Schools should consider cancelling school-leaver proms to avoid stigmatising disadvantaged pupils, and headteachers should ask private companies to help feed hungry children, a new report on the serious effects of poverty on education says.
The study shows that poverty affects far more pupils than is commonly thought, and criticises schools for forcing parents to use expensive uniform suppliers.
It outlines a range of measures that a school can take to support poorer students, including approaching large supermarkets and other companies – such as farms running “wonky” vegetable schemes – to ask if they would provide food to schools. It also calls for parent councils to put aside income to support poorer pupils. Schools should also calculate how much money they ask parents to contribute over the course of a pupil’s school career and find ways to reduce this bill, it says (see box, “Changing policies”).
The report, by City of Edinburgh Council, shows that more than 20 per cent of children in the city live in poverty, and at least 10 per cent in every council ward do so, including in some highly affluent areas.
National figures show that 55 per cent of children have lived in poverty for at least one of the previous seven years.
And according to the council’s report, titled 1 in 5: Raising Awareness of Child Poverty in Edinburgh, there is a gulf in educational performance: in 2014, six students from Edinburgh’s poorest families gained three or more As at Higher level, compared with 290 from the wealthiest families.
The report outlines the work of Edinburgh’s 1 in 5 project (bit.ly/1in5Ed), a pilot scheme that aims to help teachers and pupils to better understand the effects of poverty on education. Teachers and pupils in six pilot schools have been explicitly taught about the causes and effects of poverty, and the myths that surround them. This has led teachers to admit to previous “ignorance” about poverty, while schools have been rethinking many of their policies.
Reducing the cost of school
The report highlights that 71 per cent of UK parents struggle with the cost of school, including essentials such as uniforms and stationery, as well as trips, subjects with extra costs and one-off events such as proms.
Leaver proms and similar events saw many pupils embroiled in “competitive and ostentatious spend” that some could not keep up with, the report says. Schools had already come up with alternatives, such as a trip to the beach or barbecues, it adds.
Parents, pupils and staff in focus groups all raised concerns about expensive dress-down and fancy-dress charity days as a potential disincentive to come to school.
School uniform is also highlighted as a bone of contention: the average cost per child is estimated at £159 per year, and families felt strongly that they should be able to shop around for cheaper deals.
But an internal City of Edinburgh Council report found that more than half of primary and secondary schools were generating income by obliging parents to use certain suppliers. This “could be seen as discriminating” against low-income families, and the council advised a more “flexible” approach.
Schools in the 1 in 5 project audited all extra costs requested of parents for trips, events and other activities: in the seven years of primary school, this could come to more than £1,000. Edinburgh education convener Paul Godzik said that initiatives such as this were crucial in closing Scotland’s attainment gap.
Andrea Bradley, assistant general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said that teaching pupils about poverty was a crucial part of political literacy. It enabled them to dissemble stereotypical media narratives where poor people are routinely depicted as feckless or as migrants, she said.
But she added that teachers had to be careful that this did not backfire by drawing attention to certain pupils who might be going through the experiences being discussed.
Ms Bradley, a former secondary teacher, said that assumptions should never be made about what children can bring into school, and classrooms should always be well stocked with basics such as pens, pencils and rulers.
EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan praised 1 in 5’s “strong element around supporting teachers” and for not assuming that they already know “the real difference poverty makes to learning”. He pointed to existing EIS advice for teachers (bit.ly/EISpoverty) and Renfrewshire’s recent Child Poverty Commission as other schemes tackling the issue.
Pilot schools in the 1 in 5 project have changed policies to benefit pupils whose families struggle financially. The report from the pilot contains a host of tips for schools, from focus groups of over 1,000 staff, parents and pupils. It suggests that schools:
Audit how much money parents are asked to contribute over a pupil’s career.
Be flexible about where families can buy school uniforms.
Provide alternatives to expensive school proms, such as beach trips, barbecues or “doing something for the local community”.
Ask parent councils to put aside some of their income for child-poverty funds.
Run breakfast clubs in all schools.
Approach large supermarkets and other companies – such as farms running “wonky” vegetable schemes – to ask if they would provide food to schools.
Explore whether private companies could cover extra costs demanded by subjects such as health and food technology, craft and design, and ICT.
Review events allowing private companies into schools, such as book fairs.
The Royal High Primary School is taking part in the 1 in 5 project. Head Willie French said it was having a “strong impact”.
“Our staff learned significant statistics and about how poverty is presented by the media,” he said. “Perhaps the most valuable exercise was managing a family budget of around £400 per week – the income of a family just on the poverty line where both parents were working. This had a strong impact on staff perceptions of poverty.”
Mr French said that pupils’ awareness was raised through assemblies. “There was also an art competition to design a poster about how children in poverty might feel and at Christmas schools donated books to local food banks.
Parents were also involved: “The project included an extremely successful workshop for parents,” explained Mr French. “They suggested ways to reuse uniforms, appealed to Lothian Buses for free travel during school excursions, and asked for a review of homework that may not be achievable by all pupils.”