Poverty discrimination in schools-how much of a problem is it?

When I was 7 my dad was unemployed for a while. My parents cushioned us from the blow to the extent that they were able but still a few events from that time are forged in my memory. They are all connected with school. The somewhat blatant question asked of me by my teacher in front of the class: ‘WHEN is your father going to actually get a job, Fiona?’ holds a special place as it succeeded in making me feel I’d done something wrong. Having to wait for lunch in a separate queue to those who paid for their meals and then not being allowed to sit with my friends, resulted in my feeling tainted in some way. Whilst going to the Co-op with my mum to meet a man with a clipboard from the council who signed off the purchase of my winter coat, was just downright scary. That was the 70s though; things were different then.

Or so you might hope. A recent article in The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/aug/31/inequality-schools-children-poverty-commission) suggests otherwise. Focusing on some of the findings gathered in the last 18 months by the Children’s Commission on Poverty, it details the experience of poorer children and their families in schools and makes for depressing reading. It’s not like I wasn’t already aware of some of the thoughtless decisions taken within schools which make life for the less well-off, that much more uncomfortable. I know of a school which requires children to pay to attend the after-school football training from which the school team is selected, effectively excluding those unable to scrape the cash together. I’ve come across internet uniform purchasing sites which charge extortionate rates for delivery of already expensive but poor quality branded items. I’ve noted expensive school trips to mark significant school milestones which put tremendous pressure on families to find available funds. I’ve experienced a child in his elected role as house captain, being told to buy a prize for a house competition from his own money then being publicly chastised by a teacher for it being too cheap. When I reflect, I can recall too many examples of discrimination of this ilk to count.

Which brings me to the subject of the ‘unintentional poverty discrimination’ which this commission is reportedly urging schools to prevent. The examples given above would appear to fall into this category. As would other intolerable situations in which poorer children have a less equal school experience: the judging of character on first name; the home address; hairstyle; the profession of parents; or accent. However, in all of these cases discrimination is just that, discrimination. Claiming it is ‘unintentional’ is an irrelevance-it simply shouldn’t be there in a school environment. If it is so difficult for the teachers and decision-makers in schools to consider the results of their actions on their charges, then these staff members need to be trained to understand them (though I find it really hard to accept that any vaguely compassionate adult wouldn’t baulk at the idea of supplying those who claim free school dinners with a big gold card while those without that status use cash.) Better still employ those who have felt the sting of poverty discrimination themselves because that experience will have stayed with them as it has with me and will result in a professional who is much more likely to think before they act.

Things are hard for a lot of families right now. School should be the place where children are seen for their potential not judged on or limited by their parents’ financial state.

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4 thoughts on “Poverty discrimination in schools-how much of a problem is it?

  1. Reblogged this on Opinionated Ms Me and commented:
    Good point, and also I think this highlights the reasons why the ‘universal free school meals’ plan recently put in place by the government won’t really help the children who need the meals. The idea, I suppose, is that if all children get free school meals then there’s no distinguishing between those who need them to be free, and those whose parents could afford to pay for them. But as you point out, there are myriad ways that children are singled out at school for being poor, so wouldn’t the money the government’s spending on the free meals for the kids who don’t need it be better spent providing free school trips or free school uniforms for those that are in need?

  2. Certainly the free meals for infants seems tokenistic at best. Children don’t stop eating at the age of 7 and financial difficulties still continue in families when children get to Junior school age and beyond.

    I feel children of poorer families can be discriminated against in all sorts of ways in educational settings and that discrimination can appear casual and even endemic. It has no place in any institution of learning. It is all too easy to fail the young from financially disadvantaged backgrounds in this one area where research shows a massive difference to life outcomes can be made.

    We need to pull our collective school socks up and start doing a better and more even-handed job.

  3. Hi Fiona,

    Thanks once again for this wonderfully measured (especially given your own horrendous experience – it left me reeling) and lucid post. I agree that there is a multitude of ways children from poorer backgrounds are discriminated against at school, as well as by the fact they are unable to take part in any “enrichment” activities outside of school, in fact – this in turn will have an impact on their self-confidence and the way they perceive themselves in relation to their peers, a perception which can last a lifetime.

    But definitely in an educational setting this should be avoided at all costs. I recall one school (a very diverse SE London primary) where at the end-of-year “concert”, it was patently obvious that only kids from a certain background had been able to afford the music lessons in the school. This resulted in a long performance showcasing only the “exceptional” talents (ahem) of white middle-class kids. It was quite shocking. The school had apparently offered some of the other children a little help with the cost of music lessons, but this was far from sufficient as music tuition is always costly, so although it was a case of unintentional discrimination, it was discrimination all the same. Very sad.

    Thanks as always for your wonderful insight, Fiona. Sorry for recent silence – I was away for a while. I had left a very long and heartfelt comment for your books post, but it just disappeared and I was so exhausted I didn’t find the strength to rewrite it… 🙂

    1. Isabelle-how lovely to hear your perspective. Sorry to hear I missed a previous comment-wonder what happened to that…

      My experiences were a long time ago and I bring them up really only to emphasise how I had hoped those kinds of insensitivities were a thing of the past. That in some ways we haven’t really moved on much since then is massively disappointing. And unforgivable really.
      So much more awareness required and an acknowledgement that this is discrimination and that even if it is deemed to be ‘unintentional’, that really fails to excuse it.
      Thanks for adding your examples. Great to hear from you.

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