Can you be too poor for school?
Today I am reminded of a quote by Robert Walker that goes something like, “it is almost certainly the case that more is known about how much poverty there is than what it means to be poor”.
This is so true, when you are poor, even those close to you, who work with you or teach you may not know much about what it means to be poor.
Did you know that although there is a legal requirement for young people to attend post 16 training or education there is no legal requirement for local authorities or educational institutions to provide transport to that training or education? Some areas of the country do provide transport for free to young people, my County, Cornwall does not. How do post 16 students from low income families attend college for training or education if they cant afford the transport costs? We are becoming aware of the digital divide as a result of covid-families without internet access or technology, we know many families now experience food poverty, we know many families in poverty are families in work but not entitled to free school meals or pupil premium, we know some children dont always have the right uniform or kit for school, cant go on school trips but what about those in rural locations who can't walk to their nearest college. I'm sorry to add to the list, but some students literally cant afford to go to college.
We are a low income, single parented family. We are in the middle of a global pandemic and I am self employed and had no work from March until September. I needed to pay the termly transport cost of £195 for my daughter to get to her most local College before September. She was offered a bursary, that it was suggested to her would help to cover the cost of transport. The bursary arrived and it was £50. At the same time, her bus driver started asking to see bus passes. Unable to afford the transport cost, unable to get on the bus with no pass, unable to get a lift to College 20 minutes away in the wrong direction of my work, She stayed at home that day. And the next day.
Other students at the same College encouraged to enrol from areas further afield are given a free bus pass (no doubt as an incentive to boost enrolment from new students out of catchment).
Some students have free transport. Other students pay £515 per year for transport. Some students from low income families receive a bursary to support their studies. Some students receive the same bursary and have to use it to pay for the transport that other students at the same college receive for free.
This is not the first time my children have been disadvantaged due to living in a low-income family. There are numerous, heart-breaking, shame inducing occasions when THEY [my children] have missed out at school due to MY financial circumstances. Worse, are the activities or trips that I never get to hear about as they already know I can’t afford it.
I am tired of it.
Today, all of our Cornish M.Ps voted against extending free school meals during half term to children and students who experience such extreme poverty that they do not have enough food to eat. My own MP Steve Double felt very strongly that children from poor families without enough food to eat didn’t need this extra support. So when advised to contact him about my daughter and her transport troubles, I'm pretty sure that if he doesn't care about hungry kids experiencing food poverty then...
Our school has also asked families to provide extra basic school equipment, equipment that schools usually fund, due to new covid concerns. Most schools now have a required uniform with the school logo embroidered into it, that low-income families will afford by shaving their food budget (the only flexible budget in a low-income household).
My daughter has dreams of attending Cambridge. She and her sister have been “fortunate” enough to gain places on Summer schools sensitively titled LPN or “Low participation Neighbourhoods” She is invited to join “enrichment” sessions at college to prepare her and arm her with cultural capital it is assumed she doesn’t possess. She fully understands the social implications of her Cambridge dream and the barriers and obstacles in her way. She is bright, keen, curious and listens to the social mobility podcast to better understand the journey she has chosen to undertake. This week she didn’t attend the enrichment or any of her subject lessons because I couldn’t pay for her transport, that it turns out, other students at the same college get for free.
I write this blog now as I am tired of the shame that comes with low income and poverty. If we don’t talk about it, it means no one knows about it and then we can’t begin to find solutions. Shame is what prevents us from sharing and talking about poverty and more than ever we REALLY need to talk about it. Danny Dorling says in Mary O'Hara's excellent and insightful book, the shame game "shame is the weapon they use". Shame is what keeps us from speaking up when we know we are not being treated fairly or equally.
I barely scrape the surface here. I have made a career trying to support families to enjoy some of the simple things that many are able to take for granted. I understand the discrimination that exists for families who struggle financially. I also grew up on free school meals.
Living in poverty is not a protected identity, there is little that can be done legally to support or protect yourself or those you love.
We live with institutionalised, systematic, social and economic discrimination and inequality. We are used to it, we have got good at putting up with it. We work hard to overcome the shame and disappointments, to weather it.
I am incandescent with rage that this blatant, brutal and brazen inequality exists, in the Country, in our county, at my daughters College.
I am tired of it.