Skip to main content

For so many Scottish youngsters living in poverty, education can be a passport to change.
 Every school in Scotland has learners who live in poverty.  Most schools will have a small proportion of their population who find it hard to afford school trips or always be in smart uniform.  Schools will actively support such children.
For some schools however the problem is far more pervasive.
Twenty-five of my 38 years in education were in schools in areas of significant poverty in Edinburgh, both regularly in the bottom twenty Scottish schools in terms of free meal entitlement.
In my last school, ten of the thirteen neighbourhoods in the catchment were in the first decile of multiple deprivation.
The 2000 statistical Profile showed that the catchment area had three times Edinburgh’s claimant unemployment rate.  The proportion of working age adults in receipt of Income Support was three times the city average.  In 2010, 35.7% of the school population was entitled to free school meals.  These statistics speak directly to poverty.
The 2001 census showed that the area had almost three times the proportion of one-adult-and-one-child households as the city as a whole.
It had almost twice as many adults with no educational qualifications as the city as a whole but a quarter as many adults with a degree.  It had less half the proportion of owner occupied houses of the city but almost four times more in socially rented housing.
Poverty however is not merely structural and financial.  It impacts dramatically on life-styles.
In 2010, over 10% of our learners lived in substance abusing households.  We had 14 looked after children and 17 who had been on Child Protection Registers.
Of course even in an area of enduring poverty, there are countless hard-working families, seeking, against the odds, to bring up children to be hard working citizens, to make best use of education and to live responsibly.  The problems arise when the depressing reality for so many tips the community ethos downwards.
For youngsters living in families with multi-generational unemployment, employment is often such a hazy concept that it does not stimulate engagement with education or pursuit of qualifications.  Even attending school on exam days can seem of minor relevance.  For teenagers who have never experienced adults up in the morning, washed, dressed and breakfasted for work, the ideas of time-keeping and self-discipline are often foreign.  A profound under-confidence characterises many such young people the well-documented repetition of the pattern of hopelessness and failure operates.
What often, not inevitably but often, also characterise many learners from the poorest homes, including those with that spark of brightness indicative of real potential, are poor language skills.  With that additional handicap, learning can elude even the brightest and, especially in a socially divided city such as Edinburgh, social gaps become chasms.
There is however another side to the picture.  In the poorest communities there will be families who look for something different and better.
Even where hopelessness is the norm, individual young people will be determined to carve out something different.   Even in communities with low traditions of educational attainment some will recognise education as a route to personal and community betterment.  Above all, the poorest communities will possess a web of social, political, sporting and cultural organisations, sources of pride with which local schools and their students should actively identify.
Sally Tomlinson, of Goldsmiths College, offers a perspective on where schools must stand in relation to impoverished communities.  “Education is not a commodity to be bought, sold or rationed in market transactions.  It is a right and a precondition of freedom for all citizens.  It involves an opening up to knowledge, ways of understanding and the development of abilities which create informed, caring and cooperative citizens.  It offers the development of intellectual capacities, economic skills and personal qualities that every individual has the right to acquire and the obligation to put to the service of society.”
They must start by caring unconditionally for every individual, irrespective of background or apparent family traits.
They must insist on the highest standards of courtesy and respect but recognise that teachers must model these consistently since some learners will be unused to them.  They must challenge the young people intellectually and never compromise on content but find methods which will work.  They must put literacy, language and their development at the heart of the curriculum.  They must make the creation of caring, cooperative, informed citizens, the central core of their schools’ operation.
Perhaps however the other role schools must play is to refuse to accept as inevitable the realities of an obscenely unequal society and re-pose the great questions of history and philosophy, including that simple but still unanswered challenge: why are the many poor?
This article first appeared in Holyrood Magazine in December 2011:

Leave a Reply