The Problem Of Poverty In Education And Ways To Combat It

Poverty refers to those who lack the resources needed in order to afford basic living conditions, amenities and food, and an inability to participate in activities which are widely encouraged in the societies in which they live. This definition demonstrates the impact of poverty. In Scotland alone it is estimated that one in four children live in relative poverty. This filters directly into education where studies show a 10-13-month poverty related attainment gap in both literacy and numeracy skills between those from low-income households and those from high-income households. This attainment gap becomes progressively worse in latter schooling years which, as a further consequence, leads to fears of unemployment as adults. As a result, the Scottish government are focussed on improving educational outcomes for children by attempting to decrease the poverty related attainment gap, increase educational attainment, improve employment prospects, and thus decrease relative poverty. The body of this paper will explore the role poverty plays in the interconnected relationship between the pupil, the teacher, and the curriculum. This will be investigated through a critical lens whilst discussing the role legislation plays in educational and poverty related outcomes for children.

To understand the complexities of poverty and the impact children face, it is first important to understand the ways in which poverty is experienced. Naven et al. (2019) state that there are two prominent theories which aim to explain the ways in which poverty is experienced by children. First of which is the ‘Investment Theory’ which says that parents living in poverty often lack the financial means in which to provide their children with stimulating educational resources which encourage cognitive development. Children in poverty are therefore less likely to participate in school activities, and are more likely to face malnourishment and live in substandard housing. This financial state of uncertainty can result in high levels of parental stress which is described in the ‘Family and Environmental Stress Theory’. This stress is often experienced by the child through harsh forms of discipline and negative parental behaviour which has detrimental consequences on the childs developing cognitive ability and behavioural outcomes.

This stress is often referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s), and is synonomous with families who live in precarity. In research by Marryat & Frank (2019) 1 in 10 children had experienced in excess of three ACE’s by age 8. Particular concern relating to these statistics is that children living in the most economically disadvantaged communities were more likely to experience ACE’s than their wealthier counterparts. According to Public Health Scotland (2017) these adverse childhood events can hinder brain development, lead to long term learning difficulties, impact negatively on a child’s behaviour and have adverse health consequences. As a result pupils become disconnected in school, attendance is poor, and behaviour aggressive or disruptive, which in turn can lead to exclusion and further isolation (Public Health Scotland, 2017).

It is not to say that children from wealthier backgrounds do not suffer adversity. Infact it is now argued that the precariat is a social class in itself, making up approximately 15% of Britians population. It could be argued that this rings particularly true in today’s climate with events such as Brexit, the growing rates of unemployment and the precarity that is COVID-19. However what is certainly clear is the way in which poverty impacts on a young persons life, including their educational attainment. Based on the literature thus far it would seem that there is a violation on the rights afforded to many of our children.

Article 7 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) gives all children the right to a free education which is not subject to prejudice, promotes equality, and develops the indivdual socially, morally and intelectually to become a useful member of society. Member states must provide an elementary education which is free. Scotland has certainly attempted to incorporate the UNCRC into law and have taken this a step further to include free education in both primary and secondary school. However, what is free? A study conducted by Naven et al. (2019) demonstrates that there are a number of hidden costs associated with education in Scotland. Costs here, among others, included transportation to holiday revision classes, uniforms, afterschool clubs, and resources for home learning. This does little in promoting a culture of inclusivity and reducing the attainment gap. Particular concerns are the costs associated with extra-curricula activities as these activities have shown to improve “social, emotional and behavioural skills and better attainment”.

It is encouraging that the Scottish Government continue to strive to make our society inclusive for all. However, more needs to be done to close the attainment gap. It may be argued that these attempts to eradicate the attainment gap and improve educational outcomes is a fruitless task in the current neo-liberal society in which we live. Futile or not, the teacher plays an important role within education and as such deserves discussion. The role of a teacher in a young person’s life should not be underestimated, particularly since the educational experiences of learners are ultimately shaped by those who educate them. As such it is understandable that teachers are held to a set of core values set out by the GTCS which include social justice, integrity, trust and respect, and professional commitment (The General Teaching Council for Scotland, 2012). Additionally, teachers and schools alike have an obligation through GIRFEC “to ensure that all children and young people receive the help they need to be successful in life, including at school”. GIRFEC, which became legislated through the Children and Young People’s Act 2014, is designed to help schools and teachers better meet the needs of their learners with particular attention being placed on those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Meeting these complex needs and closing the attainment gap comes with its challenges. For the purpose of this paper attention will be placed on two major challenges. The first of which is the ethnic and language diversity within Scotish schools. According to Kennedy (2018) 149 different languages are spoken by 39,342 pupils. This is not necessarily a poverty related issue however a report by Netto et al. (2011) shows that some ethnic minorities earn low wages, face unemployment, live in substandard housing, have poor health and face racial harrassement. One could argue that is both a poverty related and cultural issue which fosters isolation and exclusion among the pupils impacted. Secondly, children who face poverty lack the financial resources needed to participate as full members of their school community, can suffer isolation, deal with toxic stress and have likely expreienced one or several ACE’s in their young lifetime. This adversely affects their social, emotional and cognitive abilities. This ‘virtual backpack’ of theirs forms part of who they are and how they interact and learn at school. As such it is imperative for teachers to address these challenges and create an environment in which each child can thrive.

