School staff acting as counsellors due to cost-of-living crisis 

A new report by NFER has revealed the increased pressures on pupils and their families because of the cost-of-living crisis.

The ‘Cost-of-living crisis: Impact on schools – pupils and families’ report by the research foundation showed that over 90% of primary, secondary and special schools are subsidising extra-curricular activities for pupils. In addition, 70% of schools are reporting providing food to pupils through food parcels, food banks, food vouchers and subsided breakfasts.

More generally, the majority of senior leaders (over 84% across all settings) report that cost-of-living pressures have increased both the numbers of pupils requiring additional support and the level of need, particularly in the most disadvantaged schools.

According to senior leaders, the crisis is also exacerbating well-being and mental health needs among pupils. Over 25% of pupils in mainstream schools needed extra support for mental health and well-being this year, a significant increase from 2022. This is even higher in special schools at over 40%.

Teachers feel unable to access the support they need from external agencies such as Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services (CYPMHS, formerly known as CAMHS) and schools are having to step in to fill gaps in support.

In the study, conducted in collaboration with ASK Research and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, NFER recently asked more than 2,500 senior leaders and teachers in mainstream schools, and more than 100 in special schools, a series of questions to understand the impacts of cost-of-living pressures on schools in England.

Findings show special schools and schools with greater numbers of disadvantaged pupils (as identified by eligibility for free school meals) are providing the most overall support to pupils and families in response to the cost-of-living pressures.

However, it is not just children eligible for pupil premium who are receiving support. NFER said in over three-fifths of mainstream schools (68% of primary and 63% of secondary schools), leaders report that half or more of the pupils receiving additional support were pupils not eligible for pupil premium. This was true in around 42% of special schools.

NFER Research Director and report co-author, Jenna Julius, said: “The cost-of-living crisis is having a profound impact on pupils and families. Schools are providing unprecedented levels of urgent support. 

“Pupils whose most basic needs are not being met – whether it is going to school hungry, or being unable to afford uniform or transport costs – are less likely to attend school and successfully engage with learning.

“Without urgent action now there is a risk that the crisis will have far reaching and long-lasting impacts on pupils.”

Nuffield Foundation programme head, Ruth Maisey, said: “The difficulty schools have in accessing support from external agencies is a longstanding issue that must be addressed. 

“Teachers are experts in education and should be spending their time educating children rather than stepping into the breach as the front line of children’s services.” 

Paul Whiteman, general secretary at school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “These findings sadly chime with what we have heard from members about the impact of the cost-of-living crisis.

“Financial difficulties at home can not only harm children’s health and wellbeing, they may also impact school attendance and attainment. They affect the ability of pupils and teachers to focus on learning, with pupils who are hungry and cold less likely to be able to concentrate.

“School staff are increasingly having to also act as counsellors and social workers following years of government under-investment in public services – with some setting up foodbanks and warm hubs on school premises and offering use of showers and washing machines. It is shocking.

“The government must provide more support for families beyond the school gates, with better funding for social care and mental health services, targeted support like extending free school meals to all children in households receiving universal credit, and a real drive to tackle the root causes of child poverty.”

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