Give poor schoolchildren the dignity they deserve
The most recent novel by the Nobel laureate JM Coetzee, The Schooldays of Jesus, begins with a couple fleeing the law after taking their child out of school because he hates the lessons and community so much. It’s an extreme example, but one millions will find it easy to empathise with. Fewer people than you might think seem to have truly enjoyed their formative education and, for those who did not, one theme in particular recurs: the breathtaking cruelty of children. Bullying leaves permanent psychological scarring and young people become adept at learning what hurts, verbally and psychologically. Looks, personality and status are all easy targets, and particularly difficult to change.
It’s this knowledge that makes a recent initiative to “poverty-proof” schools in the north-east of England so brilliant. The toolkit proposes small changes in schools, such as banning designer pencil cases, and encourages teachers to think about how seemingly small things, such as asking children to report to their class what they did at the weekend, can mark out those living in poverty and further stigmatise youngsters.
Jeremy Cripps, the chief executive of Children North East – the organisation behind the initiative – told BBC radio how the toolkit was formed. In each visited school they asked each child: “Is anyone poor in your school?” Each child knew precisely who was poor, and reported how they knew: differences in behaviour, clothing and social life were all very obvious indicators. Schools can do many things to mask this, but can also exacerbate the issue. Cripps told of one example, where a poor child who couldn’t afford ingredients for home economics lied and said they’d forgotten. The school supplied the ingredients, but the teacher tossed the finished dish into the bin as a punishment, while other children took theirs home.
I almost wept at the injustice and the notion of a teacher, perhaps unwittingly, reinforcing to that child their worthlessness in a society obsessed with eliding social and financial capital and worth. These aren’t the lessons one would hope to see imparted.
Growing up poor is precisely as demeaning as you’d expect, and while forgiving bullies is easy, reliving those experiences emotionally is deeply upsetting. Teachers couldn’t do anything about the fact I couldn’t invite friends to my house for dinner or host birthday parties. But they might have refrained from asking me every Monday to reply “free dinners” after my name on calling the register. All the while, my friends were marked out as different to me. And as they replied that they had brought in sandwiches or would be paying for their lunches, everyone could see that difference. They weren’t to blame, neither were the teachers. It was the system; a system designed by clever people for practicality without a shred of emotional intelligence. We even had a separate canteen till for children taking free school meals. We know better now. We should do better.
Memories endure. In one of my secondary schools, the single kindest thing I remember was a teacher who quietly offered to wash the uniform of a friend who was being hounded by children saying he “stank”: his mother was unemployed and couldn’t always afford to take his clothes to the launderette. That single act stays with me in a way that textbook learning and blackboard teaching never could.
Children brought up in poverty may never escape it. Some estimates say seven out of eight children stay trapped, and some of those shackles are psychological. According to Children North East, 28% of the region’s children live in poverty. The problem can feel insurmountable, but stopping children from feeling singled out for the crime of being poor is essential to combating this cycle. And everyone benefits.
Cripps says they know that poverty-proofing schools works because, where the practice has been applied, attendance has increased. That makes perfect sense to me. I was a horrendous truant, but I would have attended more regularly if I hadn’t felt so marked out, or had been able to afford school trips and the various expenses that enrich the school experience.
The suggestions now being discussed are all incredibly straightforward. They need almost no money to implement; but still there are detractors. Why try to shield children from the reality of poverty when they will have to face the real world soon anyway, they say. But that’s to accept that trajectory as a given. We shouldn’t; we should be seeking the big solutions to change it. And while we are doing so, a little dignity for those involved can’t be too much to ask.