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.”