Perhaps surprisingly, among 374 pages of evidence to an inquiry on poverty and attainment in Scotland, there was only one from a state secondary school.
Tynecastle High in Edinburgh told of its singular efforts to get to grips with how poverty affects pupils lives – which have resulted in fresh approaches to everything from school meals, to sanitary health to end-of-year proms.
Laura Barnett, curriculum leader of English, says that “poverty proofing” the school has helped pupils to see their education in a different way. “It’s about making sure that students feel that we care about them, that we recognise that there’s more happening than just what’s happening in the classroom, and that we’re concerned for them as an individual – not just as a target in our attainment drive,” she says.
In any case, the school insists that attainment will inevitably improve if poverty-related barriers, such as high travel costs or complex benefits systems, are addressed.
In the submission to the inquiry, it stated that “such basic and ongoing barriers to participation” could be “easily remedied” by the government.
The school has been working on poverty proofing for two years. One aspect is simply making sure families receive all the money and benefits they are entitled to – sometimes leading to dramatic boosts to income.
Working with staff from Community Help and Advice Initiative, known as CHAI, five families saw their combined incomes increase by £30,000.
A concerted effort to provide more free school meals now sees 125 of the school’s 550 pupils receiving them, up from 66 in August. A new breakfast club also started that month – any pupil can go, and about 40 appear each day.
“If you’re hungry, you don’t learn,” says Barnett, who leads the school’s improvement group for Edinburgh’s 1 in 5: Cost of the School Day project, which raises schools’ awareness of poverty (see box, below). Even pupils who do not make it to the pre-school club – some have frantic mornings that may involve dropping off siblings – can grab a breakfast bar when they arrive, with noticeable knock-on effects.
‘Relationships have improved’
“The relationships with the teachers have improved – it’s hard to be really horrible to somebody in period one if they’ve made you a bit of toast and a cup of tea before you went into their class,” says Barnett.
Yvonne McGregor, the school’s pupil support officer for family engagement, says: “Since the breakfast club, I feel more students come up and speak to you. It’s had a huge impact. I know the students better – you know when to ask if everything is OK.”
With exams season in full swing, the school is trying out a “grab and go” system so that, as Barnett says, “students can come in, get a cup of tea, get an energy bar, and head into their exam having had something to eat.” McGregor has arranged food parcels to get families through the holiday period, starting last Christmas. The Salvation Army and the school also helped struggling parents with Christmas presents.
Tynecastle’s poverty-proofing drive has found support from various sources, with money from the national Pupil Equity Fund, for example, going towards extra support-for-learning staff and a data officer, whose analysis helps decide which pupils may be most in need of help.
For Barnett, the most important factor in poverty proofing is this: “Anything that has a cost attached to it – it doesn’t matter how small, even a pound for a charity football match – if somebody’s on a very tight margin at home, you have to think about the impact.”
So Tynecastle High trips now have two advertised prices – the lower one for claimants of free school meals – and there are fewer dress-down days, with payments for wearing your jeans and trainers entirely voluntary. Similarly, a recent outing to see the play War Horse was, for some pupils, paid in full by the school.
The school has also made teenage essentials free, from sanitary products to scientific calculators. Barnett says that, with all this, stigma is not an issue as all pupils are constantly reminded – at assemblies and elsewhere – of the importance of fairness and equity.
The school has started a “prom for all” project, with pupils helping to put together a catalogue with 60 dresses and a kilt hire shop providing free rentals. “Some pupils have said the prom was too much [money] and didn’t go – that’s out of order,” says Barnett. “If they want to go to the prom, we will do everything to make that happen.”
No bus fare
Tynecastle staff are still sometimes caught by surprise by the barriers poverty presents. McGregor discovered that some parents’ absence from parent evenings was down to having no bus fare. And she arranged to meet one family in a Costa coffee shop because that was a more comfortable setting, given their unhappy memories of school.
At a 1 in 5 conference in Edinburgh last month, however, an independent researcher warned that it is possible to go too far in making allowances for poverty. Dr Briege Nugent, who analysed the impact of 1 in 5 (see box, below), knew of schools having done away with trips altogether, or no longer celebrating pupils’ birthdays, oblivious to the joy of a school celebration for a child who might not see their birthday marked at home.
Such approaches were “totally missing the point”, says Nugent, adding that “equal access does not mean no access”.
Tynecastle High’s story featured prominently at the conference as an example for schools across Scotland to follow. Barnett gets to the nub of the school’s approach: “If a kid comes in without a pencil, just give them a pencil. If they’ve lost a homework sheet, just give them a homework sheet.
“Let’s get on with the actual business of learning. That’s what we’re here to do – not set up barriers.”