Can Scotland afford not to tackle child poverty?

7th June 2013 at 01:00
The problem is blighting the lives and education of 170,000 children nationwide. Henry Hepburn reveals the impact it has on teachers and asks the experts what led the country to this poor state

There are at least 170,000 children in Scotland living in poverty, more than one in five by some measures. That Scotland needs to be shaken out of its complacency on this subject is the key theme emerging from the recent Impact of Poverty on Education conference.

"People don't leave money to children's charities any more because they think the state is looking after children," says Barnardo's chief executive Anne Marie Carrie. In fact, the former teacher and education director underlines, child poverty figures in the UK are worse now than in 1983.

"Poverty continues to be the main barrier to young people maximising their educational potential," says EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan, whose union organised the conference in Glasgow. "It is shameful, and an indictment of all political parties that they have not successfully tackled this growing social divide."

Beyond the rhetoric, in impassioned and sometimes fraught workshops, teachers relayed the human impact of poverty: the children who have spent all their lunch money by breaktime because they could not hold their hunger pangs at bay; others who are not sleeping properly because they lack something as basic as a pillow.

There are reminders, too, that these children and the classroom troublemakers are often one and the same. "It becomes an exclusion issue," says Ms Carrie, recalling one boy who, after a dressing down for not having his PE kit, exploded and told the teacher to "fuck off". Later, the backstory emerged: the boy's alcoholic father had come in late the previous night and eaten the boy's dinner - a tin of tomato soup, the only food in the cupboard.

"Many children come to your school for respite and sanctuary," she told the gathered teachers. "When you give them that, then you can educate them."

The technical measure of poverty is income that is 60 per cent below the median, or, as Glasgow Caledonian University poverty expert John McKendrick puts it: "Poverty is about not having as much as most of the others, about not being too far behind what the norm is." In school, he says, that could mean not being able to take part in activities week.

"No one seems to have found a way to address the impact of poverty on the young in our schools," says EIS president Susan Quinn. Teachers in breakout rooms are despairing at the "de-skilling" of communities over generations: mothers with no idea of how to sew on a button or rustle up mince and tatties, who send children out with a couple of pounds for a McDonald's Happy Meal.

There is only so much teachers can do, stresses Dr McKendrick. It could be argued, he says, that education "is irrelevant to tackling child poverty, as experienced in the here and now", that teachers should focus instead on giving children the tools to help themselves in the future.

Mr Flanagan, too, underlines schools' limitations in counteracting poverty, invoking the policies of the Thatcher era that "destroyed many communities in Scotland" and sent families into an "impossible to escape" downward spiral. Ten times as many children from poorer areas leave school without qualifications as those from the most affluent areas - but this is a failure of politicians, not teachers, he says.

Yet Mr Flanagan finds cause for some optimism in Scotland, such as free nursery education for many two-year-olds in deprived areas and the lowering of class sizes in the first years of primary school - albeit that "this is just the beginning, not the end, of what we must achieve".

"I feel really optimistic," says Children in Scotland chief executive Jackie Brock, who told teachers: "Your training in Scotland is firmly based around values, equity and inclusion." She is encouraged, too, by the priorities of education secretary Michael Russell, that "social justice is going to be the big thing" in the years ahead.

The Scottish government has won much praise for its child poverty strategy, published in 2011, which demands early, pre-emptive action and calls on services to resist the temptation to "fix" people, and instead build up their skills to lift themselvesout of poverty. Even so, Dr McKendrick warns: "It's got a vision, but there is not enough action on the ground." (He would go further than the government is prepared to contemplate - arguing, for example, that allowing parents to choose which schools their children go to undermines comprehensive education by keeping apart affluent and poorer students.)

Even the more upbeat Ms Brock tempers her assessment with a reminder of a stark observation from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development: in Scotland, where you are born determines how successful you are. And this month a British Medical Association report has warned that things may get worse. Poverty is one of the main reasons that the UK continues to underperform on child well-being; cuts to welfare benefits and social care could set the country back even further, the report finds.

Teachers who attended the EIS event know well the difficulty of finding remedies for poverty: it is a complex ailment, the symptoms tangled up with issues of personal identity. They tell of families who refuse the free school meals to which their children are entitled because they fear stigmatisation; of mothers who do not show up for free cooking classes at the creche they use. "These people still have pride," says one teacher.

There is an important truth that can become obscured by attempts to help people living in poverty: a "deprived" background may be a source of strength. Dr McKendrick, who moonlights as a professional football referee at weekends, has been studying the upbringings of successful players, asking them why they think they have done well. Poverty made life hard, they say - but that tough childhood fuelled the ambition, resolve and resilience that made them a success.

Or, as Dr McKendrick paraphrases: "I grew up in a crap place - and I'm much better because I grew up in a crap place."

Child poverty in scotland: key statistics

17% (or 170,000) - Percentage of children who live in poverty, before housing costs; 220,000 live in poverty after housing costs.

9% - Proportion of children who live in severe poverty - the figure has remained static in recent years.

Less than 10% - The proportion of child poverty in Denmark and Norway.

At least 50,000 more children are projected to be living in poverty by 2020 - by which point Scotland and the UK are supposed to have eradicated poverty, under the terms of the Child Poverty Act 2010.

Poverty is defined as a family of four living on less than pound;17,200 per year or pound;300 a week, or a single parent with two children surviving on less than pound;13,500 (pound;258 a week).

Sources: Save the Children factsheet, March 2013; Child Poverty Action Group factsheet, October 2012

The cream of Castlemilk

Castlemilk is one of the Glasgow districts often known for the ravages of poverty. But the success of its secondary school tells a remarkably positive story.

In recent years, the number of Castlemilk High school-leavers reaching "positive destinations" - whether in work, education or training - has shot up to just under 100 per cent, well above the Scottish average.

This is not a narrative of young people fleeing desperate beginnings, stresses depute head Irene Campbell: "Most of the kids love Castlemilk. Most of the kids will live and die in Castlemilk."

She describes teenagers unrecognisable from the feckless and feral stereotypes of tabloid lore, whose upbringing breeds compassion. "They know where people are coming from, so they don't put them down for not wearing the right trainers," she says.

The school's success, Mrs Campbell believes, can be partly explained by staff's determination to know all its 400-plus students inside out, and to draw out their own particular skills and ambitions. Even winter leavers, far from running down the clock on their schooldays, have a special programme that arms them for adult life with a clutch of certificates, whether for swimming or first aid. "We make a big deal of it," Mrs Campbell says.

Careers adviser Stephen Coyle plays a crucial role. Although employed by Skills Development Scotland, he has been based in the school for seven years and is treated like a member of the school staff. "He knows all our pupils and has worked with the families for years," Mrs Campbell says, adding that Mr Coyle trawls Facebook to find out how the more elusive former students are getting on.

It is this personal touch that makes a difference in Castlemilk, Mrs Campbell says - which is why she feels so let down by Skills Development Scotland's decision to start referring many young people across the country to online advice, rather than a careers adviser.

"As far as we're concerned, all our kids need extra coaching," she says.

Castlemilk High leavers in positive destinations

2008-09: 88.6

2009-10: 92.8

2010-11: 91.7

2011-12: 98.8

(Scottish average): 89.9.

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