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Should colleges be lobbying on poverty? - Darren Hankey

19 May 2022

Recently on social media, a so-called influencer posted a picture of herself with the question, “name something money can’t buy?” I don’t know who the person was, following social media influencers is not my thing, but I thought the question was interesting. I did not check any of the responses, but I’m sure they covered things such as health, happiness and living life to the full et cetera - my initial response was “poverty”.

Sadly, poverty seems to have made a return especially to our daily news coverage. Not a day seems to go by without some mention or other of the cost-of-living crisis. I write this piece on the day Elsie’s plight of travelling on buses to keep warm is across the news. The reality, of course, is that poverty has never really gone away. It may drift out of our collective consciousness, but for a significant number of people; poverty is the most salient thing in their lives.

It was five years ago when Theresa May coined the term “just about managing” as the previous years of austerity and a sluggish economy started to have an impact for a lot of people. In 2019, Channel 4’s Dispatches aired a programme called Growing Up Poor: Breadline Kids. The programme highlighted that just over 4 million children were growing up in poverty with 72% of these living in working households.

In June 2020, as the country emerged from the first coronavirus lockdown, England and Manchester United footballer, Marcus Rashford, came to the fore by urging the government to ensure those children in receipt of free school meals (FSM) obtained vouchers to cover the summer months. Rashford received FSM as a child and he was aware of the benefits they provided. Later that year he forced a major government U-turn by ensuring children received FSM throughout the October half-term and Christmas holidays; something the government initially thought unwise.

Fast forward to today and poverty and the cost-of-living crisis have risen-up the agenda in terms of concerns people have and a problem the electorate want the government to tackle. Exacerbated by rising energy, fuel and food prices, foodbank use is on the rise and a phrase we’re now used to hearing is “heating or eating” – this is what made Elsie’s story cut through. News and reports about poverty are aplenty, for example a recent report by Little Village and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted that here, in the North-East, 47% of children live in poverty. This is staggering.

Many of the stock photographs used by the media to depict child poverty focus on school children; predominantly in primary school or in Key Stage 3. No one can disagree that poverty has an impact on these children or with the personal accounts people such as Marcus Rashford give about their childhood. But should we, as colleges and a sector, do more to highlight the impact poverty has not only on our own students but also college finances?

Take meals as an example, colleges receive £2.41-a-day to help feed the most disadvantaged 16-, 17- and 18-year-old students. I don’t think it takes an economist or a restauranteur to work out that this is a measly amount to help feed the nation’s most disadvantaged teenagers. I know many colleges top-up this amount – we do at Hartlepool College of FE – but arguably this is still insufficient and why should we? We do it because that’s what we do as a sector. Regardless of policy-maker diktat, we roll our sleeves up and crack on. But by remaining quiet are we not normalising the fact thousands of young people turn up to colleges up and down the country every day hungry and not in a position to sustain themselves.

Furthermore, poverty and going hungry have an impact on students’ academic performance. Like most colleges, we spend a lot of time with students focusing on the things they can do outside of the college to be a successful student. Myths about studying and learning are shared as are effective study techniques. In addition, good habits such as the requisite hours of sleep, a good diet and regular exercise are also espoused. Arguably, these are the bedrock of optimal academic performance and it goes without saying, if you’re hungry this is going to have an adverse effect.

Similarly, an increase in poverty also adds additional pressures to the other support funds college get to help our most disadvantaged learners. As inflation starts to take hold – something we haven’t seen in over a generation – travel costs, costs for PPE, costs for other pieces of kit have all increased in recent times. The support colleges get has not increased and, in short, this has an impact on college finances. Again, why should we be put in this predicament and remaining quiet goes a long way to normalising the situation.

Some would say that once a young person reaches college-age, they can go and get a part-time job to bring in extra money and that is a reason why child poverty among our students doesn’t gain much traction. On the face of it, this seems like a rationale suggestion until we scratch further and realise a couple of salient points. Firstly, as highlighted above, most young people in poverty live in working households – with regret and despite what policy-makers state, work is not always a route out of poverty. Secondly, opportunities for young people to gain part-time employment have dwindled over the last couple of decades or so and are not evenly spread across the country – this was highlighted in a report by the Institute of Public Policy Research in 2014 called Remember the young ones: Improving career opportunities for Britain's young people. So, the burden falls on colleges to pick up the pieces and is this right?

I’m sure this will have affected students in your college and it’s an issue to which you have given much thought. For me, if we’re serious about “levelling up” and if, “without hesitation, the future is further education” is the mantra du jour and not just another soundbite; then helping colleges tackle the rise of student poverty is a must.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.