The Cost of the School Day: preventing poverty-related stigma and exclusion in Glasgow schools

09 July 2014

Sara Spencer reports on a new Poverty Leadership Panel project hosted by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland that aims to tackle the cost of the school day.

How do the ways in which schools do things impact on children and young people from low-income households?

And how can schools ensure that all children and young people, regardless of family income, are protected from stigma, receive the same opportunities and are able to make the most of the school day? 

Cost of the School Day is a new Poverty Leadership Panel project, hosted by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland, working with children, parents and staff in eight Glasgow schools over the coming year to identify poverty-related barriers to learning and participation and to develop practical ways to overcome them. It is inspired by the success of Poverty Proofing the School Day, a Children North East project.

The big picture: child poverty and education

It’s no secret that a staggering one in three of Glasgow’s children live in poverty, a figure set to rise significantly in coming years. Save the Children recently reported that over 36,000 children from low-income households in Glasgow are more likely to be living in poor-quality housing, going without basic material goods and experiencing poorer physical health, cognitive development and emotional wellbeing than children from higher income households. Poverty affects children’s lives in every way imaginable and the impact of these inequalities can last a lifetime.

This is especially the case when it comes to children’s educational achievement and outcomes. Education is often described as a route out of poverty but the odds are stacked against children and young people. A recent JRF report describes the significant and persistent gap in attainment between children from low and higher income households, a gap which limits future employment prospects and income levels and increases the likelihood of young people remaining in poverty as adults.

The everyday: children and young people’s experiences of school

Improving relative levels of attainment for children from low-income households is a National Child Poverty Strategy priority and a range of promising interventions are presented in the JRF report. However, beneath attainment trends and high-level strategies lies another important area: children and young people’s everyday experiences of school. School is where children spend over a third of their waking hours every week and, depending on what happens, it can be a place of belonging and opportunity, or a place to fear or disengage from. Negative experiences at school are unlikely to help low-income children and young people combat already unfair odds.

School experiences are made up of everyday details – travelling to school, what you wear, where you eat, what your teachers are like, friends, the homework you’re set, the club on after school, the school trip that’s coming up. The ways in which schools plan and deliver these details can place a heavy burden on low-income families if they involve costs which can’t be met. Just last month, a new report by young researchers at SCCYP and Save the Children told us that the costs of school act as barriers to learning and to taking part in school life. Children can miss out or self-exclude from opportunities that could benefit them, and being marked as ‘different’ can leave low-income children and young people fearful and vulnerable to marginalisation or bullying.

Early discussions with Cost of the School Day schools have resulted in numerous examples of this. Talking about school trips, one teacher said:

It’s the social experience, the teambuilding experience that some will be missing out on… some of them are not really able to go, they’re excluded from the trip, and then there’s this experience when they’re back and they’re all talking about it and there are the photos and there’s ‘remember we did this, remember we did that’ but they weren’t there.”

Another teacher, speaking about an event where pupils make a charity donation and get a cake, said that she offered to donate for those who didn’t have money

but they said ‘no, no, we don’t want cakes’ and that just breaks my heart – you know, maybe they don’t want a cake but the process has still happened and maybe that’s just their defence.”

Research and action at individual school level

From a costly school trip to a 50p donation, some children aren’t having the same experiences as their peers. And, thinking back, probably few of us can remember a time when being singled out or missing out on something has made us feel positive towards the place it happened or the people who made it happen.

Cost of the School Day will work in eight schools to find out how their policies and practices impact on children and young people from low-income households. Are there any having a positive impact which can be replicated elsewhere? And, if there are any having a negative impact, then how can that change? Research with children, parents and staff will be used by schools to develop practical ways to poverty-proof school policies and practices.

It is hoped that, rather than rehashing old research or asking the same old questions, this approach of listening to pupils’ experiences and acting at an individual school level will lead to real practical change. Because, if all school policies and practices were designed purposefully to ensure that they did not exclude or stigmatise children and young people from low income households, then what could that mean for their participation, their learning and, ultimately, their future life chances?


About the author

Sara Spencer Manager: Cost of the School Day project


Sara manages Cost of the School Day, a Poverty Leadership Panel project based with Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland and working with Glasgow Education Services. She has previously held research roles in various youth and equalities organisations, most recently at Save the Children, carrying out research and evaluation on their child poverty programmes.  

Read all articles by Sara Spencer