How does poverty affect children and young people – Policy Lab 1 notes

Ben Wray

Piecing Together the Jigsaw, Common Weal and Edinburgh University’s childhood project, began on 21 September with a policy lab looking at how poverty affects children and young people. The session involved teachers, academics, campaigners and voluntary sector workers, who discussed the issues in groups. Below are the notes of key points from the policy lab. Click here for information on future Piecing Together the Jigsaw policy labs

Material and Psycho-Social Effects of Poverty

There is a danger of generalisations and using homogenising terms when talking about poverty. We can talk all we want about how we minimise the impact of poverty but the only way to deal with poverty is to eradicate its root structural causes not by putting a sticking plasters on its symptoms. Poverty is related to:

– Poor health, mental and physical

– Wages, over work, rent costs and more lead to a lack of basic necessities including books, food, heating and cultural experience

– Important to look at contemporary developments in work including casualised labour, zero-hour contracts, and the rise of self-employed work, increasing the burden of work and reducing the time for relationships between children and parents

– Stress from poverty on parents and children may adversely affect family attachments forming

– Poverty doesn’t make you a bad parent but it can make parenting a lot more difficult as parents energy and worries are directed elsewhere

– Children suffer mentally as they are constantly under strain from worrying about their clothes or how hungry they are. They worry about these things rather than their exams, doing well in school or maintaining relationships

– The geography of poverty matters – lack of or poorly maintained public space affects ability to participate and learn, adversely affecting relationships; poor public transport access limits the amount of environments a child can be exposed to

– Children ‘learn to be poor’ – lowered expectations means they make fewer demands on parents and school

– Material effects like bad clothes cause psychological effects; e.g. lack of confidence and self esteem

– fees reinforce poverty – opportunities for children, eg school trips or equipment, are expensive, further segregating and stigmatising poor children

– The psychological effect of poverty also affect parents as they feel they are not providing.

– Kids are aware of how their current situation will affect their futures and begin to decide that they are doomed. E.g.  ‘No ball games’ rule perpetuates boredom, exclusion and in the longer term can pave the way to drug use for some young people.

Holistic But Not Homogeneous Approach

A holistic but not homogenous approach would mean poverty is addressed both universally and in bespoke, targeted ways that align our policies, concepts and practice and ensure that we have maximum impact on the things children, families and communities want to address.

You can’t separate children from their families, so children cannot be viewed in isolation without considering their family’s social situation. This always includes a diverse range of experiences – we can’t think of those living in poverty as a homogenous group. For example, there is different types of exclusion in rural and urban areas that need specific remedies. Also, intersectionality – if you are poor and disabled/ethnic minority for example, there is not a policy intervention for you, there must be other more nuanced policies that are more individual.

This complexity can’t be addressed properly by centralised government – devolving power to communities, or at least including communities in decision-making that affects them, is necessary. Inclusivity has to mean people making decisions about their circumstances.

Evidence shows that schools do best when they do build a real relationship with communities. The starting point of doing this is the pupils – they need to feel empowered – and then you build a network around that which involves the community. 

If you want to engage parents, engaging them in an environment they are comfortable in is important. Parent councils are not representative and aren’t really ‘the community’. Curently, local authorities tend to stigmatise parents, whether intentionally or not. In London schools went to parents, and engaged them in their home about the school.

Stigma, Social Exclusion and Self-Exclusion

Many approaches towards children actually help to reinforce stigma and exclusion rather than undermine it. These include:

– Teachers and other professionals can be prejudiced. Stigmatisation of working class kids based on teacher’s perception; some teachers don’t ask kids to do stuff because they don’t want ‘badly behaved’ children involved.

– There is a certain media and political stigma attached to poverty – statistics and how they are reported, affects children’s view of their opportunities.  This affects self-esteem, it removes a sense of individuality and reinforces class.

– Unless you have a system that values all kinds of knowledge equally, it causes inequalities. We need to change the social culture around vocational and higher education.

– Exclusion from events and services that aren’t universal creates stigma.  Universality can solve some of this stigma.

– Children can also be technologically left behind from their peers due to rapid advancements, this can affect their learning and increase social inclusion.

– Poverty also breeds self-exclusion, which can lead to alternative cultures, such as gang culture.  You can be lead not to value yourself, or others. Kids are often encouraged to transcend their class; youth culture can be a backlash against this.

