The poverty trap

"What is poverty?", a leading newspaper columnist recently asked. He should take a job in a school, preferably in the inner city, and then he wouldn't have to display such ignorance. I had the privilege of working in such a school for 10 years and quickly learned what poverty in the 21st century really looks like.

The school served a deprived area and 91 per cent of its pupils were eligible for free school meals. The first thing you noticed was how small some students were. The combination of malnutrition and ill health left many of the severely disadvantaged children underweight, pale and lethargic. Obesity is not a problem for those who truly go to bed hungry.

The poorest of our pupils often had an unkempt appearance and had few options other than to wear the same clothes every day. I know of several caring teachers who tried to help out by sending their own children's surplus clothing to the school's neediest families. An excuse for non-attendance that I received more than once was that the absentee didn't have any shoes for walking to school.

The school's social worker saw first-hand the terrible living conditions that more than a few pupils had to endure. One house was almost completely devoid of floor coverings and furniture, let alone books and pencils. Another was infested with maggots even though there was no food.

Home life for the very poor is often blighted by problems such as debt, addiction and illness. Many families have just one parent and often lack experience or awareness of where education can take you. Desperate families are preoccupied by getting by on a day-to-day basis, rather than going to school or doing homework.

The very poor often appear downtrodden with worried expressions. Self-esteem is low and expectations from school, and life, are even lower. Most of our poorest pupils were quiet and biddable in the classroom. A lack of self-belief, and poor concentration, prevents many such children from doing well with their schoolwork.

Social discrimination is still rife, and although the very poor are not deliberately excluded from games and other play activities, they aren't always included either. Very quickly they have to get used to the sniggers of those who are cruel, stupid or both.

Our nation has never been more prosperous and yet too many children and their families struggle to get by. Some, deep in debt, are frequently forced to move from one home and school to another.

Young people are not to blame for the situations they have to endure, nor for society's glaring inequalities. Yet the gap between the prosperous and the poor continues to widen. Children who are below the poverty line are being left behind. Most worrying of all, very little is being done to truly make things better.

John Greenlees is a secondary school teacher in Scotland

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