Class dismissed

How poor children are being poverty-shamed at school

12th February 2018

Last month, it was reported that a Birmingham school gathered its pupils in the playground and separated them into groups of “paid” and “not paid” for new sports equipment. This was under a “no pay, no play” scheme. Yeah, that apparently exists in 2018.

Alongside the ongoing success of Amika George’s Free Periods campaign, which is superbly tackling period poverty in the UK and beyond, it really does feel like one Dickensian leap back for every few steps forward on the issue of pupil poverty in schools. Wider and louder discussions need to take place in the media to encourage working-class families to speak out about the daily obstacles they face, because it’s not ok to make young people feel ashamed of their financial background.   

I’m yet to tune into a Netflix episode centred on the lead cheerleader’s dilemma between spending her last bit of cash on the bus fare to school or on a box of tampons

But let’s be honest, it’s never been culturally cool to be one of the poor kids at school. You don’t see teen protagonists on TV shows strutting down the corridors in worn-and-torn, second-hand Matalan loafers. And I’m yet to tune into a Netflix episode centred on the lead cheerleader’s dilemma between spending her last bit of cash on the bus fare to school or on a box of tampons.

This lack of exploration into what it means to be a young person in poverty today is damaging. If you can’t be what you can’t see, these school students must feel like cellophane — the number of positive working-class leads in the media is embarrassingly low. It seems the only time we hear their story is in outrageous reports like the one about the “no pay, no play” scheme. This humiliation of pupils is often accompanied by further negative thoughts of frustration, low-confidence, anxiety and shame.

I felt shame in wearing a school uniform that was paid for with vouchers

I know this because I was a student from a low-income, single-parent family, who attended the nearest Catholic attended high-school in one of northern England’s most affluent areas. For seven years, I mentally exhausted myself by trying to fit in with middle-class peers rather than accept and be proud of my background.

I felt shame in wearing a school uniform that was paid for with vouchers; shame in being eligible for free school dinners; shame in telling my teacher that we couldn’t afford the last instalment of the school trip; shame in turning up to registration un-showered because the gas meter ran out the previous night; shame in making up excuses to friends about not going to the cinema after school because my mum had no petrol in the car to pick me up.

While classmates sat comfortably in their Marks and Sparks uniforms, chatting away about family holidays to Tenerife and the Mini they were getting for their 17th birthday, I taught myself to edit the realities of my life. Who was I to dampen a perfectly nice conversation with: “Well, actually, the last time we could afford so much as a camping trip was before my dad went AWOL ten years ago.” Instead, I’d listen with feigned interest and ask hundreds of questions to deflect any coming my way. For each probe into my life, I developed a quick quip so that no one knew exactly how little money my family had.

I now see that I’ve mostly had a fair amount of privilege in life. I was so lucky to receive a good education, to have a loving mother who always gave me the very little that she had and to have clothes on my back and food in my belly. But these things shouldn’t be a luxury to any child or teenager in the UK, not in 2018.

In 2016, the number of eligible children claiming school dinners was at its lowest in 15 years

I cannot even begin to imagine the mindset of students from similar backgrounds in the current digital climate. Classmates uploading filtered photos of their new Nike trainers, fear of being the day’s victim for online bullying and relentless streams of “wellbeing” bloggers and celebrities teaching us how to achieve the perfect life (with money, obvs) – even adults struggle to deal with it all. So it’s little wonder that recent figures and reports suggest that young people still aren’t confident in vocalising their financial needs or confronting social pressures in the classroom.

In 2016, the number of eligible children claiming school dinners was at its lowest in 15 years, with pupils not taking advantage of the financial aid they are entitled to. Last year, it was reported that 49% of girls missed school because of not being able to pay for sanitary products while on their period. And research shows that parents are expected to pay a total of around £6,000 on a child’s uniform over their school years — a heavy burden for kids who know that this is an unimaginable sum for their family.

Low-income families should feel emboldened — not embarrassed — to call out extortionate school trip fees, teachers who openly single out their children for outstanding payments and bullying playground cultures that pick on the poor. How can we follow the lead of people like 18-year-old campaigner Amika George and continue to expose poverty shaming in our schools?

Giving airtime to working-class people in all corners of the media is a good start

Giving airtime to working-class people in all corners of the media is a good start; amplifying their voices with the help of influential figures from similar backgrounds is even better. Take Professor Green’s recent Channel 4 documentary, Working Class White Men. It was a thoughtful and provoking exploration of people who don’t often get the chance to share their stories on TV. Green was empathetic but pressing, frustrated yet familiar with the challenges faced – he was totally relatable to families sat at home watching.

Green did a great job, but the documentary only exposed the realities of white working-class men. What about the kids being brought up by a single mother? Or the teens who are part of black working-class communities? Who is the modern poster woman? Or poster BAME person? We must diversify the conversation with more successful figures sharing experiences that young people can resonate with, to ensure that every type of person feels represented in the ongoing conversations.

If I had found interviews with my favourite popstars or novelists talking about how awesome it is to ever be offered a free hot dinner, the loneliness of not having an understanding friend to confide in about financial worries, or the total injustice of attending science lessons while the rich kids went skiing – I’d have felt relief, support and just enough anger to spark positive action.

Maybe one day soon it will be cool to be poor? Because these are the only compelling stories that can make the most progressive change in our society. That’s surely something to be proud of.

12th February 2018