– Summer holidays can be hated by poor kids and parents, while loved by those who are not deprived.

Policy changes

Do policies translate into meaningful change for people?  People, including young people, must be asked about and be included in the change they want to see. We’re not taking into account the knowledge that children have developed in poor areas and this does not fit into the curriculum and qualifications.  They have developed many life skills.  However, they can often miss out on childhood and growing up is accelerated without having a choice in the matter.

To what extent is our approach to policy really based on improving lives? Or is it simply about quantitatively-measurable improvements, rather than whether communities see and feel their lives improving?

It’s crucial that everyone is deemed a citizen with knowledge to contribute and an ability to solve problems. That should be the starting point for policy.


Poverty affects children in different ways, but some aspects are universal, such as the effect of dampness and malnutrition on health.

As such there are some policies which should be universal:

– Quality Housing

– Affordable Rents

– Provisions across the summer holidays

– Nutrition – Breakfast clubs, lunch clubs, after school clubs

– Sport facilities and training

– Inclusive activities, arts

– Preserving parks and social spaces (and keeping them safe) 

– Safeguarding the arts, sports, libraries and other public spaces

Poverty and attainment

In all of this, we have to make poor people wealthier to make any real difference: any agenda that doesn’t is useless. As part of that strategy, we shouldn’t fall into trap of trying to solve the problem just through schooling; the problem stems from poverty not schools.

There is a problem with measuring and assessing in schools, for instance the Scottish Government’s Attainment Challenge focused on boosting literacy numbers to cose the attainment gap – it doesn’t actually address the wider causes of poverty and inequality that lead to the attainment gap. 

The attainment fund could be considered a gimmicky short-term measure to tackle long-term problems – in many ways national initiatives of this nature get in the way for teachers as it distracts them from building relationships with pupils and with the community.

The educational establishment is built on industrial targets model rather than a social human model. We are accountability focussed, always looking  at value for money to prove what you are doing is okay – instead of looking at the human value.

If we have to have measures of schooling (and it may be that we don’t need top down measures at all) why not make them related to the GIRFEC outcomes not attainment or HIGOS – then the attainment will take care of itself.  There is not a model that sees the child holistically and sees what’s impacting on the child.  Why not have professionals, children and parents work with the local community to agree the outcomes?

Stigma is often generated by particular environments young people are exposed to, and quite often schools reinforce this stigmatisation rather than reduce and mitigate it; which is what they should do. School trips are one example of this. Even without more funding, is there not more non-stigmatising ways for teachers to do this? The element of choice in the school system institutionalises stigma – because schooling becomes commodified. 

A long-term, sustainable and strategic approach is needed that starts addressing inequalities pre-primary school, as by the time they are 5 many of the inequalities are already deeply embedded. Investment in early years should therefore be given major prioritisation – including having graduate level qualified professionals that are employing the social pedagogy, early years pedagogy and creative/outdoors pedagogy that is currently being taught in the BA Childhood Practice.

Teaching and relationships

There are top down tick boxes in the current model set out for what a good teacher looks, how you judge quality of teachers, do their lessons include learning plan and lollipop stickies, etc.  But, why are we not looking to see if a teacher, or social worker has noticed that children have got access to food and can work collaboratively on quick and sensitive solutions to resolve this? 

The more money we throw at a policy the greater the accountability looked for in a top down way.  Top down criteria are not an appropriate driver for change – they are part and parcel of the problem.  We need more autonomy at local and community level but not total freedom – there should be supportive frameworks to help our local thinking.

The policy context is there to address the wellbeing aspect of social justice and poverty related to education e.g. Curriculum for Excellence, GIRFEC, Asl act, professional standards etc.  We should trust people more to deliver on the policies and stop national and unhelpful approaches focussed too much on assessment end of education e.g.  literacy or numeracy didactic teaching imposed on classroom teachers by unreflexive head teachers who are worried about league tables.  Society and the education system is in alignment to some extent but not all the systems in social work, health, schools or early years are in alignment.  Performance indicators create perverse incentives to game the system.   There is huge potential but needs to be a shift in procedural, systems, accountability systems and how ‘professional’ is measured.

It would help if professionals that work with families, communities and children all had some similar training on social justice, social/creative/early years pedagogy, strength based working, inclusive practice and anti-discriminatory approaches.   

