The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Tackling child poverty

Dr Joan Mowat says collaboration and a focus on wellbeing will help close the attainment gap.

On the day I am writing this the headlines state: ‘A classroom of children a day could fall into poverty’ (BBC Breakfast). In the same week, the Scottish Government acknowledged that mental health services for children and young people are woefully inadequate. Globally, there are rising concerns about the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people (particularly adolescent girls) and significant gaps in attainment between rich and poor, blighting the prospects for social mobility and limiting access to further and higher education. Such is the importance that the Scottish Government attaches to the problem that the First Minister has staked her political career on ‘closing the gap’.

As Course Leader for Into Headship at the University of Strathclyde, I am very aware of the commitment within Scottish schools to ‘close the gap’ and of the high quality work towards meeting this end (often exemplified within the strategic change initiatives taken forward by my students). I also, however, became aware of the heavy accountabilities, particularly on senior leaders in schools, to ensure that Scottish Attainment Challenge funding is used judiciously.

Together with Professor Gillean McCluskey and, latterly, Dr Gale Macleod at the University of Edinburgh, we formed a team constituting four universities, five third-sector organisations
and two local authorities to place a successful bid with the Scottish Universities Insight Institute (SUII)
to host a seminar series.

The principal aims were to bring a multidisciplinary perspective to the problem; to examine how a child’s sense of belonging impacts on their wellbeing and attainment; to enable new insights to inform public policy; and to create lasting networks, foster partnership working and opportunities for future collaborative research.

The poverty-related attainment gap cannot be understood through a single lens – it requires
a multidisciplinary perspective and a multi-agency solution. We know that the attainment gap manifests itself before children commence formal schooling. Disparities in mental health between children from more affluent homes and children living in poverty are in evidence when children enter primary school and magnify thereafter. Investment in early years education should therefore continue to be a national priority. One third of children in the lowest decile of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation also have Additional Support Needs (ASN) and/or are looked after. Children with Social, Emotional and Behavioural Needs (SEBN) are significantly represented within this group but least likely to have a co-ordinated support plan. High quality universal provision is important but children who are multiply disadvantaged may require a more individualised approach and resources targeted specifically towards them.

Children living in poverty are more likely to experience Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) but the relationship between ACEs, poverty and attainment is complex. Having a stable adult in the life of the child and a positive school ethos can help to ameliorate the impact of ACEs. However, we need to avoid over-simplistic solutions which individualise the problem and which fail to address the environmental factors which impact negatively on children’s lives.

The Scottish Government is investing significant funding towards ‘closing the gap’ but how do we know that this resource is building capacity within the system rather than quick-fixes or plastering over gaps in provision? This may be an appropriate point to take stock and evaluate the implementation of the Scottish Attainment Challenge to ascertain impact and sustainability and set the future direction of policy. Data matters, but it is ultimately about people. Investment in the teaching force and fostering a research culture in schools are key to ensuring that we have well-trained, inquiring professionals who have empathy towards children and families living in poverty. This has implications for Initial Teacher Education and Continuing Professional Development. We need to build a coherent picture of practice, tell the good news stories and celebrate success.

A collaborative approach

Schools through their efforts alone cannot solve this problem. We need to build strong infrastructures and networks of support around communities, families and schools with access to age-related and appropriate services at time of need in a suitable geographical location. This requires investment in services such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), educational psychology, speech therapy, counselling and home-link workers. We also need to create the spaces and opportunities for inter-professional, inter-sectoral and inter-agency work to take place; to foster understanding and break down professional barriers; and continue to build effective partnerships with parents, strengthening parental engagement in their children’s learning.

Schools cannot remove poverty but they can work with their communities to alleviate its impact and reduce stigma through their culture and actions. Initiatives such as the ‘Cost of the School Day’ can provide a blueprint for schools to poverty-proof the school and strengthen community links. We need to recognise the power of communities and work respectfully with them.

Prioritising wellbeing

Schools are committed to closing the gap. However, can schools be fully inclusive if success is measured by narrow attainment outcomes which take little account of the wider achievement of pupils? There is therefore a need to stand back from educational policy, prioritise and rationalise. There also needs to be recognition of the disjunct between policy rhetoric and the reality on the ground. Give credence to the voices of teachers and their professionalism.

Pupil wellbeing underpins achievement. We therefore need to reframe the narrative around poverty, attainment and wellbeing and prioritise health and wellbeing for all pupils – improved attainment will follow. A sense of belonging to school is a key aspect of pupil wellbeing. Senior leadership teams need to foster a culture of trust within the school community: of respectful and affirming relationships in which all children are equally valued for who they are, providing leadership opportunities for staff and pupils. Human relationships should be seen as pivotal in all that we do and the language that we use matters.

Poverty is a structural issue but we have individual and collective agency to make a difference at an individual, community and societal level to the lives of children and young people living in poverty. The scale of the problem is significant but we mustn’t be overwhelmed. Be optimistic in outlook and fierce champions of children and young people!

About the author

Dr Joan Mowat is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Strathclyde. She entered academia after a 27-year career in teaching, latterly as Depute Head at Vale of Leven Academy, West Dunbartonshire. She is Co-Convenor of the SERA Leadership in Scottish Education Network. Find out more at