It seems to me that there is one feature which unites children over the age of 8 in all situations and all cultures and that is the fear of being different. There are, as with everything, exceptions but in general observable terms, your typical child will go to great lengths to avoid being anything other than the same as their peers or standing out. So if they have to go to a doctor’s appointment before school which means they’ll have to walk into class when everyone else is there, they hate it. If they’ve had a dodgy haircut, they dread the next school day. If they are singled out to eat different food in a different area to the rest of the school, that’s going to hurt. So Jack Monroe rightly pointed out the unpleasantness, short-sightedness and lack of humanity in the decision of the head of Michaela Community School in Wembley to segregate the children whose parents owed the school money for lunches. This, states Monroe, amounts to punishment of the child for the unsettled debts of their parents.
It’s not just that though. This is discrimination. Based on a status in which these children find themselves growing up, they are singled out for negative treatment. If the children separated from their peers in this manner were there because of the religion, political views or language spoken by their parents, we would immediately identify it as discriminatory behaviour and legal advice would rightly be sought. It would, I think, be accepted that the children are not in a position to influence such factors.
However, in the Michaela school case, (and in many others some of which I wrote about here) it seems it’s deemed perfectly acceptable to discriminate against a child because their parents haven’t paid a school lunch bill. In what sense here is the child able to influence this? I’ll tell you how: they hide the school letter informing the parents of the fact their child has been isolated from others due the parents’ inability to pay. They do that because these children experience the impact of extra financial related stress on their families and they don’t like it or want to be the cause of it. Or they choose not to eat in that segregated area at all. They learn to negotiate the playground with the new ‘so poor they eat in a separate room’ label. They hide or they fight but which ever route they take, they are branded. And school is not a place they want to be anymore.
It’s discrimination against the children of those in poverty and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Shame on the schools who take such decisions. Speak out against it. Identify areas in which your local schools could be said to be guilty of poverty discrimination and seek change. If you open your eyes to it, you’ll see it everywhere.
Postscript 5/8/2016: Head of the school in question responds to criticism of the isolation policy and offers more background here
This provides important context and provides details missing from the original Jack Monroe opinion piece on which my own blog is based. Based on this, I feel a question remains as to what it means to be deemed ‘able to pay’. I’d argue that there are plenty of families who don’t qualify for free school meals who are struggling financially and a significant number who may not wish to identify themselves as such to a school. This is particularly likely to be the case when the family is in private rented accommodation when a large proportion of their income will go on rent.