0718 GMT February 21, 2020
They arrive at school with pasty faces and bony kneecaps poking out from uniforms that are too tight, too short or too worn out.
Teachers tell of sluggish little people who just do not have the energy they should. Homework does not materialize, sick days just happen to coincide with school trips but it is really because there is no money at home to cover to the costs.
Already straggling behind, as each school week passes their hopes of catching up with better off classmates slip a little further through their tiny fingers, heraldscotland.com reported.
It is, agrees Andrea Bradley of teachers’ union EIS (Educational Institute of Scotland), a desperate picture of education in Scotland today, where one in four children comes from a family gripped by poverty and where arriving in the classroom with rumbling tummies is just one disturbing element of potentially catastrophic shadow blighting thousands of young lives.
“It’s shocking and alarming for teachers,” said Bradley, the union’s assistant secretary.
“Teachers tell us they know some children are not eating between leaving school at 3:00 p.m. and arriving next day at 9:00 a.m.
“They buy fruit and cereal bars for their classes and run breakfast clubs. We know there are other things that schools can do that minimize the damage done by the kind of societal inequality over which teachers have no control.”
The complex issues facing 230,000 Scots children in poverty — not all of them living in obviously deprived areas and a significant number from working families — and a raft of strategies aimed at helping educators to ease their plight, are now to form part of a major project to be delivered to the nation’s schools.
Currently, being devised by the EIS, the country’s largest teaching union, in partnership with the Scottish Government, a £250,000 two-year project intends to equip educators — many from comfortable backgrounds with no personal experience of living in poverty — with the skills to spot pupils experiencing hardship in the hope of boosting their prospects and closing the attainment gap.
The project, to be launched in schools by summer 2020, will include strategies aimed at supporting pupils which could range from changes in homework tasks to take into account children who may have no Internet or even coloring pencils at home, to being aware of costs related to school trips, uniforms and events like dress down days which call on children to ‘bring a £1’ for charity.
A key element of the project will draw on research which highlights the complicated impacts of poverty on families such as mental health issues, and the knock-on implications for children’s educational achievement which may already have damaged their learning prospects well before they even start school.
It is expected to also equip teachers with a broader understanding of how to identify children in the grip of poverty, from looking at their pallor and whether they are particularly lethargic in the classroom, their behavior, how well their clothes fit and even the snacks they bring — or, more often, do not bring — to school.
It follows recent guidance from the EIS to its members, which suggested avoiding punitive action over issues such as incomplete homework and lack of gym kit which could be explained by difficulties at home.
“There needs to be a real sensitivity in how these issues are handled,” stressed Bradley.
“We want the project to have a really strong focus on the all the causes and consequences of poverty, and we want teachers to have that wider societal view of children's experiences beyond the classroom.
“Children don't come to school as pupils and in isolation of what happens in family life at home and in the community.”
It comes amid rising concern that Scotland’s children are being hardest hit by benefits restrictions and rising living costs which are leaving even working families struggling to cope.
While the Scottish government has ambitious plans to significantly reduce poverty and inequality by 2030, independent monitoring suggests the number of children living in poverty in the UK is set to increase to one in three by 2020-21, taking numbers back to those last seen in the 1990s.
Concerns are already rising over the impact on children’s physical wellbeing. There were calls last week for a UK minister for hunger to tackle malnutrition while recent figures from food bank charity the Trussell Trust showed a 15-percent rise in people relying on food parcels between April and September last year, among them over 22,000 children.
Meanwhile, a Scottish government report last month showed the gap in educational performance between rich and poor primary school pupils is widening: Just 59 percent of P7 children from the most deprived areas met the standard expected in literacy compared with 83 percent in the least deprived.
All of which comes against a background of an ever-widening skills gap across a range of sectors and demands from employers.
According to Professor Jane Callaghan, the director of child wellbeing and protection at Stirling University, poverty seeps into and damages many areas of children’s learning and development.
“Food poverty has implications if children are undernourished or poorly nourished; there are knock-on effects for brain development,” she said.
“But food alone is not going to fix it.”
She painted a disturbing picture of poverty depriving children of toys and play facilities to develop both emotional and motor skills, and the impact of time-poor parents gripped by depression that saps their ability to support their children even when they want to.
“Families don’t have a lot of money to provide activities during holidays, or good quality play equipment. That has a negative impact because play is one of the most important things for childhood development,” she added.
The stress of poverty is also an issue.
