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TUC Congress 2015: Schools can make a difference

While addressing poverty and its causes must be top priority, teachers can help in tackling educational inequality in the classroom, argues LARRY FLANAGAN

SCHOOLS cannot eradicate the poverty which exists in our society. Nor can they fully mitigate the impact that poverty has on our young people.

Those in public life who seek to highlight the inequalities created by poverty would do well to understand that if we wish to end the negative impact of poverty on school attainment, we need to address the existence of poverty itself.

Having said that, however, we should recognise that schools and teachers can and do make a difference in the lives of individuals, of groups of children, and even on whole cohorts, which is why the daily interaction in our classrooms is so important and indeed powerful.

Teachers care deeply about the children in front of us and we all wish to make that difference.

The Educational Institute of Scotland’s (EIS) motion to Congress highlights the severe impact that social and economic deprivation is increasingly having on young people in Scotland and across Britain as a whole.

Our members in schools, colleges and universities are increasingly concerned at the barriers to education directly associated with poverty and made worse by the Westminster government’s continuing austerity programme.

The EIS recently surveyed members to gain some first-hand perspective on the impact of poverty on young people’s learning.

The completed surveys made for worrying reading, as teachers across Scotland shared some of the real-life experiences of the children in their classes.

Shamefully, in 21st-century Britain, an increasing number of children now come to school hungry, simply because their families cannot afford to buy food.

The subsequent impact on the child’s physical and emotional wellbeing is severe, damaging their ability to concentrate and to learn effectively.

The roll-out of free school meals for children in the first three years of primary school is welcome, but it is just one meal per day and confined to a limited section of pupils.

Ironically, at the same time, other useful approaches such as the provision of breakfast clubs designed to provide a healthy start to the day for disadvantaged pupils are now threatened and in some parts of the country already scaled back or cut completely.

Poverty has a negative impact on children’s educational experience in many other ways.

Children living in poverty can find their ability to complete homework tasks or projects at home limited by a lack of resources.

Any piece of work that requires use of a computer or access to the internet can present significant challenges to many young people from homes where these are simply not affordable.

Even what may, on the face of it, be a very simple task like painting or colouring in a picture can present financial difficulties for families living in deprivation.

For many children, enriching school excursions to places such as outdoor education centres are simply out of reach where there is a cost involved for travel or for food or board. Even short trips to places like local museums can be a challenge.

And, of course, if a family has more than one child then this can cause real financial hardship or leads to children losing out on valuable educational excursions.

Clothing children for school has also become a real strain for many parents and carers. In theory, grants are available to low-income families to help offset the cost of school uniform.

However, in many areas, these grants are often totally inadequate to cover the price of a full uniform, including changes of shirt, blouse, trousers or skirt.

Increasingly, some schools in the state sector have moved to a dress code that includes costly items such as blazers with expensive braiding.

These are simply unaffordable for many families, creating difficulty and embarrassment for children when they cannot comply with school dress codes.

In Scotland we have seen the start of a school clothes bank to help struggling families.

The EIS is committed to working co-operatively with the Scottish government, local authorities and other bodies to tackle the impact of poverty on young people and their life chances.

We have produced a new policy document entitled Face up to Child Poverty which draws on our recent research and offers advice to teachers and lecturers on poverty-proofing classes as far as possible and the motion calls for detailed research to be carried out to provide the basis for co-ordinated, evidence-based anti-poverty policies at school and local authority level.

However, schools cannot solve the problems of society in isolation. The motion calls for the TUC general council to campaign publicly for the additional resources and investment that is needed to tackle educational inequality.

All our pupils and students should be able to benefit from the educational opportunities available to them — no matter what their personal circumstances.

Larry Flanagan is general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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