All I want for Christmas is greater help for poor pupils

21st December 2012 at 00:00
Poverty can impact on children and their work all year round, but this time of year makes it even harder

At Christmas, I often recall an incident that occurred in my own Primary 3 class. Our teacher asked us what we hoped to receive at Christmas and was bombarded with lengthy wish-lists that included bikes, games and the latest toys. But one girl, Lizzie, had a more modest wish. She was hoping for a pencil case.

There was an audible gasp from the class when they heard Lizzie's hope. We knew her family didn't have much money but a pencil-case would cost next to nothing. Not everyone, we were shocked to discover, receives something at Christmas.

I don't think, with the passing of many Christmases, that things have changed all that much. Most of us receive too many presents, and have too much to eat, while others receive very little.

I remember Lizzie telling me, many years later, that one of the worst things about being poor is the embarrassment. "Not having many clothes or the latest toys crushed our confidence and self-esteem," she said. "I didn't play with the other girls and there was no money for Girl Guides, clubs and parties."

Teaching in one of the poorest parts of our rich country, I have encountered many pupils from impoverished backgrounds. There are those who are underweight and sickly because of malnutrition. There are those who are unkempt because they don't have many clothes or can't wash properly. There are those who live in damp, cold houses with few pieces of furniture.

And poverty undoubtedly impacts on school work. Concentration is difficult when you are hungry and good behaviour is not always forthcoming from those who have been damaged by neglect or brought up in a household blighted by addiction, illness or violence.

Many of our poorest pupils are constantly moving house, and school, because of all sorts of "pushes" they have no control over. According to Shelter, the charity that does so much to help homeless people, thousands of children will wake up on Christmas morning in hostels, cheap hotels and other places that accommodate homeless families.

Governments can set minimum levels of family income but they can't influence how much money parents spend on their children. Impoverished children are often the unhappy victims of bad choices. There is an idea that you can be poor but happy. The reality is that poverty means misery and, in many cases, difficult lives.

It is quite staggering that, in the 21st century, we are unable to fathom more effective ways of helping our poorest children. Breakfast clubs, healthy lunches and additional tuition are just some of the ways schools are able to help poorer pupils. But there is so much more that needs to be done to ensure that every child has a happy Christmas and an even happier life.

John Greenlees, Secondary teacher.

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