A new £250,000 project aims to give ed­u­ca­tors the skills to spot young­sters ex­pe­ri­enc­ing hard­ships

About 230,000 chil­dren in Scot­land are liv­ing in poverty and many teach­ers are con­cerned at how this is af­fect­ing pupils at schools. A £250,000 project aims to give ed­u­ca­tors the skills to spot young­sters ex­pe­ri­enc­ing hard­ships so they can help boost thei

The Herald on Sunday - - NEWS FOCUS - San­dra Dick

THEY ar­rive at school with pasty faces and bony kneecaps pok­ing out from uni­forms that are too tight, too short or too worn out.

Teach­ers tell of slug­gish lit­tle peo­ple who just do not have the en­ergy they should. Home­work doesn’t ma­te­ri­alise, sick days just hap­pen to co­in­cide with school trips but it’s re­ally be­cause there’s no money at home to cover to the costs.

Al­ready strag­gling be­hind, as each school week passes their hopes of catch­ing up with bet­ter-off class­mates slip a lit­tle fur­ther through their lit­tle fin­gers.

It is, agrees An­drea Bradley, as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of teach­ers’ union EIS, a des­per­ate pic­ture of ed­u­ca­tion in Scot­land to­day, where one in four chil­dren comes from a fam­ily gripped by poverty and where ar­riv­ing in the class­room with rum­bling tum­mies is just one dis­turb­ing el­e­ment of the po­ten­tially cat­a­strophic shadow blight­ing thou­sands of young lives.

“It’s shock­ing and alarm­ing for teach­ers,” says Bradley. “Teach­ers tell us they know some chil­dren are not eat­ing be­tween leav­ing school at 3pm and ar­riv­ing next day at 9am.

“They buy fruit and ce­real bars for their classes and run break­fast clubs. We know there are other things schools can do that min­imise the dam­age done by the kind of so­ci­etal in­equal­ity over which teach­ers have no con­trol.”

The com­plex is­sues fac­ing 230,000 Scots chil­dren in poverty – not all of them liv­ing in ob­vi­ously de­prived ar­eas and a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber from work­ing fam­i­lies – and a raft of strate­gies aimed at help­ing ed­u­ca­tors to ease their plight, are now to form part of a ma­jor project to be de­liv­ered to the na­tion’s schools.

Cur­rently be­ing de­vised by the EIS, the coun­try’s largest teach­ing union, in part­ner­ship with the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment, a £250,000 two-year project in­tends to equip ed­u­ca­tors – many from com­fort­able back­grounds with no per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of liv­ing in poverty – with the skills to spot pupils ex­pe­ri­enc­ing hard­ship in the hope of boost­ing their prospects and clos­ing the at­tain­ment gap.

The project, to be launched in schools by sum­mer 2020, will in­clude strate­gies aimed at sup­port­ing pupils that could range from changes in home­work tasks to take into ac­count chil­dren who may have no in­ter­net or even colour­ing pen­cils at home, to be­ing aware of costs re­lated to school trips, uni­forms and events such as dress-down days that call on chil­dren to “bring £1” for char­ity.

A key el­e­ment of the project will draw on re­search that high­lights the com­pli­cated im­pacts of poverty on fam­i­lies, such as men­tal health is­sues, and the knock-on im­pli­ca­tions for chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tional achieve­ment that may al­ready have dam­aged their learn­ing prospects well be­fore they even start school.

It is ex­pected to also equip teach­ers with a broader un­der­stand­ing of how to iden­tify chil­dren in poverty, from l ook­ing at t heir pal­lor and whether they are par­ticul arly lethar­gic, their be­hav­iour, how well their clothes fit and even the

snacks they bring – or, more of­ten, don’t bring – to school. It fol­lows guid­ance from the EIS to its mem­bers, which sug­gested avoid­ing puni­tive ac­tion over is­sues such as in­com­plete home­work and lack of gym kit that could be ex­plained by dif­fi­cul­ties at home.

“There needs to be a real sen­si­tiv­ity in how these is­sues are han­dled,” stresses Bradley. “We want the project to have a re­ally strong fo­cus on all the causes and con­se­quences of poverty, and we want teach­ers to have that wider so­ci­etal view of chil­dren’s ex­pe­ri­ences be­yond the class­room.

“Chil­dren don’t come to school as pupils and in iso­la­tion of what hap­pens in fam­ily life at home and in the com­mu­nity.”

