The nasty smell of poverty

1st November 2002 at 00:00
Don't be sniffy with children who turn up for school dirty or unkempt. They'll get enough of that from their classmates, reports Lynn Huggins-Cooper

I remember teaching Sandra, watching surreptitiously as lice marched across her head before plopping on to the desk - drawing ever nearer to me. (Despite my efforts, they got me in the end.) My sister-in-law, as a young single teacher, found that the economy-sized bottle of anti-louse shampoo in the bathroom played havoc with her love life.

But head lice, unpleasant as they are, can be dispatched with discretion in the privacy of the bathroom. Head lice are great levellers - they care not whether the hair they infest is styled by top salons or rarely washed; clean or dirty, they love us all.

But some problems are much more obvious, and can be more difficult to tackle, particularly personal hygiene. I have occasionally taught children who have come to school with matted hair, dressed in dirty clothes that are inappropriate for the season; even a child who was eventually taken into care as a result of neglect. I have also taught children who start the week relatively clean, but gradually deteriorate as they become coated in primary school detritus - school dinner, glue, mucus and playground muck. "Reading together" becomes a trial because of the smell of the child.

But who decides when a child's personal hygiene is lacking, and what, if anything, must be done? Children, as teachers well know, can be kind and caring, but they can also be cruel. A child who is persistently dirty or smelly becomes an outsider. Think back to your own school days. There was almost certainly a child or family you knew who were shunned for being "dirty". And while the problem seems to be less prevalent today than it was in the days of free school milk, it still goes on. My primary-aged daughter, when pressed, immediately named a particularly pungent classmate, whom other pupils refuse to sit next to.

But how do you deal with a child who comes to school smelling and unwashed? How do you decide if the child comes from a loving and caring home or is suffering from neglect? The key is not to ignore it; you may be the one person who changes this child's life for the better. But it is as bad, if not worse, to jump into a situation without consideration and discussion. Think your actions through. You don't know the full family background. Are they finding it difficult to cope? There may be a problem with home conditions, some families may lack daily access to baths and showers, or be living temporarily in a crowded hostel, or on a friend's floor and finding laundry and so on difficult.

Refer the problem to your headteacher. The head may have seen similar situations before, and may be able to guide you on the seriousness of the situation. What is the history of the problem? Has the child been a cause of concern for previous teachers? Has anyone raised the issue with the parents before, or is it a new problem? The school should consult the parents wherever possible, and in the most sensitive terms, suggesting that the situation is causing problems with classmates.

Does the child have any medical problems, such as a urinary tract infection? If so, the parents need to seek medical advice for their child if they have not already done so. The school can easily provide a supply of fresh underwear and a private place to change, which could make a world of difference. The school nurse should be consulted about the child, and if necessary could make a home visit to assess the situation.

Again, if a child is soiling him or herself on a regular basis, parents should be consulted to investigate any underlying medical or emotional problem. There is also the possibility that the child is being abused, and this should be considered carefully by the school with the involvement of social services as appropriate.

John Rymaszewski, head of Burnhopefield primary school in Durham, says:

"Remember, with primary school children, being dirty or smelly is never their fault. Do not be tempted to raise the issue directly with the child; he or she may be acutely aware of the problem but powerless to affect the situation. While it is not a situation we deal with regularly at this school, it has occurred, and has to be dealt with in a caring and sensitive manner. Personal hygiene is taught during PSHE, but even this must be approached with sensitivity. Be careful not to say anything that can stigmatise a child - cruel names can stick and follow children throughout their school career."

Lynn Huggins-Cooper is a PGCE lecturer at Newcastle University


Consult your headteacher if a child persistently attends schools with a combination of:

* Skin ingrained with dirt

* Offensive body odour

* Unwashed, uncombed hair

* Tattered, undersized or oversized and unclean clothing

* Clothing that is inappropriate to weather or situation. For example, thin summer dresses andor T-shirts in winter; repeatedly having no coat in severe weather conditions

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