Philosophical Reflections on Child Poverty and Education

Lorella Terzi, Elaine Unterhalter, Judith Suissa

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The harmful effects of Covid 19 on children living in poverty have refocused attention on the complex nature of child poverty and the vexed question of its relationship to education. The paper examines a tension at the heart of much discussion of child poverty and education. On the one hand, education is often regarded as essential for children’s flourishing and a means by which children can “escape” poverty; yet on the other hand, education systems, institutions, and practices, often reflect and entrench the disadvantages associated with poverty. Narratives concerning education as an escape from poverty tend not to deal in any depth with the injustices associated with poverty, stressing instead the transformative potential of education. By contrast, largely sociological analyses of the ways in which schooling reproduces inequalities tend to stop short of developing a normative account of how education can contribute to transforming the structural injustices related to poverty and its effects on children’s lives. In working to move beyond this analytic impasse, the paper shows how the cluster of concepts, which Robeyns (2018) locates as central to the capability approach, give insights which help to address these two different lacunae. The notion of conversion factors highlights the significance of taking account of existing relationships in education, while the distinction between capabilities and functionings helps guide practices regarding the education of children living in poverty. Drawing on literature on the heightened inequalities associated with poor children’s experience of lack of schooling during the COVID pandemic, the paper sketches some of the ways in which sociological analysis and normative evaluation can be linked in taking forward an “ethically engaged political philosophy” (Wolff, 2018) to discuss child poverty and education in real schools.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)49-63
Number of pages15
JournalStudies in Philosophy and Education
Issue number1
Early online date12 Jan 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 12 Jan 2023


  • Article
  • Poverty
  • Education
  • Capability
  • Deprivation
  • Conversion factors
  • Wellbeing
  • Inequalities
  • Ethical engagement

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