I am moved to write this post in response to the frequent declarations from Dept for Education on the support offered to those children and young people for whom, disadvantage is a byword for life. I am mindful also of our descent into winter and of the relentless days ahead of cold and discomfort that many in poorer households, will endure.
Sarah Teather commented (13 December 2011, House of Commons, Hansard) that –
The Department is providing significant support to families in the current economic climate. We are seeking to ensure that economic difficulties do not impair children’s long-term life chances and that we support families to improve their circumstances
It strikes me that, however much government’s make provision and policies guide direction, it is up to us indivdually and collectively, to ensure that this provision meets needs, and that those needs are identified appropriately. For our schools, this may not be so much about what signs of disadvantage can be seen within the comparitive security and comfort of the classroom, but what signs of disadvantage do we witness at the school gate and beyond the school gate.
Driving to a meeting yesterday at that school-run time of day, I was struck by how many children, arriving at a local primary school, were wholly inadequately dressed for the cold. The particular school I passed has a no-uniform policy, and so, issues about the merits or otherwise of that policy aside, I was disturbed to see so many young children dashing into the school grounds without coats or jackets, but wearing sports tops that may be suitable for a Summer outing, but scarcely provide warmth or comfort at 2C. On this morning, I would say that over a half of those I saw gathering at the crossing and making their way into the school grounds, were without jackets or coats.
One young man in particular, caught my attention as he stood shivering and clutching his sleeves as he waited alone at the school crossing, wearing jeans and a half-sleeved shirt. There was no adult in sight, yet this boy looked no older than seven or eight years old.
There are numerous issues here that may be repeated many times over, in villages and towns throughout the country, where children arrive at school unaccompanied, inappropriately dressed, day after day, through these harsh ungiving Winter mornings. These are our earliest signs that all is not well, but who within the school bears witness?
At this school, as at so many I have visited over the years, supervising staff will remain on the school grounds, within the playground or close to the school buildings. How easy it is for a young child like this to slip through the net, for no one to notice anything amiss, once coats and bags and lunch-boxes have been hung and children are through to the warmth of the classroom.
There is a need for all to be aware of where does advantage end and disadvantage take over. The child who arrives to school on just one day of the year, inappropriately dressed, cold and unsupervised, may suffer and feel apart from those children whose parents ensure the basics of our parenting responsibilities are met. The child who repeatedly arrives to school in such a manner, may be socially isolated from his peers, may be significantly under-achieving, may be slow to settle and concentrate, may be so intent on keeping warm and keeping hunger at bay, that his attention is impaired.
All of these signs of disadvantage we may see at an early stage, if we are prepared to look, to observe, to bear witness to what is happening not just within the safety of the classroom, but on the playgrond, and beyond the school gate.
What kind of start to the school day do some of our most vulnerable young children have, and what could be done differently by schools to ensure there is some guidance, support and protection for those most disadvantaged families? Not all of this is about pouring money at the problem. Much is about an awareness that the problem exists, and not elsewhere, but here, in this school, in these streets.
There was once a day when school senior staff regularly patrolled the grounds of a school to ensure that pupils entered and left appropriately attired. It is rare these days to find that level of vigilance, of commitment, of interest, but that, surely, is what is needed if we are truly to make a difference to those young people whose lives may forever be blighted by disadvantage.