Give poor school­child­ren the dig­nity they de­serve

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Dawn Foster,

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.

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