The shame and stigma of poverty can mean that children fail to form friendships to support them through their difficult teenage years, a year-long study reveals.
Pupils from poor backgrounds can also become distanced from their peers because of a lack of funds for school activities, and can fall victim to bullying, the research in Glasgow finds.
Recent figures show that a third of schoolchildren in Glasgow live in poverty. The Cost of the School Day report, from the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland, explores the different ways that being poor can affect pupils’ lives (bit.ly/SchoolDayCost).
The research, carried out by Sara Spencer from CPAG, involved 339 pupils in P5-S6 and 111 staff members. Even primary pupils reported that the stigma of poverty led many children to drift away from their peers. Poorer children lack the “currency” that provides access to playground social activities, such as football stickers, sweets and phones, and often can’t afford to travel to visit friends, the report says.
Younger children described incidents such as a boy being called a “hobo” in the playground because “his dad doesn’t have much money”. They also reported girls who wouldn’t let other children play with them if they didn’t have “designer schoolbags and all that”. One P5 girl said: “Other children have the power to make people feel happy or not happy.”
By the end of their schooldays, some young people are resigned and cynical about their situation, with teachers’ efforts to redress attitudes about poverty seen as ineffectual. An S6 girl said: “It doesn’t work because if [pupils] want to bully someone, they’re going to do it anyway. It’s the world – everybody’s just as bad as each other.”
Fraught with anxiety
The research finds that events typically seen as fun and good for pupil bonding can actually drive away poorer pupils. Non-uniform days, for example, are fraught with anxiety for poorer pupils who feel they have nothing nice to wear, and they frequently fail to show up to school on such occasions.
They often forego trips, too. Even if financial help is offered by the school, families can be reluctant to accept something that they feel is loaded with shame. One S5 girl said after a trip to the Alton Towers theme park that it “felt like some of my teachers are looking down on me for that”.
An S5 boy summed up the problem: “If all of your friends or people you know go to the after-school clubs and school trips, that kind of isolates you from them. You’re singled out, you’re not with them, just a spare person.”
The research also addresses a number of other ways that being poor can damage a child’s education and health. It highlights the difficulty some students have paying for basic materials such as stationery and calculators, and the failure of teachers to acknowledge that homework tasks based on internet research are impossible for many children who do not have home computers.
There was a stark conclusion from one teacher: “We give all the practical advice that we can but the honest black-and-white truth is that kids from high-income families are better set up to succeed, and we can’t overcome all those barriers because we don’t have the money.”
The report was released in the same week that the NASUWT teaching union called for “poverty summits” to ensure that no child was denied educational opportunities on the basis of their parents’ ability to pay.
The findings have already been used by Glasgow City Council to revise eligibility rules for free transport to school and reduce other school costs that have fallen on families in the past.
CPAG in Scotland director John Dickie said local authorities and the Scottish government should act on the report’s findings.
Glasgow-based Gillian Campbell-Thow, who was named Scottish teacher of the year in 2014 for her work in the secondary sector, said: “Small steps can make a massive difference to reducing barriers to access but, to be honest, part of me can’t help feeling sad that this is now a very necessary part of our work as teachers in what is supposed to be a fair and equal society.”