The evidence above suggests that pupils living in poverty can struggle to form meaningful relationships at school. As such, teachers are required to provide a stable, nuturing, trustworthy and cognitively stimulating environment for the child to grow and develop. This is evidenced by Fine et al. (2016) when interviews conducted with children from marginalised groups revealed mistrust with teachers and the education system due to past experiences. This adversely affected their ability to build meaningful relationships and thwarted academic achievement. As such teachers have a moral and professional obligation to address these unjust imbalances. A nuture approach is one method used in attempting to meet the needs of learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. According to a paper published by Kearney & Nowek (2019) a nurture approach, applied correctly, can increase attainment, promote positive social behaviours, reduce attatchment and increase the childs confidence. A second method used in attempting to raise academic achievement is by embracing a pupils existing funds of knowledge. A study by Wiltse (2015) demonstrates that capatilising on a students existing social and cultural knowledge encourages better achievement in literary practices and creates a more inclusive environment for pupils to thrive. It could be said that this approach is not limited to students from low-income households, however it is still perfectly justified.

A final methodology for discussion is parental engagement. A child only spends approximately 13% of their day at school. As such it would be unwise to assume that teachers alone can close the attainment gap. By engaging parents in a child’s learning it promotes agency among parents, positively reinforces learning which in turn has shown to improve child behaviour, improve school attendance and leads to increased achievement. Barriers such as catchement area, parental attitudes towards the school and teachers, school open hours, and lack of acknowledgement by the school of existing barriers hinder the progress of parental enagagement. Teachers and schools alike need to acknowledge these potential barriers and address them accordingly in order to foster a positive learning environment. To this end, child centred pedagogical approaches seem to be the way in which teachers and schools can play their part in attempting to close the attainment gap and thus reduce poverty.

Attention now needs to be firmly placed on the role the curriculum plays in addressing poverty. The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence was first introduced in 2010 to provide an education to pupils which meets the needs of twenty-first century learning. In an article by Mowat (2017) Scottish Education is often one of the best performing systems globally. However, it is also a system in which the attainment gap is an apparent issue. A report published by the Scottish Government (2018) which focussed on P1, P4, P7 and S3 students highlights the growing presence of the attainment gap. The report states that “Pupils from the least deprived areas performed better than pupils from the most deprived areas at all stages” (Scottish Government, 2018, p. 11).

It is difficult to determine the extent to which the CfE is to blame as “criticism of CfE often based on opinion rather than strong evidence” (University of Stirling, 2012). The curriculum places all learners at the heart of education and strives to provide pupils with more than simply what is taught. It strives to ensure all pupils are confident individuals, successful learners, responsible citizens, and effective contributors in school and beyond. Additionally, the curriculum adhere’s to children’s rights under article 7 of the UNCRC providing them with an ‘entitlement’ to a coherent curriculum from ages 3 to 18. The CfE also has a set of experiences and outcomes which laregly mirror Bourdieu’s third principle. Here the curriculum is used as a framework to meet pupil needs, where collaboration and student independence is encouraged and where hierarchical constraints are removed. Finally, the curriculum further acknowledges the rights of the child by encouraging pupil participation and giving them the platform to develop and voice their own views. The evidence above suggests that the CfE is child centred. One could argue that for CfE to be successful it is teachers who need the appropriate structures in place and a platform where they can truly be agents of change for their pupils. Who then is responsible for providing the teachers with this platform? It is difficult to determine the extent to which, if at all, the curriculum is failing. What seems to be more plausible is that there is a systemic rather than an isolated failure in eradicating poverty within education and society as a whole.

The didactic relationship between the pupil, teacher and curriculum is complex. This complexity is magnified when social issues of poverty are involved. This paper has clearly evidenced the impact poverty has on children’s social, emotional, behavioural and cognitive ability. As a consequence educational attainment between those from the most deprived and least deprived households continues to be an area of national concern. This creates challenges for teachers where much emphasis and expectation is placed on them to close the attainment gap and reduce societietal poverty. This paper outlined three of the many ways in which teachers can attempt to combat poverty in education. What certainly became clear is that teachers alone cannot eradicate the deep rooted nature of poverty. The curriculum too plays a key role in education. It is however unclear the extent to which the curriculum for excellence is to blame for the poverty related issues in education. Based on the paper it is evident that although both teacher and curriculum play a key role in closing the attainment gap, the issue stems beyond the scope of education. It is unclear if poverty can be dissolved in today’s neo-liberal society. What is apparent is that although the role of teacher and curriculum are crucial, more needs to be done. In closing, one could argue that a shift in society is needed in order to achieve equality and equity. 

16 August 2021
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