Around one in three children in Wales are now living in poverty. This is 31% of children, around 190,000 under the age of 19. These figures are stark, and poverty levels remain stubbornly high. As society continues to recover from the impact of Covid19 and the pressures of increasing inflation, the FE sector is continuing to do everything it can to support those in lower income households.
In March this year, the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language acknowledged the impact of poverty on attainment, and highlighted that attainment gaps between children and young people affected by poverty and their peers has worsened. He also outlined his commitment to tackling the issue, with a whole government approach. Given the cross-cutting nature of poverty, this approach is one to be welcomed. The Welsh Government is embarking on refreshing the Child Poverty Strategy to reduce child poverty, implementing various measures to support families, but more needs to be done to address the impact of eye-watering poverty levels in Wales.
Reducing costs and maximising the income of families is critical so that children and young people have enough financial and material support for what they need to thrive in an education setting.
The increasing pressures of the cost-of-living crisis have magnified the challenges faced by learners, especially acute for those lower socio-economic demographics. Figures from the UK Government suggest more young people aged 16-24 are using food banks more than any other age group.
These issues are felt keenly right across the FE sector, and were raised by ColegauCymru Strategic Work-based learning Lead and Principal of Pembrokeshire College at a Senedd Committee hearing last November. Dr Barry Walters spoke of the increased costs of everyday essentials, including transport and food, and the debilitating effect it is having on learners. He added that learners are increasingly relying on the sector’s Financial Contingency Fund (FCF), with the previous 12 months having seen a considerable increase on requests to that funding pot.
Dr Walters described how learners are having to make increasingly difficult decisions based on the support that is available to them right now. A significant number of learners are choosing not to remain in education to develop the skillset to progress into meaningful and successful careers for the shorter-term gains of higher paid low skilled employment.
ColegauCymru welcomes the changes made recently to support individuals participating in the Jobs Growth Wales Plus (JGW+) Programme. These changes have seen a modest increase to the Training Allowance for participants, and the introduction of financial support to offer a ‘free meal’ whilst on programme. As the JGW+ Programme aims to assist those most marginalised in society, this type of practical support should be built into existing and future programmes.
The need for additional support
For the greatest impact, we believe the government’s focus should be on:
- Reviewing the eligibility threshold of free school meals and Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) A significant number of learners fall just outside the threshold and therefore don’t qualify for EMA support. Eligibility criteria such as multiple children within the family should also be considered.
- Urgently reviewing the availability of free or subsidised transport and food costs Some families are currently having to use the EMA to subsidise food and transport costs. Additional support will ensure EMA payments go directly towards education costs. A review of transport parameters is also needed.
- Reviewing financial contingency support Designed to support learners in financial difficulty and/or likely to leave education, colleges are increasingly relying on the FCF. In one college, there were 56% more applications to FCF this year. Demand for this support has more recently extended from not only lower socio-economic demographic of learners but middle earners too.
Looking towards the future
As we look to the future, colleges are committed to working in partnership with government and other organisations to take action to help offset the negative impact of the acute financial challenges facing so many learners. Working together, we need to improve the availability of education around budgeting and debt cancelling services, and provide better signposting to external support. Several colleges are already offering community money advice hubs with access to debt advice services and qualified debt advisors with others providing money management training for student advisers. Whilst colleges are actively working in this area, there is more to do. This includes:
- Incentivising learners to remain in education There is a need for additional incentives for learners of all ages to remain in post-compulsory education through this acutely challenging financial period. Some learners are opting to leave education, in favour of taking low paid employment to support themselves and their families. We know that many adults, when weighing up the financial costs of participating in learning, are having to prioritise managing the cost of living over their education.
- Developing creative curriculum design solutions Colleges are committed to continual improvement to curriculum design, and where possible, giving learners the flexibility, they need to be able to work part time alongside their studies.
- Reducing the risk of exploitation The more pressure a family has, the more likely they are to be victims of exploitation. Educating families and staff on this risk and signposting support is vital.
- Identifying further training Support staff and tutors can benefit from training on what support is available and to signpost learners as needed.
- Ending the stigma Learners often feel there’s a stigma around applying for EMA or FCF which is a barrier to access. Some colleges have found creative ways of tackling this such as a Keep Warm Keep Learning initiative being renamed to Pizza and Film Night, appealing to learners who might need additional support. Similarly, another college branded their period dignity bags as freebies to encourage more girls to accept them, rather than being singled out because they were receiving support from the FCF. Several colleges have expanded where learners are able to use free school meal credit ensuring they do not need to be separated from friends by only being able to purchase food in the refectory.
CoelgauCymru believes that all learners have the right to world-class education, delivered in a safe, diverse and inclusive setting and within a sector which supports the wider community, employers and the economy. Colleges are committed to supporting family wellbeing and making sure that everything they do delivers for all learners, especially those children, young people and adults in poverty, including those with protected characteristics, so that they can enjoy their rights and have better outcomes. We must ensure that all learners (and prospective learners) are treated with dignity and respect by the people and services who interact with and support them and challenging the stigma of poverty.
Rachel Cable, Director of Policy and Public Affairs