Poor Children

I ticked an awful lot of boxes when I was a kid: I was from a single parent family, we didn’t have much money, I got free school meals, and I was clever. I also had some psychological issues as the result of a messy divorce. I can imagine my name on a modern day staffroom notice board – it would be covered with lots of different coloured stickers to identify all my different ‘needs’ and the fact that Ofsted would be looking closely at how you spent my Pupil Premium. But the thing is, even though we didn’t have much money, my mum still did a great job at shielding us from the problems that this caused. Yes, we were ‘latch key kids’ who had to wait on the doorstep until she got home from work. Yes, we had to wear second hand uniform. And yes, I can remember that we couldn’t buy biscuits that cost more than 20p, which ruled out all the chocolate ones. But apart from that, I don’t remember feeling all that much different to everyone else. I didn’t want your pity.

I have several problems with the phrase “poor children”, a phrase I see bandied about more and more these days. I saw the phrase again this morning, in a tweet from the Sutton Trust. If you take a look at the board of the Sutton Trust, you might notice a couple of strange things: notably, a stunning lack of diversity, but also the banker/private investor/CEO thing that is going on there. And therein lies my first issue with the phrase “poor children” – it smacks far too much of the days of Charles Dickens, when wealthy philanthropists ‘generously’ gave of their time and money to rescue us unworthy poor folk. I don’t want to hold out a begging bowl so that some wealthy white man can hand me his benefice – I’d much prefer a more equitable society, in which education is properly funded through general taxation. The phrase “poor children” also smacks of the assumption that lack of money is going to lead to bad parenting. My mum did a great job of raising us, thank you very much, even though we didn’t get any chocolate biscuits.

My final objection to the phrase lies in the phrasing itself. As soon as you start putting labels in front of the word children, you run the risk of seeing children through the labels they have attached to them. You begin to adapt and subconsciously alter your image of the child, your expectations of them, through the judgement you have laid down through your choice of words. You start to see yourself as someone who can ‘rescue’ them from their background, rather than seeing their situation as a fault of society itself. See, here’s the thing: I was not a “free school meals child”, or a “single parent child”, or a “gifted child” or an anything child. I was me. Just like you were. And I would have been horrified to think of my teachers metaphorically patting me on the head, saying: “Oh look, it’s a poor child.”

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7 Responses to Poor Children

  1. chemistrypoet says:

    I agree with this. Children are children: High expectations for all.


  2. This raises lots of issues….and I’m interested not only because I’d’ve ticked many of the same boxes. A key one for me is the notion of “poor” as problematic in itself. Just because you don’t have as much money as another family doesn’t have to mean that there’s something wrong with your life! This splits into two more – you might have fewer material advantages, so, yes, this might limit some of your experiences – but there are other kinds of advantages that can compensate; and secondly, that just because parents are “poor” it doesn’t mean that children are: they’re not the ones with the purse strings. Even children from higher income families are subject to their parents’ spending decisions, just as lots of children of lower income parents benefit from the ways their parents do choose to spend on them when and where they can.
    I agree with the linguistic point here, Sue…if you put the adjective before the “children”, you’re seeing them as an aspect of that quality, not the other way round. “Poor children” implies that they’re “poor” first and foremost, and that their economic condition subsumes them.
    I’m proud to work in a school that sees the child first, and expects all children to achieve as well as they can, and opens up possibilities for them to do so. If some need more financial help, we use the systems available to make that happen. We use the phrase “fiercely ambitious” for our pupils… Every child is a special case, every individual has particular needs, all children need support and each one has their own story. No amount of flags on a notice board can do justice to the complexity of the whole situation – there are 1400 complex stories going on in our school – it’s our job to notice, provide, support, inspire, coax, coach and assist…all within our teaching and other roles. Children are only with us for short periods of time. They’ve all got futures to go to…and we must hold open the doors.


  3. Vivienne Porritt says:

    Sue, I agree with so much of this. I was a child of working class parents who weren’t sure what to do with a bright child, mother with mental health issues all her life, father who couldn’t cope, and, like you, feel sure I would also be categorised as a child now. The labels can help if it means that the child’s individual needs are catered for and supported and the child does not feel labelled. The latter is key and good schools ensure this. I fear that the goal for most labelled children nowadays is to achieve the required number at the end of the exams and schools under pressure may mean this leaks onto the children. There is much more that a children like me needed from my school then and, I am sure, children still do.


    • bks says:

      Not disagreeing with you Vivienne but how to define what the school should and can do and still allow building of resilience. What are reasonable adjustments? It is not a perfect world and how to define individual needs. I work in an independent school not in UK but previously a SENCo. Here we have huge pastoral care push and an explosion of mental issues amongst students. Some see this as an industry and curse the corridor of “help” which has replaced learning support.
      Students overall lack grit, the will to learn, have a go, to try to fail. They want an A for everything they attempt. They have an aura of entitlement. They are not poor. Is this relevant? Do poor kids make better progress academically and thus emotionally if they develop grit, with a warm secure environment and food and this be available for all.


  4. teachwell says:

    I think that this is also used in many schools to emphasise the pastoral over the academic and excuses a lot of low expectations and standards. The labels have created, for some, a reason to treat children differently while appearing to be kind and caring. I could be wrong and maybe they are simply misguided.

    My current bugbear is ‘relevance’ – if it is based on an idea that we relate what we are teaching to the children to support their understanding before moving on with our teaching – fine. But the fact is some will take this as carte blanche for teaching children from poor backgrounds less academically challenging context. Apparently everything is relevant to middle class children (even when its not!!) but not for the poor. I fear it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy that the teachers don’t recognise their own prejudices, surround themselves with others who share these and then justify it when any child does not understand something complex.

    One of the saddest things is seeing the very system which gave me enormous chances in my life (the chance to go to university, live in Italy, apply for a scholarship to study further) is letting children who are the equivalent if not brighter than me down. The proof of the pudding is in the eating after all and no the progressive agenda has not led to greater social mobility which has been static and more recently declining.


  5. Alison says:

    I suppose we were poor, but then everyone on the estate was in a similar situation, so we didn’t really notice the inconvenience of not having much money. Our teachers didn’t seem to draw any distinctions between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ either. However, what we did have was ‘grit’ by the bucket load. We were resourceful (wooden draining boards and old pram wheels make excellent go carts), sociable (the whole street played 40/40 together) and resilient (if we fell over, we wiped the grit from our knees and palms and carried on playing, occasionally needing a dab of TCP and a plaster). Thank goodness for Pennywise biscuits.


  6. Pingback: Wherefore Art Thou Wilshaw? | Freeing the Angel

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