Doubts have been cast over whether teachers know enough about poverty and how deprivation can “define a child at school”.
The lack of expertise in this area at school, MSPs have been told, is putting pupils at risk of being treated in a “traumatising” way, and has prompted calls for universities to do more to inform student teachers about the effects of poverty on students.
In evidence to a parliamentary inquiry on poverty and attainment, Barnardo’s Scotland says: “Our experience is that there can be a lack of understanding from teaching staff about the impact of poverty and adversity, in particular the impact of in-work poverty for children and families.”
The children’s charity adds that a lack of understanding about the effects of previous traumatic experiences in children’s lives can lead to poor practice, such as “patting a child down to check for weapons as part of a risk assessment, without considering whether these things may be traumatising or upsetting for the child”.
Barnardo’s criticises the “traditional school ethos” still found in some schools, typified by the “outdated practice” of removing pupils from class if behaviour falls short, rather than supporting them in a “nurturing” way.
“More often than not, what is going on in a child’s home life is the reason they are unable to concentrate, take part or engage with their learning,” says Barnardo’s.
The charity claims that health and wellbeing are “often not prioritised” in schools, and when they are, “it tends to be [about] physical health rather than wider wellbeing, including the impact of poverty and adversity”.
Barnardo’s says that the attainment of children affected by poverty would be improved if teacher education – for both new and experienced teachers – put more emphasis on children’s health and resilience.
Poverty expert and former teacher Morag Treanor, a senior lecturer in sociology, social policy and criminology at the University of Stirling, says: “Educators are not familiar with the difference between the causes and consequences of poverty, and so can sometimes hold inaccurate, and even pejorative, views of poor parents.”
In her submission to the inquiry, which is being conducted by the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee, Treanor claims: “There is also a gap in the initial teacher education in the area of poverty, which could be rectified.”
She says: “The attainment gap [between rich and poor] will be neither narrowed nor closed, so long as policy focuses on children’s educational outcomes rather than the factors that affect their outcomes: value, respect, dignity, understanding, inclusion, appreciation, and participation within school.”
Meanwhile, the Poverty Truth Commission’s submission states: “Poverty seems to define a child at school.”
The organisation says it has noted “so many barriers”, such as pupils not being able to afford school trips, proms or yearbooks. It warns that this “sets children apart from the rest [and] has a negative impact on their learning”.
‘Robotic’ responses from staff
A case study presented by the commission involves a single mother with mental health difficulties living with her 16-year-old son in a damp and mouldy property. When she tried to speak to his school about her family’s needs, she said that sometimes it felt as though she was “talking to a brick wall” and that staff were “almost robotic”. They seemed more concerned with the school’s overall results, she said, and were “lacking the insight” to see her son’s “individual needs, talents and gifts”.
Joanna Murphy, chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, says schools would be “foolish” not to involve families in attempting to close the attainment gap, as she argues that greater parental involvement has been proven to improve pupils’ outcomes.
John Dickie, director of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland, tells Tes Scotland that, as well as boosting the income of low-income families, “action to reduce cost barriers at school must now be a key part of wider action to reduce the attainment gap”. One teacher told the organisation: “Children have the embarrassment of us saying, ‘Do you have your money? You can’t cook today [if not]’…Course fees are just really unfair. It’s not a free curriculum.”
However, CPAG also points to several examples around the country where barriers to school participation for poor children have been reduced. A Dumfries and Galloway secondary, for example, has stopped charging for extras in home economics, technical, art and PE, stating that: “Pupils do not [now] avoid subjects as a result of curriculum costs.” A Glasgow secondary has improved attendance at an Easter revision programme by giving bus passes and lunch money to pupils who were previously unlikely to attend.
Meanwhile, a Falkirk primary has spent Pupil Equity Fund money on a supply of clothes, which has increased participation in PE. And a North Lanarkshire primary has introduced “donation-only” school trips, so that children are not “kept off due to parental embarrassment at inability to pay”.
The EIS teaching union says it is continuing its “campaigning work” to reduce “cost barriers” that would otherwise reduce pupils’ school attendance, and that it has issued guidance to members to raise awareness about poverty and how to deal with issues such as school uniform, homework, trips and charity events.