Last Updated on March 1, 2023 by Karl Thompson
Material deprivation can be defined as the inability to afford basic resources and services such as sufficient food and heating. Material deprivation generally has a negative effect on educational achievement.
Material deprivation is very strongly correlated with low income and poverty. The lower the wealth and income of a household the more likely that household is to suffer from material deprivation.
Material Deprivation and Education
Gibson and Asthana (1999) pointed out that there is a correlation between low household income and poor educational performance. There are a number of ways in which poverty can negatively affect the educational performance of children. For example –
- Children in poor homes are more likely to live in cold and even damp conditions which results in higher levels which in turn will mean more absence from school and falling behind with lessons. This is especially the case since the cost of living crisis and soaring energy bills.
- Worse diets. They are more likely to skip meals, for example, which means they will be unable to concentrate in school.
- Less able to afford ‘hidden costs’ of free state education: books and toys are not bought, and computers are not available in the home.
- Children from poorer backgrounds are more likely to be living in smaller homes and having to share a bedroom with a brother or sister. This means they will lack a private study space and not to be able to homework free from distractions.
- Tuition fees and loans would be a greater source of anxiety to those from poorer backgrounds.
- Poorer parents are less likely to have access to pre-school or nursery facilities.
- Young people from poorer families are more likely to have part-time jobs, such as paper rounds, baby sitting or shop work, creating a conflict between the competing demands of study and paid work.
- Poorer parents will only be able to afford houses in poorer areas which tend to have higher rates of crime and other social problems. Schools in those areas will have to devote more of their resources to tackling these social problems rather than teaching children, so results will suffer.
Those households suffering from material deprivation in the United Kingdom today are likely to be in relative poverty rather than absolute poverty, but nonetheless some of the above factors can work together and combine to make the experience poverty worse.
For example low income can lead to debt which leads to lower income because of the interest payment on those debts.
Low income can lead to poor diet, which can lead to illness, which means time off work, which means lower income.
The flow chart below shows how multiple factors related to poverty can lead to reduced educational opportunities for children:
Material deprivation is not the only form of deprivation. In A-level sociology the term material deprivation refers to tangible, material things which can usually be bought with money, and is usually contrasted to cultural deprivation which refers to lack of appropriate norms and values. The two often work together.
Evidence for material deprivation
There are three classic pieces of sociological research which explored this issue:
- Stephen Ball (2005) points out how the introduction of marketisation means that those who have more money have a greater choice of state schools because of selection by mortgage
- Conner et al (2001) and Forsyth and Furlong (2003) both found that the introduction of tuition fees in HE puts working class children off going to university because of fear of debt
- Leon Fenstein (2003) found that low income is related to low cognitive reasoning skills amongst children as young as two years old
There is also a lot of contemporary evidence from organizations such as the Sutton Trust which documents the continued impact of material deprivation on education….
Poor kids going hungry…
In 2019 the National Education Union conducted a survey of 8000 teachers and school leaders focusing on how poverty was affecting their children’s learning and achievement.
Among the findings were:
- Over 75% reported their students had experienced hunger of fatigue and difficulty to concentrate on schoolwork due to poverty
- Over 50% reported students had been ill and missed schoolwork due to poverty.
- Over 30% reported their students had been bullied because of poverty.
- Nearly all schools reported that the Pandemic harmed poor students more and that poor parents and parents relied on schools for support more during that time.
- In general poverty has a negative affect on the mental health, well being and educational achievement of poor pupils.
There were 1.9 million pupils eligible for Free School Meals in 2022, but the Child Poverty Action Group estimates that there are an additional 800 000 pupils from working poor households who are going hungry but do not qualify for Free School Meals because their parents fall just above the threshold line and so do not qualify for them (1) . This situation has been accelerated with the Cost of Living Crisis.
Poor kids in cold houses
The Institute of Health Inequalities (3) estimated in 2022 that one in five households with children under five are in fuel poverty (see * below for a note on the definition), but projected that the numbers could easily treble into the winter of 2023.
Whatever way you look at it, there are increasing numbers of children living in households which are struggling to pay their gas and electric bills and thus struggling to keep their housing warm, which means more children living in cold and possibly damp houses.
The institute notes that 1.7 Million school days are lost in the EU due to illnesses related to damp and mold, and the UK has the highest rate of all member states, with a rate 80% above the average.
Living in a fuel poverty household can also mean it is more difficult for children to do homework as everyone is more likely to cram into one or two heated rooms (the ‘heat one room’ strategy).
Poverty and university students
The impacts of material deprivation are also felt by university students. According to a survey of 1000 students in January 2023 conducted by the Sutton Trust 33% of students from working class backgrounds reported skipping meals compared to only 24% of students from middle class backgrounds, and 10% (working class) compared to 4% (middle class) of students reported having moved back home with their parents to save money (5)
The Cost of Living Crisis
The recent rise in gas and electricity prices mean that many more households have been pushed into relative poverty in 2022 and 2023.
As a result hundreds of thousands, if not millions more children are experiencing some form of material deprivation, as families choose between heating or eating.
Evaluations of the role of material deprivation
- To say that poverty causes poor educational performance is too deterministic as some students from poor backgrounds do well. Because of this, one must be cautious and rather than say there is a causal relationship between these two variables as the question suggests, it would be more accurate to say that poverty disadvantages working class students and makes it more difficult for them to succeed.
- There are other differences between classes that may lead to working class underachievement. For example, those from working class backgrounds are not just materially deprived, they are also culturally deprived.
- The Cultural Capital of the middle classes also advantages them in education.
- In practise it is difficult to separate out material deprivation from these other factors.
Possible policy solutions
There are plenty of things governments can do to help those in poverty at the school level.
Most schools provide text books and basic education resources for free to students, and all schools have access to computers and schools staying open for longer in the evenings and homework clubs can help combat lack of computers at home and cold houses.
One thing being trialed in London now is Universal Free School Meals – the idea behind making them universal is that this removes the stigma behind claiming them.
Schools have also increasingly taken it upon themselves to combat child poverty through setting up foodbanks and breakfast clubs, for example, recognizing that hungry children don’t learn effectively.
The problem with all of the above is that these initiatives require money from central government, and funding has been cut in real terms by 14% since 2010 under the neoliberal Tories.
It is also unlikely that policies at the school level can do anything to combat the wider structural inequalities that ultimately result in poor kids doing worse than rich kids in state education. The government is not going to legislate to prevent ‘selection by mortgage’ for example, which gives a huge advantage to rich kids.
This is relevant to the sociology of education module.
(1) The Guardian (September 2022) Hungry Children Miss Out on Free School Meals
(3) The Institute of Health Equity (2022) Fuel Poverty, Cold Homes and Health Inequalities in the UK.
(4) National Education Union (2021) Child Poverty the Facts
(5) The Sutton Trust (2023) A QUARTER OF STUDENTS AT RISK OF DROPPING OUT OF UNIVERSITY DUE TO COST OF LIVING CRISIS
Channel Four News Report (September 2022) Children coming to school hungry