It comes amid ris­ing con­cern that Scot­land’s chil­dren are be­ing hard­est hit by ben­e­fits re­stric­tions and ris­ing liv­ing costs, which are leav­ing even work­ing fam­i­lies strug­gling to cope.

While the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment has plans to sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce poverty and in­equal­ity by 2030, in­de­pen­dent mon­i­tor­ing sug­gests the num­ber of chil­dren liv­ing in poverty in the UK is set to in­crease to one in three by 2020/21, tak­ing num­bers back to those last seen in the 1990s.

Con­cerns are al­ready ris­ing over the im­pact on chil­dren’s phys­i­cal well­be­ing. There were calls last week for a UK Min­is­ter For Hunger to tackle mal­nu­tri­tion, while re­cent fig­ures from food­bank char­ity the Trus­sell Trust showed a 15% rise in peo­ple re­ly­ing on food parcels be­tween April and Septem­ber last year, among them more than 22,000 chil­dren.

Mean­while, a Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment re­port last month showed the gap in ed­u­ca­tional per­for­mance be­tween rich and poor pri­mary school pupils is widen­ing: just 59% of P7 chil­dren from the most de­prived ar­eas met the ex­pected lit­er­acy stan­dard, against 83% in the least de­prived.

EIS equal­ity com­mit­tee vice-con­vener Caro­line Yates, who has taught chil­dren in de­prived ar­eas, paints a bleak pic­ture of class­room life for thou­sands of Scot­tish pupils. “If chil­dren are hun­gry, they’re not ready to learn,” she says. “They will be very lethar­gic and can’t con­cen­trate. They might say they didn’t have time for break­fast and try to cover up what’s go­ing on.

“They won’t have gym equip­ment or it won’t be the right size be­cause they have grown. They come to school with­out a pen­cil.

“Chil­dren f rom de­prived back­grounds come into school al­ready up to 18 months be­hind their peers in maths and lan­guage skills.”

She adds: “Teach­ers don’t grudge do­ing things to help chil­dren, but there’s in­creas­ing frus­tra­tion with a sys­tem that al­lows this to hap­pen.”

Au­drey Flana­gan, of Glas­gow South East Food­bank, sees an in­creas­ing num­ber of fam­i­lies call­ing for sup­port – she reck­ons up 30% be­tween April and July last year.

“There’s a poverty of hope among these peo­ple,” she says. “Fam­i­lies are so ground down, they can’t lift their heads.

“Teach­ers are not un­aware of chil­dren who are liv­ing in poverty, and it’s clear they want kids to have a good ed­u­ca­tion. But the only way to do that is if their par­ents have more money.”

Poverty cam­paign­ers have called on the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment to act to help ease the pres­sure.

“It could use its Bud­get to bring for­ward de­liv­ery of its new in­come sup­ple­ment,” says Neil Cowan of the Poverty Al­liance. “This is to be in­tro­duced in 2022 but fam­i­lies sim­ply can­not wait un­til then. We know poverty has a huge im­pact on ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment, so any­thing schools or lo­cal au­thor­i­ties can do to re­duce the cost of the school day and ‘poverty-proof’ their prac­tice should have a pos­i­tive im­pact.”

John Dickie of the Child Poverty Ac­tion Group agrees. “Trips, af­ter­school ac­tiv­i­ties, not be­ing able to af­ford ma­te­ri­als even for core cur­ricu­lum ac­tiv­i­ties, all cre­ates real pres­sure and stress on chil­dren and fam­i­lies,” he says. “We know that when fam­i­lies have ex­tra money there is in­creased spend­ing on f ruit, veg­eta­bles and books. When we see re­duc­tion in in­come, there’s a dam­ag­ing im­pact on chil­dren.”

The new £250,000 EIS-led project fol­lows a £12 mil­lion Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment pledge in its first Tack­ling Child Poverty De­liv­ery Plan launched last March that in­cludes a range of mea­sures i ntended to sup­port low i ncome fam­i­lies.

Deputy First Min­is­ter John Swin­ney said: “We’ve learned from our work on the Scot­tish At­tain­ment Chal­lenge that the qual­ity of teach­ing and learn­ing is the most im­por­tant fac­tor in rais­ing at­tain­ment and re­duc­ing the pover­tyre­lated at­tain­ment gap.

“This fund­ing will cre­ate two posts to de­velop train­ing for teach­ers and head teach­ers to bet­ter un­der­stand how we can re­move the bar­ri­ers poverty can put on a young per­son’s abil­ity to learn, and bring us closer to achiev­ing our goal of clos­ing the at­tain­ment gap.”

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