A head teacher describes how children in her school have pleaded with her that they are hungry, and how she recognises that they are getting so little to eat that it impacts on their ability to learn. Their parents cannot afford to purchase sufficient food to feed the family, so funds from the school are used to ensure that these children can have a decent meal. Another head teacher, expressing anxiety for the conditions that some children have to endure states that, “a hungry, worried, unsupported child doesn’t learn, behave or play well.” Schools increasingly have to provide basic support in order to protect the well-being of children. Three and a half million children are living in poverty, with a projection that they will be joined by a further 600,000 by 2016 with the total reaching 4.7 million by 2020.
Which country is being described here? You could be forgiven for believing that I have highlighted the conditions to be found in one of the poorer of the world’s states, possibly in Eastern Europe or one of the less affluent Asian nations. But no, these figures, taken from a report issued by a well respected organisation called the Child Poverty Action Group, refer to life in the tenth richest country in the world (according to International Monetary Fund Statistics) – that is, my country, the United Kingdom. It is not a situation of which we should be proud.
I am not totally naïve in my efforts to understand poverty. I have seen the conditions in which families live in some of the slum areas of India, and have spent time amongst people who spend their entire existence clinging to life and trying to survive whilst dwelling on the streets. Often these people live in situations surrounded by poor infrastructure and in countries where there are limited welfare systems and a long history of poverty and deprivation. This is far from the case in the UK, where the strength of the welfare state has always been a source of national pride.
At a time when educational policy makers have emphasised the need to focus upon the raising of academic standards, we have increasing numbers of children who are in no condition to benefit fully from the schooling on offer. There is no doubt that those who live in poverty are less likely to succeed in school, are more likely to drop out of education and leave school with few qualifications. It is also the case that poverty impacts seriously upon the health of those who live in this condition, making them more vulnerable to disease, malnutrition and disabling conditions.
So, how can it be that the world’s tenth wealthiest nation allows situations such as those described above to occur? Have we become less compassionate than we were in previous generations? I suspect that this may not be the case, and indeed the British public have a record of being particularly supportive of charitable causes that work in support of vulnerable individuals. The cause of this currently worsening situation may well be that the priorities identified by national politicians in respect of growing the nation’s economy, are at odds with providing support for the most vulnerable in our society. Whilst taking a broad view of the country’s economic situation they have lost sight of the need to provide support for those individuals and families who are at risk of becoming increasingly disaffected as a result of poverty.
Schools are increasingly required to provide the kind of support that was previously available through social systems that ensured the welfare of those at risk. Of course, it is essential that teachers take a holistic view of the needs of children and families and provide for social as well as educational needs, but for many families the message currently being received is that they are low on the list of priorities established by the current administration.
We should applaud those teachers and head teachers who see their responsibilities as going well beyond the school gates. But surely we must also question those who govern a wealthy country and appear content to see poverty increase and children struggling to thrive.