We need to recognise that the hierarchies and top down bullying we create in our social, educational and health services not only make professionals lives very difficult but they lead practice of stigmatisation in communities – the Scottish Government need to speak to the pressures that people are under and stand up and say how they will remove the hierarchies, snobbish practice and elitism that oppresses professionals, parents and children’s lives.  People who have leadership roles should be defined in legislation as representing their peer group not having ultimate power to make people’s lives a misery.  

We need to address the love gap not the attainment gap.  It’s a bit like trying to boil a kettle with a hole in it.  A lack of strong loving relationships and attachments crosses all social class.  

We need to ensure society is structured to enable strong relationships.  Presently there are conflicting values systems that focus on parents and in early years parents can have multiple jobs, work 0800 – 20.00 and hardly spend any time with their children.  Employers in Sweden and Finland have introduced a six hour day.   

Policy Lab groups summary notes:

Group 1 

If we are tackling poverty what is the most impact you can have what are the key priorities to tackle this and make it attainable?  We need to get kids early, investment, making sure we have graduate qualified professionals and high quality early years

Polices and structural changes at national level can get in the way of building relationships with pupils and communities.  We need to allow teachers the space and structural changes can take way from teachers time spent on building relationships

We can’t just start with schools need major reforms that take on the whole issues of inequality and poverty in society no solution just starts with changes in education policy – all great reforms go together

Group 2

Impact of poverty 80% of factors are outside school gates so can’t do this on their own – needs joined up thinking and policy

There is great potential for policy alignment but currently there is jarring between policy intentions and process and mechanisms related to top down accountability.  The underlying principles are knocked off course by top down measures and systems. Schools and teachers are caught between achieving to down aspiration and achieving for children and young people and wider society.  We should move to measuring social work, health and education using GIRFEC type outcomes defined by children related to inclusive, anti-discriminatory social, creative, outdoor and early years pedagogy not top down measuring.  

We needs a culture change away from meeting targets.  This might be something liberation for everyone if we move away from the current surveillance society.

Group 3 

We should not fall into strap of resolving this through education – need to propose to take people who live in poverty  out of poverty. 

Children’s family and relationships are constantly put under strain.  This makes parenting difficult and changes how you are as a child as you are not worrying about school exam results – you are worrying about damp in your house, hole in your shoes, lack of friends, etc.

Ideas of what a good parent are biased we shouldn’t judge parenting from a middle class perspective that doesn’t understand peoples lived realities.  We need to help parents by moving away from putting them under stress and blaming them and we need to move away from a dominant view of what success is to value more creative, relational and community based ideas – including celebrating people who use their hands rather tan text in their jobs.

The present systems creates a culture of not trying.  If you have no route to success it leads people to chuck it for own sense of self-worth.  You can’t just keep, on a constant loop, trying and failing because the odds are against you.  We need to highlight and address the institutionalisation of stigma, unfair media portrayals of poverty – brutalism and elitism in schools that leads to bullying, children being excluded from trips, stigma and low expectation/tokenism.  

We need to support parents and children to know and achieve their rights, to parents and children being told they are aggressive when they seek to achieve their rights and ensure all parents and children receive equitable service provisions.

We need to adopt an Intersectional approach that recognises and resolves the interconnected issues that impact on different groups relate to LGBT, race, gender, religion, poverty and/or disability. 

Group 4

It comes down to social justice and participation in society everyone should be deemed a citizen with knowledge to contribute and ability to resolve the problems they face.

There are some universal policies housing quality not having damp etc and poor standards of living fair rent that have to be fundamental rights.

We need policies based on progressive universalism and equity, we need to recognise the disproportionate nature of cuts (falling more on people living in poverty)  and we need to reverse the austerity enforced cuts to summer holiday provision, nutrition, breakfast clubs, after school clubs, sports clubs and community initiatives

We need to recognise the expertise that people who experience poverty make for themselves – the attainment gap defined by certain knowledge but knowledge gained through hardship and doing things for your-self is not measures.  

There is a tyranny in the way universities focus on academic exam results that devaluies certain skills and values other skills.  This is connected to policy and media which promote the idea that certain middle class things are considered more valuable and certain things eg working class values and using your hands are not valued to the same extent as middle class values.  We need to address the situation that people from elitist backgrounds are more able than working class people to become artists etc and follow certain occupations financial, medical, law etc.