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
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.”