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What teachers should know about pupils in poverty

There's a belief that working-class pupils need 'saving'. Actually, what they need is understanding, writes one teacher

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There's a belief that working-class pupils need 'saving'. Actually, what they need is understanding, writes one teacher

Sometimes teaching can feel like the great Victorian improvement project or missionary work: as if we're a bunch of well-intentioned, middle-class people out to improve the poor or tame and civilise the savages. But what do teachers actually know about how poverty affects the children they teach?

I’ve been educated and worked in middle-class (mostly) white environments my whole life. But, personally, I come from a black working-class background, and some discussions I've heard and been part of in my position as a teacher and leader have left me very uncomfortable.

There is often an assumption that we need to save people from themselves (both the children and their parents). Working-class people are infantilised and automatically assumed inferior. Often in a well-meaning way, but that’s definitely the subtext. And that’s before we even get into the classist nature of many schools themselves.

Look around your canteen, at your teaching assistants, your cleaners and most of your support staff, then compare their backgrounds with those of the teaching staff before you start to disagree with me. The unspoken rule in education is that (white) middle-class culture is the only meaningful one and that we must all aspire to it. I’m pretty sure that at different points in my life, I may have even perpetuated this.

Research published by the Joseph Roundtree Foundation, "How poverty affects people’s decision-making processes", got me thinking about class and the assumptions that are made. As I mentioned earlier, the assumption is that working-class people need to be saved from themselves. This research explores how poverty affects decision-making, choices and beliefs. It is vital that middle-class professionals who work with children and young people from poor backgrounds understand how poverty affects how people think and behave. This may help us to have some empathy for the young people we work with and their families rather than judgement.

Here's what I took from the research:

Poverty makes people concentrate on the present 

Young people are notoriously poor at thinking about the future. Poor young people, even less so. I don’t know how things are now but back when I was a teenager in the 1990s, some people had an electricity key. You topped it up at a shop and then used it at home and your electricity would last a certain amount of time. When the time or credit ran out so did your electricity. Imagine watching TV and it just stopping part-way through a programme or trying to do your homework and the lights going out. That’s pretty stressful. Kayley may well decide to work for 25 hours a week at below minimum wage if it means she could help her parents keep the lights on, even though it’s not in the best interests of her GCSE or A-level course.

Community is more important to poor kids

The research says that “people lower in socioeconomic status put lesser weight on personal aspirations and achievement in favour of helping others and conforming to community traditions”. We live in an individualistic society, especially the higher up the wealth ladder you are. It may be important, as a middle-class teacher, to frame education in terms of how it will help poorer young people impact their community rather than how it will benefit them individually. For example, I know that when I originally wanted to read medicine, I was interested in psychiatry because of the high rates of black people diagnosed with mental illness compared with relatively few black psychiatrists.

It’s harder to trust people when you are poor

The study found that growing up in poverty was linked to lower trust in others, possibly because you feel like an outsider in society and feel like you have a lack of control over what happens to you. This could explain the surly nature of some of the young people we teach from more deprived backgrounds. During my 14 years of teaching, I have taught many "intervention" classes. The majority of these young people are often in receipt of pupil premium and do not make my job easy at all in the first few weeks. With time, structure, clear expectations, fairness and stubborn doggedness on my part, as well as some decent maths and a healthy banter, the situation always changes. Relationships are built and real learning eventually takes place, but teachers have to remember to earn these young people’s trust rather than automatically expecting it because the world has not shown itself to be trustworthy to them.

Poor kids feel that what they do doesn’t matter

The report also says that “people low in socioeconomic status often see themselves as less able to learn new skills and succeed at tasks. They are also less likely to perceive that their actions will affect how their lives turn out.” If middle-class teachers want to enact social change, we need to give poor kids the chance of success. Small wins. Step by step, related to their work, every single lesson. My surly intervention kids? It wasn’t listening to music or a £5 bribe that really worked (yes, the £5 was every week out of my own money back as an early teacher – I was desperate and out of ideas), it was seeing that they could actually do some maths, hard maths that they hadn’t been able to before and that they could then teach others. That’s what won them over – a confidence in their own ability. 

If you were suddenly poor you’d be more likely to make ‘bad’ decisions, too

The report presented evidence from other studies that found ”temporarily experiencing low subjective socioeconomic status lowers people’s thinking performance and subsequent decision-making”. This suggests that poor decision-making is not necessarily genetic, although it may feel like that in schools when we are dealing with families who exhibit dysfunction across many siblings and generations. Instead, the state of living in poverty and the associated stresses are having an effect and if, for some reason, we were temporarily in poverty – due to redundancy or relationship breakdown and an inability to cover our living costs, for example – then our decision-making would be negatively affected, too.

If you teach in a school where many of your pupils are living in or near poverty, be aware that these conditions will affect their and their family’s ability to makes decisions that benefit them long-term.

This is not because these young people and their families are stupid or less intelligent than wealthier peers. It's because living in poverty is stressful and makes people concentrate on immediate ways to improve their situation or relieve their suffering rather than long-term solutions that may take them out of the situation altogether.

Iesha Small is a senior associate at the education and youth ‘think and action-tank’ LKMco She also a teacher and tweets @ieshasmall

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