A new analysis of child poverty data has been conducted that will have profound implications for many thousands of pupils – and the teachers tasked with offsetting the devastating effects of poverty.
The findings, by Howard Reed, of Landman Economics, and Graham Stark, of Virtual Worlds Research, are, they say, “without historical precedent” since comparable data was first published in 1994-95.
Relative child poverty, once housing costs are factored in, was already at 26.5 per cent of children in Scotland in 2015-16. But the analysis by Reed and Stark for the Scottish government finds that, by 2020-21, it will have soared to 34.5 per cent. And that is not where the trend will peak: they predict it will reach about 38 per cent in 2027-28.
The predictions, which the analysts say are “striking”, and which they claim are mostly caused by UK government cuts to social security for families, are hugely worrying for Scottish schools, which are already deeply concerned about the damaging effect of poverty on pupils’ lives (see box, right).
In light of these findings, Tes Scotland has since pored over the biggest mailbag of responses to an education-related parliamentary inquiry seen in recent times; the inquiry, which is looking into poverty and attainment, drew 349 pages of feedback from schools, unions, charities, universities and others – despite a tight time frame for submitting responses. What comes across, time and again, from these responses is a sense of increasing isolation among poorer pupils and their families, despite many teachers’ efforts to mitigate the damaging effects of poverty.
Research by the EIS teaching union has, for example, found evidence of more pupils taking part-time jobs while at school to boost household income, then missing school to work longer shifts, causing their homework and exam revision to suffer. A digital divide is evident, too: the common expectation that homework and revision will be accessed online may be putting pupils without a home computer at a disadvantage. The knock-on effect is that poorer pupils have to spend more of their spare time in the school library, which potentially increases their social isolation.
School costs add to burden
The head of policy and affairs at the Unison Scotland union, Dave Watson, also warns that an increasing reliance on the internet and computers for homework disadvantages poorer pupils. Similarly, he says school trips are often financially restrictive for such pupils.
“We have been told by members on low wages or zero-hour contracts of instances of their children – knowing the sacrifices their parents would make to find the money – not even telling parents about school trips,” he says. “They’d rather miss out than see their parents suffer.
“These costs mean that, far from the [attainment] gap narrowing, it will grow.”
Some schools are working hard to find ways of reducing social isolation, hunger and poverty-related health problems. Edinburgh’s Tynecastle High, for example, has run a free daily breakfast club since August, open to all pupils, and has worked with the Salvation Army to send food parcels to some families during the holidays. It has also provided free sanitary products, and gathered many prom dresses and suits for pupils, so that attendance at the school prom is not dependent on their financial situation.
A number of submissions to the inquiry, run by the Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee, highlight the effect of projects using the Pupil Equity Fund (PEF) – drawn from the Scottish government’s £750 million Attainment Scotland Fund – but there is disagreement over how useful the fund will be in the long term.
School Leaders Scotland, for example, finds “much to recommend the PEF approach”, as it helps schools “impact directly on the debilitating and corrosive impact of poverty”. But Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, says: “Regrettably, while core services continue to be cut and support staff removed, PEF will not deliver the impact needed in reducing the poverty-related attainment gap.”
Local authorities’ body Cosla, meanwhile, warns MSPs that a real-terms reduction of £513 (nearly 10 per cent) in spending per primary pupil has occurred since 2010-11, as well as a 3.8 per cent fall in the education budget. While “positive progress” has been made in educational performance during that time, among children from poorer areas in particular (see page 6), Cosla fears that education governance reforms – which include the devolution of more power to heads and the formation of “regional improvement collaboratives” – “pose a significant risk” to local authorities’ ability to drive up attainment.
A Scottish government spokesman says: “We are providing Pupil Equity Funding directly to schools for headteachers to spend at their discretion to close the poverty-related attainment gap. To help them decide how best to spend this money, we have also provided guidance on the most effective interventions and approaches.”
He adds: “Our Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan, published last week, set out ambitious actions to reduce child poverty. This includes helping parents with the cost of school uniforms and an additional £1 million for children’s food projects during the school holidays. The plan also involves working towards a new income supplement to provide financial support to low-income families.”