Talking about child poverty

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: iStock

The impact of poverty on children and their education is devastating. Karen Sullivan looks at the challenges that deprived families face

It is a subject that rears its shameful head far too often, which is why, perhaps, we should continue to mention it.

We should continue to talk about poverty, and it’s daily implications for students. About the fact that it’s not getting any better; that austerity and other cuts have made earning a living extremely hard for hundreds of thousands of parents. About the fact that children caught in the “poverty trap” face daily challenges and often embarrassment and heartbreak. These challenges leave lasting scars.

My 14-year-old son has a friend who has just been given his very first pair of football boots. He’s played rugby and football for his school since he was in primary, and he’s never owned a pair.

His parents probably don’t even fall into the band of the seriously impoverished, but there is no spare money. Sometimes he has money for lunch, sometimes he doesn’t.

He is not alone, and he’s one of the children of cash-poor working families who are ineligible for support, and whose parents suffer the deep horror and indignity of being unable to clothe and feed their children.

When I went online to put money on my son’s school fob, a list of trips came up, with the opportunity to pay for part or all of the costs, via the parent pay system. We agreed last year that he would take part in one of these, at a cost of £500, spread across 10 months. If he did them all, we’d be looking at about £3,000. Some children cannot do any. They can’t afford the year-end trip to an amusement park, or even the end-of-season meal with the rugby team. I’ve heard them brush-off these events, as if they really didn’t want to go. It’s heartbreaking and wrong in so many ways.

There are, at present, four million children living in poverty in the UK. To put that into perspective, that’s roughly nine in every 30-strong classroom. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that this figure will reach five million in 2021. According to the Children’s Society, the rise in child poverty has increased for the third year running, and it is at its highest level since the start of the decade – and 67 per cent of these children have at least one parent at work.

Most of us will have seen the survey by the Child Poverty Action Group and the National Education Union, published in April: 60 per cent of the 900 teachers who took part agreed that poverty had become worse since 2015.

Headteachers from deprived areas confirm that they are providing basic services, such as buying and washing uniforms or purchasing food, clothing and even tampons and shoes for children. Some have given emergency loans to parents and thrust lunch money into the hands of desperate children. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed said that free school meals don’t come close to meeting the genuine needs of poorer children.

According to the Department for Education, by the end of primary school, pupils receiving free school meals are estimated to be almost three terms behind more affluent peers in their education. By the age of 14, this gap grows to more than five terms, and at 16, children receiving free school meals achieve an average of 1.7 grades lower at GCSE.

But the incalculable impact is on self-esteem, security, feelings of belonging, and, at its most basic level, emotional health and wellbeing.

In 2014, The Guardian ran a feature that focused on the findings of the Children’s Commission on Poverty, in which disadvantaged children expressed their fears, distress, shame and, perhaps more tragically, worries and anxiety about their parents and concern about their future. This is well worth a read to make clear the daily impact of poverty on the lives of so many of our students.

So many elements of a modern education depend on money, too. What about the tablet schemes in schools? They might be subsidised, but they certainly aren’t free. And what about access to technology? I’d hazard a guess that roughly 75 per cent of my year 9 son’s homework relies on access to a tablet or a computer and, of course, wi-fi. A good proportion of his social life takes place online too.

There are travel passes required for class outings, and birthday parties (with a gift, too). Many kids can’t invite friends home for “tea” because there is no tea to be had. They don’t wear proper kit for sport, they don’t wear what everyone else is wearing. At a critical stage of development, this is more significant than it may seem.

Many of us were brought up in homes where money was tight, where big sacrifices were made to make ends meets; families that taught us values ... for example, love is more important than money. But I will assert here that times have changed, and not for the better. We are, as a society, more materialistic. Our “basic” needs are wider and costlier, some of this driven by technology. Twenty years ago, the very idea that children would need an expensive computer to complete their homework would have been laughable. The pressure on parents is immense, and this naturally feeds down to their children.

So here’s the thing. With Brexit looming, the prospect of austerity easing is unlikely. Collectively, there are more mouths to feed and less money to do so. Poverty is going to rise, and it’s going to have a significant impact. It is taking a significant toll. We need to have a conversation about poverty with all of our students to make clear the implications, the associated feelings, the basic things that others do not have, the things we take for granted.

Although it is not a school’s job nor the responsibility of any educator to take on this societal wrong, as people, many of us parents, we need collectively to unveil the reality of the situation and take action.

No child wants sympathy or even, particularly, to be picked out or unnecessarily noticed by his or her peers, and efforts to open the discussion should never be about pointing fingers or singling out individuals. But there are ways to ease the burden and to help reduce the impact of poverty. And in my next article we’ll look at how.

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