“In-work poverty produces precarious circumstances for parents. That has an impact on parenting practices: The more stressed you are, the harder it is to be emotionally responsive to children.”
Poverty can lead to a lack of aspiration, she continued.
“A lot of families in poverty really value education. But if we don’t pay enough attention to poverty and social equality issues, we are just putting a Band-Aid over the problems.”
EIS equality committee vice-convener, Caroline Yates, who has taught children in deprived areas, painted a bleak picture of classroom life for thousands of Scottish pupils.
“If children are hungry, they’re not ready to learn,” she said.
“They’ll be very lethargic and can’t concentrate. They might say they didn’t have time for breakfast and try to cover up what’s going on.
“They won’t have gym equipment or it won’t be the right size because they’ve grown. They come to school without a pencil.
“Children from deprived backgrounds come into school already up to 18 months behind their peers in math and language skills.”
She added, “Teachers don’t grudge doing things to help children, but there’s increasing frustration with a system that allows this to happen to children.”
Audrey Flanagan, of Glasgow South East Foodbank, saw an increasing number of families calling for support — she reckoned up 30 percent between April and July last year.
“There’s a poverty of hope among these people,” she said.
“Families are so ground down, they can’t lift their heads.
“Teachers are not unaware of children who are living in poverty, and it’s clear that they want kids to have a good education. But that only way to do that is if their parents have more money.”
Poverty campaigners have called on the Scottish government to act to help ease the pressure.
“The Scottish government could use its budget to bring forward delivery of its new income supplement,” said Neil Cowan of the Poverty Alliance.
“This is to be introduced in 2022 but families simply cannot wait until then.
“We know that poverty has a huge impact on educational attainment, and so anything that schools or local authorities can do to reduce the cost of the school day and ‘poverty-proof’ their practice should have a positive impact,” he said.
And John Dickie of the Child Poverty Action Group agreed.
“Trips, after-school activities, not being able to afford the cost of materials even for core curriculum activities, the cost of home economics and technical materials, all creates real pressure and stress on children and families,” he said.
“We know that when families have extra money there’s increased spending on fruit, vegetables, and books. When we see reduction in income, there’s a damaging impact on children.”
The new £250,000 EIS-led project follows a £12-million Scottish government pledge in its first Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan launched in March last year includes a range of measures intended to support low income families.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney said, “We’ve learned from our work on the Scottish Attainment Challenge that the quality of teaching and learning is the most important factor in raising attainment and reducing the poverty related attainment gap.
“This funding will create two posts to develop training for teachers and head teachers to better understand how we can remove the barriers that poverty can put on a young person’s ability to learn, and bring us closer to achieving our goal of closing the attainment gap.”
Mom of four, Gillian McCormick, said there are times when the challenges her family face hit her so hard that she can’t help but break down and sob.
“I actually spent the whole of yesterday in tears, it was absolutely horrific,” she admitted.
“My daughter is going through tests for autism. My son, Mikey, has Down's syndrome, he’s in a wheelchair and he can’t talk. It’s the most exhausting thing you can imagine.
“They said ‘You can’t earn £100 a week and keep your Carer's Allowance’, so they took it away. It was money that helped, now it’s gone.”
Gillian, 32, who lives in Whiteinch, manages meals and other expenses using the £80 budget the family have left once the main bills have been paid.
It is brutal, she said, but she knows there are others worse off among the 100 people who visit the Glasgow South East Foodbank where she volunteers and where her husband Ryan, also 32, works full-time.
At home, she feels the pressure that comes with trying to clothe and equip Hannah, 15, Mickey 14, Grace, 10 and six-year-old Bruce for school.
“There are so many expenses that add up,” she said.
“Things like home economics classes which parents now have to pay for.
“Every last Friday of the month, it’s ‘dress-down’ day. The kids take £1 each for charity, which starts to add up when you have a couple of kids.”
She finds around £12 a week to cover outings for Mikey at school and with a support charity, and is trying to help Hannah achieve her Duke of Edinburgh badge goals, including buying waterproof jackets, camping gear and boots.
“You don’t want them to miss out on things,” she added.
“That just leads to children feeling isolated and left out. How can they concentrate in class when they’re worrying about what the other pupils are saying? Bullying over poverty is widespread in schools.
“Kids know when things at home aren’t quite right,” she added.
“They’ll notice if mom’s maybe not eating very much or dad’s trainers have holes in them.
“And how on earth can kids function properly at school when they’re hungry?”
Sandra Dick is a journalist based in Scotland.