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Poverty in education across the UK: A comparative analysis of policy and place

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This is an abridged version of the introduction to Poverty in Education Across the UK, edited by the authors. Permission to publish this extract is granted by the publisher.



Poverty and place matter to children’s education (Lupton, 2006; Kerr et al., 2014;). There is consistent international evidence that socio-economic status is the most important factor that influences educational outcomes (Van der Berg, 2008). Poverty blights the lives of children and young people (Ridge, 2009). Research has consistently shown that the most economically disadvantaged pupils across the United Kingdom (UK) have the poorest educational outcomes and that poverty has a pernicious effect on children’s wellbeing (Connelly et al., 2014; Strand, 2014; Sylva et al., 2008; Tomlinson, 2019). The book, Poverty in Education Across the UK, reports findings from the British Educational Research Association (BERA) Commission on Poverty and Policy Advocacy across the four UK jurisdictions of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales (Ivinson et al., 2017, 2018). The authors argue that anxieties about the growing inequality in the UK have to be contextualised historically, geographically and in terms of the distinct political, educational and socio-economic landscapes. The book explores the educational landscapes of poverty across the UK and highlights the importance of policy and place for the wellbeing and educational opportunities and outcomes of young people living in poverty. Chapters consider the implications of place for educational policy and practice of poverty and schooling.

The UK is an increasingly divided nation both in terms of wealth and poverty, and in the educational opportunities for young people living in poverty. Whilst the education systems in Scotland and Wales to some degree reflect jurisdictional commitments to social justice that allow teachers to engage with young people living in poverty, the situation is more complex in England and Northern Ireland. In England, central government pressures of performativity of schools and curriculum control have worked against teachers supporting children in poverty (Ball, 2018), whilst in Northern Ireland continued sectarian problems have perpetuated educational inequality. Poverty in Education Across the UK sheds light on lived experiences of poverty, dominant discourses and respective governments’ extant policies for tackling child poverty.

The book is written by academics from each of the four jurisdictions with both a professional and academic background in education and in-depth knowledge of local and national policies. It addresses the following questions:

  • What can research tell us about the ways that different devolved policy contexts in the UK impact on the learning and well-being of young people living in poverty?
  • How are increasing levels of child poverty playing out in the four UK jurisdictions, in relation to education?
  • How do the different educational policy contexts across the UK, and different educational structures, affect the curriculum and pedagogy across the four jurisdictions?
  • What flexibility do different educational policy contexts allow teachers in engaging with children and young people from marginalised groups, including those who are growing up in poverty?


Children from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are likely to do significantly worse at school in the UK than their relatively more affluent peers (Raffo et al., 2007). Current UK central government austerity policies and pressures of performativity on schools are likely to have exacerbated this inequality. Moreover, the UK is also a divided nation (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010; Thompson, 2017) where localised and spatial patterns of poverty and wealth are closely associated with educational achievement (Dorling, 2015, 2018). The book touches on the changing patterns of childhood and the experience of poverty linked to precarious lives and how this is exacerbated or not depending on local economic conditions and policy frameworks. The book argues that there is a need to understand more precisely how teachers’ understandings of poverty impact on pedagogy (see Ainscow et al., 2012)

Despite the limitations on the powers of the devolved assemblies across the UK jurisdictions, there is still some flexibility for schools in curriculum design and pedagogy, enabling teachers, to different degrees, to connect with the life-worlds of marginalised groups. In England, on the other hand, education policy and practice is largely controlled by central government. Importantly, recent curriculum reforms in England have restricted what is understood by knowledge, or what schools are allowed to teach, and that restriction has disproportionately affected marginalised groups whose cultures, ethnic backgrounds, class or gender mean that they have been given the least support in accessing academic knowledge. This includes children and young people who are growing up in poverty.

Across the jurisdictions there are differences in the ways schools can respond because of the different policy contexts and the different political ideologies at play. Furthermore, the school systems are different across the jurisdictions and this feeds through into the different degrees of flexibility that teachers have in making meaningful connections between academic knowledge and the life-worlds and experiences of children and young people living in poverty. By paying attention to the differences between jurisdictions, and providing a more nuanced picture across the UK, it is possible to see that there is a range of options available for schools to respond to child poverty.


Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. In what ways does your pedagogy respond to poverty?
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  • Ball S (2018) The tragedy of state education in England: Reluctance, compromise and muddle- a system in disarray. Journal of the British Academy 6: 207-238.
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