For anyone who doesn't know what it means for a kid to live in so-called 'relative poverty', read Chip's story

The number of children living in 'relative poverty' is increasing at an alarming rate – and our system is allowing them to slip through the cracks, into obscurity and despair, writes one headteacher

Siobhan Collingwood

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Mahatma Gandhi once said: “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” 

If we consider our care of children against this statement, how do we measure up? Is our provision for the most vulnerable pupils good enough? Good enough for whom? Good enough for them because they’re not our own children, or because they’ve never experienced anything else, or because we don’t have enough resources to provide any better?

These questions have become increasingly more relevant as more and more children slide into the category of relative poverty. Poverty deniers assert that we've never had it so good and that, in fact, the numbers in absolute poverty are falling. To them, I ask: is that really what we deem to be good enough – that the numbers on the edge of survival are falling? Surely, if we want truly take care of our most vulnerable, we should strive to make sure the numbers of children failing to thrive because they live in relative poverty also fall. 

You see, I can put faces to those statistics and those worn phrases like 'relative poverty' and 'failure to thrive'. I can hear the voices of those for whom this has been deemed 'good enough'. I have watched the day to day decline of children in whom the light of belief has gone out, who have lost faith that the system works for them or anybody that they know.

It is dreadful and demoralising to watch children gradually give up. For those who don’t ever experience those who are struggling to get by, or for the poverty deniers, the following  description of an evening for a child, living in relative poverty, drawn from the experiences of those I work with every day, might help them decide whether our current system or level of provision is 'good enough'.

Chip got home from playing out with his friends, in the alleyway. They had avoided the local park full of older children trying to persuade young kids to hurt each other, smoke cigarettes, or do things to each other that they thought would be funny to watch.

He had arrived back, before six, just as he'd promised his mum, and ran up the narrow stairs trying to not get caught out by the loose fitting and worn carpet that made the dark and dingy stairwell up to their flat so treacherous. She needed him to get back and eat his tea in time for her to get out to her evening cleaning job at the shopping centre.

It was beans on toast again. He moaned and told his mum that he was fed up with beans and that he would still be hungry afterwards.

“When are we going to have a proper meal to eat?” he demanded. Yet again, when his mum showed him the few coins in her purse that would have to last until the end of the week, he knew there was no alternative. They couldn’t even use some of the stack of electric meter coins because his Mum needed to wash the uniform he had covered in mud at school today.

The food bank wasn’t an option for them as they'd been last week and his mum said it was embarrassing to keep going back. 

Chip looked worriedly at his mum: she hadn’t eaten with them for a couple of days now, and she was busy trying to persuade the temperamental washing machine to work. It wouldn't spin, and they wouldn’t be able to pay to have it fixed – so, for now, they would have to make sure they kept their clothes as clean as possible. While she was at work, Chip and his siblings wrung out the sopping clothes and hung them around the flat to dry.

In the night, the boys lay in their bed together trying to keep warm, ignoring the empty feeling that was gnawing away at their stomachs, their room was even damper because of the clothes they had hung over the heater. The room was covered in black mould that caused the wallpaper to hang off the corners and the boys were never able to shake the cold and rattly chest that plagued them. 

When their mum got back from work, she looked at the damp clothes hung around and the meter money being swallowed up. She sat exhausted on the sofa, rocking with her head in her hands, crying silently. It took the children an hour and a half to cheer her up enough for her to stop crying and take her anti-depressant medication. It was past midnight before Chip was back in bed, trying to sleep.

The children woke at 8.30am and jumped quickly from the bed, too late for any breakfast but knowing there was nothing in the house to eat anyway. Chip knew that by the time he had got dressed and found his bag, he was going to be too late to have any breakfast at school, either. His stomach was growling viciously and his head was aching from lack of food and sleep. His school trousers were nowhere near dry, so he had to pull on the tracksuit bottoms he had worn while playing outside. He knew that with the school’s new zero-tolerance policy, this would mean that he would miss the first sitting of lunch while he sat in detention.

He stuffed the school letter about football club in the bin, knowing that he could not ask his mum for the subs required. He had no football boots anyway and was scared by how big the other boys in his year were compared to him and how confident their Saturday morning club training made them. His shrunken physique and lack of training meant that his football skills were not good enough.

He stuffed the homework – completed in the only red felt-tip pen he'd been able to find the night before – into his bag. Again, he knew that it would not be good enough.

As he raced through the empty school playground to the school reception, he felt ashamed as he realized that he had forgotten to brush his hair or teeth. He'd been distracted by warming some watered down milk for his baby sister so that she wouldn't wake their Mum up.

As he looked up at the school receptionist behind their hatch, he sensed her judgement as she noted his dishevelled appearance and time of arrival. “Twenty minutes late again, Chip,” she said. "You know this is not good enough.”

Not good enough: the constant message that disadvantage gives to ever-growing numbers of children across our country. I’m sorry Chip, the support our system offers to children like you is not good enough and allows you to slip through the cracks, into obscurity and despair.

And readers, if you think this story is depressing, imagine what it's like to live it day after day. 

Siobhan Collingwood is the headteacher of Morecambe Bay Community Primary School, winner of the Creative School of the Year category at the 2017 Tes Schools Awards

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Siobhan Collingwood

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