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.