Scots teachers urged to tackle poverty in class

Scotland’s teachers are being urged to be on the lookout for hungry pupils and take a more relaxed approach to those without uniforms, in new advice to deal with child poverty levels.

Max Baxter and Ryder McCardle from Gracemount Primary with education secretary Angela Constance. Picture: Callum Bennetts
Max Baxter and Ryder McCardle from Gracemount Primary with education secretary Angela Constance. Picture: Callum Bennetts
Max Baxter and Ryder McCardle from Gracemount Primary with education secretary Angela Constance. Picture: Callum Bennetts

The country’s largest teaching union, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), has released a poverty advice booklet for its 60,000 members due to the “increasing concern” of child poverty in the nation’s classrooms.

Entitled Face up to Child Poverty, it seeks to “poverty proof” the learning environment, offering teachers advice and guidance on what to do when they encounter pupils who might be in need of aid.

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This follows a nationwide EIS survey which asked teachers and lecturers to share their experiences of the impact of poverty on their pupils and students.

Many offered harrowing tales of hunger and poverty within the nation’s schools, with teachers revealing how they regularly provide additional clothing to families with more than one child who are struggling to afford more than one change of shirt or top.

Others spoke of children dreading non-uniform days due to a lack of good casual clothing. EIS members also highlighted children attending school each day feeling hungry and unable to think of schoolwork because of hunger.

Increases in parental depression and pupils discussing “getting money tomorrow” or “getting food on Friday” were also highlighted in the EIS survey.

One secondary teacher, from Falkirk, said: “I keep my own supply of lost, outgrown items which I happily allow children to share. They know where they are kept and so are able to borrow and return items without a fuss being made.”

Another teacher added: “We have expanded our breakfast club and provide toast at interval to help support children who have not had breakfast.”

Susan Quinn, EIS education committee convener, said: “We are seeing a huge rise in the number of young people coming in to school without having a proper breakfast. In Glasgow one child in two is now meeting at least one of the criteria that indicate they are living in poverty. Half of all the children in our largest city – that is why we must act.”

The new advice, prepared by the EIS equality committee, will be sent to all schools and colleges in Scotland next week.

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Committee convener Bill Ramsay said: “The EIS is absolutely committed to taking all realistic practical steps to reduce the impact of poverty on the young people in our classrooms.

“In the 21st century, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, children going unfed is both wholly unacceptable and entirely unnecessary.”

EIS general-secretary Larry Flanagan echoed this and said: “The fact that food poverty now affects such a large, and growing, section of society should shame those in government and elsewhere who continue to push the damaging and divisive austerity-above-all agenda. Working alone, educational establishments cannot eradicate poverty or eliminate completely its negative impact on young people.”

The number of people using foodbanks has reached a record one million after an increase in workers on low pay having to seek emergency help for food, according to recent figures from the Trussell Trust.

Almost 400,000 children were among those receiving at least three days of supplies from the charity’s 445 foodbanks across the UK in the past year.

Scottish Labour opportunity spokesman Iain Gray said: “The EIS survey paints a damning picture of the impact of poverty on pupils’ participation in our schools. In a well-off 21st-century country some of these findings are shameful.

“But they will not surprise anyone who deals on a day to day basis with the growth of foodbanks and the impact of the Tory government’s welfare reforms.

“I hope that this work by the EIS will open up a new strand in the current debate about what stops poorer children from getting the best from school, because it certainly should.”

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A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government wants to tackle poverty and inequalities head-on, and we welcome the EIS advice to teachers which is published today.

“We have invested £296 million in welfare mitigation measures and around £329m over two years to expand free early learning and childcare, and extend this entitlement to more than a quarter of two-year-olds who will benefit most.

“But we do this against a backdrop of a UK government which is trying to change the definition of poverty, continues to introduce policies and implement cuts that will have a devastating impact of children in Scotland.”