'My School's Starving' - The Reality of Poverty in Education
I had breakfast before I went to work this morning. I work in a school in West London; a school in a borough with a 25% poverty rate . I walk into the canteen at 7:30 on a Monday morning – the first proper school day of the year – and there are at least 40 students devouring the free breakfast. The bell rings for the start of the first period and one of the first children I talk to, I tell off for not having the correct uniform. There’s no excuse not to have the proper uniform on this early in the year. “I make an effort to look professional for you. You should do the same”, I assert. A few hours later the bell rings for lunch. I finish chatting with some students and head off to the office to eat. I peel open a pasta pot. The rest of the day passes by quickly; I was busy. I love my job. I love every second of it; I feel like I make a difference. But, my Monday was ordinary
Poverty ridden Britain; kids growing up poor – with schools plugging the leaks.
Extreme child poverty is worsening across the UK, with schools increasingly forced to fill in the gaps being left by councils and social services budget cuts, school leaders have said.
Headteachers from schools in deprived areas of England, Wales and Northern Ireland say they are having to provide basic services such as washing school uniforms for pupils from poor households, and are even paying for budget advice and counselling services for parents. My school isn’t quite at this extreme – but even I can notice the hungry students. Teachers, from around the country, claim they regularly provide sanitary products such as tampons for pupils, buying shoes and coats in winter, and in some cases giving emergency loans in cash to families.
These experiences are borne out of a wider problem. In a survey published by the National Education Union (NEU) which questions 900 teachers, 60% said child poverty in schools had worsened since 2015, and one in three said it had got significantly worse.
There are three ways poverty affects physical development. The first is the role of nutrition. The diets of students who live in poverty are rarely balanced or nutritious. Fresh foods are more expensive than pre-packaged alternatives, and inexpensive fast food is readily available. The hectic working conditions involved with two parents holding multiple jobs to pay the bills results in hurried, unhealthy meals. Children in these families must often look after themselves, meaning there is no adult supervision of their eating habits.
Secondly, improper nutrition leads to poor health. When children do not eat regular, well-balanced meals, their bodies are more susceptible to a variety of illnesses, like untreated ear infections and asthma. Students who suffer from these chronic health issues are absent more often than other students, which causes them to fall behind.
Thirdly, the lack of physical activity in students who live in poverty affects their concentration. Some families of students who live in poorer neighbourhoods do not believe it is safe for their young children to play outside; even if there is a playground or park nearby, the violence associated with these neighbourhoods keeps families indoors. So students’ only physical activity occurs during the school’s physical education program or during a short recess at lunch.
The relationship between poverty and education shows in the students’ levels of cognitive readiness. The physical and social-emotional factors of living in poverty have a detrimental effect on students’ cognitive performance. Some children have short attention spans, some are highly distractible, and some cannot effectively monitor the quality of their own work.
Poor nutrition and health also influence how children learn. Exposure to lead, most commonly found in the paint in older, run-down homes and buildings, has been linked to poor working memory and an inability to make cause-and-effect connections. Chronic ear infections cause hearing loss, which makes it more difficult to follow directions.
Vocabulary plays a major part in cognitive development and student success in the classroom. Children living in poverty do not participate in lively conversations like their middle-class counterparts. By the time students enter kindergarten, children from poor families have heard only half as many words as their middle-class counterparts. The disparity increases in comparison to upper-income families. This lack of exposure to a rich and interesting vocabulary can leave students behind in academic conversations.
Many students who cannot understand the words in their texts will resist reading altogether. In addition, students will refuse to participate in discussions they do not understand simply because they do not want to ask for clarification. According to ldonline.org, it is not uncommon that children who struggle with academics would “rather look naughty than stupid.”