If we want to eliminate poverty, the school gate is a good place to start

Schools are so much more than exam factories.  They are the precursor to our future society.  Kids rub shoulders with other kids and learn what’s socially acceptable.  Their expectations about life can be challenged – or reinforced.  No wonder parents are so keen to get kids into a “good” school.  

It follows, then, that if we want to eliminate poverty from our society, the school gates are a good place to start. 

About a year ago I was talking to a government minister.  “The way to create jobs long term,” he said, “is to increase research and development.”    

“We do need more research and development investment here,” I said, “But those jobs of the future won’t go to the kids who are too hungry to learn in school today.” 

On the basis of that conversation, I negotiated with ministers, including the Education secretary, and got Child Poverty Prevention included in the new North East devolution deal.  Ours is the only devolution deal that directly tackles the issue. 

It’s based on our existing North of Tyne Child Poverty Prevention Programme, which we’ve just agreed to expand at our last cabinet meeting.  After May 2024, we’ll be able to extend it across the North East, helping kids and families in Durham, Sunderland, South Tyneside and Gateshead. 

Poverty is messy.  Families have to choose between sanitary products or topping up an extortionate pre-pay meter. Between paying for the bus or buying food and nappies.  The stress parents feel of not being able to buy nice things for kids birthdays and Christmas, when we’re all bombarded by adverts.  The insecurity of knowing how many hours you’ll be able to work next week.  And the grinding mental stress that affects relationships.    

The long term solution to poverty is to get everyone a secure, well-paid job.  And we’re on with that.  Literally thousands of families have a higher income because of the economic development work we’ve done.  But child poverty needs action right now. 

That’s why last year our Child Poverty Prevention Programme took effect. We’re on track to directly support at least 1,600 kids by the end of July. We’ve worked with almost 90 schools, and have signed off funding to support another 50 schools next academic year. 

Cragside Primary School is one I’ve visited. My team and I were blown away by headteacher Becky Jackson and her staff – their tireless efforts to build a better life for these kids. They told me why, for example, they shelved World Book Day. Because of the enormous pressure it puts on struggling families to spend money they don’t have on novelty costumes their child will only wear for one day of the year. Instead, children were encouraged to share their favourite books with each other. Staff arranged for much-loved authors to visit the classrooms.

For families in poverty, financial burdens take many forms. And sometimes small, simple steps can help to take off some of the pressure. When Cragside teachers clocked that the kids were trying to outdo each other by turning up to P.E. in the latest football shirts, they introduced a plain kit for everyone to wear. An instant leveller.

There’s more. Struggling families can buy cheap, second-hand school uniforms from the school. The buying is important here, Becky explained. There is a dignity in purchasing a bargain that is lost when receiving a free ‘handout’. Cragside offers foodbank vouchers, coffee mornings, and welfare advice, on site – meeting the parents where they are.

I asked Becky and her team about their experience of working with us. “It’s been a really great project. We’ve had really great feedback from families,” said deputy head Lucy.  It’s heartening to know – and backs up what we’ve been hearing elsewhere too. Our Child Poverty Prevention Programme is currently cited as an example of best practice in the country.

As we walked its colourful corridors and classrooms, Cragside hummed with energy. It was, as all schools should be, a crucible of curiosity. A special place where friendships are forged, discoveries are made, and children not only learn but learn to love learning.

A microcosm of the kind of world I think we’d all like to live in.