welsh Government (2023c) Attendance of pupils in maintained schools: 5 September 2022 to 24 July 2023. Cardiff: Welsh Government. [Online]. Available from: https://www.gov.wales/attendance-pupils-maintained-schools-5-september-2022-24-july-2023 [Accessed 13 November 2023]