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Young people’s views on poverty and education

June 14, 2014

Save The Children Scotland and Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People  have just published this timely report, Learning Lessons, on young people’s views on poverty and education in Scotland.  Its findings are based on surveys and qualitative research undertaken in a number of schools, mostly with  high or at least above average free school meal entitlement.

The average for free school meal entitlement is just below 20%, so  even in the institutions chosen, a large proportion of the young people are likely to have been commenting based on their observations and perceptions, rather than their own situation. The people taking part were not asked about their personal circumstances, so it isn’t possible to break the survey results down further, to see how perspectives varied between those who are and are not directly affected by coming from a low income home.   But that’s a minor caveat.  This is a valuable piece of research, not only for school education, which was its focus, but for the higher and further education systems, too.

First, young people  highlighted that even in a “free” education system learners face additional costs which are hard to avoid and can be a significant burden at low incomes.  In this case,  issues commonly mentioned included uniform, meals, materials, books  and school trips.  The last won’t come as a surprise to anyone with a child in school who has ever wondered how low income families, particularly those with several children, cope with the routine need to  find cash for various “extras”, which are not really extra at all, if a child is to take part fully in school life. The interviewees noted this could come down to something as basic as a properly stocked pencil case and materials for domestic science.  Of course the school system has ways of helping families at low incomes, usually tied to receipt of benefits.  But, again as many will know,  beyond special arrangements for uniform and meals, these systems tend to become more informal and behind-the-scenes, and therefore potentially less reliable and more embarrassing to apply for.

So this report is a very helpful  reminder not to confuse the absence of teaching charges with the absence of unavoidable cost, and that it is those at low incomes who stand to be most disadvantaged when we do.

Second, young people were concerned that some, if not  all,  of those from low income families would lack a place at home where they could study quietly.  They were also worried about some homes lacking an internet connection.

Elsewhere on this site there is plenty of evidence that, in Scotland uniquely within the UK, due to our very low levels of student grant student debt is distributed very unequally, resting largely on the poorest, who can now expect a final debt for a 4 year degree of over £20,000, while debt is much lower, and often zero at higher incomes.  As a result, graduates who started from poorer homes face a higher de facto tax on their future earnings than those who came from better-off ones, and the rhetoric of “free higher education” largely describes the experience of the better off.

It is impossible to get anything like the same degree of interest in this in Scotland as in the prospect of any debt whatsoever for tuition fees.  This seems to be rationalised by a belief that living costs are different, because students can always choose to reduce them, mainly by living at home, while fees are compulsory.

When  young people from poorer homes leave school and move into higher education, the accommodation issues brought out in this research will not suddenly go away for them and their families.    They may even become more acute, as students are expected to spend more time studying independently, internet access is likely to become essential and college or university is likely to involve a longer and more expensive journey than school. At the same time,  families may be in urgent need of extra space for younger siblings, and students very possibly keen to relieve tight family budgets of pressure.

As this earlier post shows, the idea that for most poorer students living cost debt is a matter of choice was already at odds with the statistics.  This research reminds us of some of the reasons why.

The reported government response to Learning Lessons was  in general terms: “Learning should be about the ability to learn, not the ­ability to pay [note: echoing the defence of the current arrangements in higher education] but all of the ­evidence shows that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to experience worse ­outcomes in education than those who enjoy greater ­advantages. This is completely unacceptable and the Scottish Government is committed to narrowing this attainment gap and reducing child poverty.”

As this reports demonstrates, the cost of getting an education – what you need to be “able to pay for” – is not just the cost of tuition, and the focus on charges for teaching to the exclusion of all other costs  fails to recognise that from school right through to university, poor families are simply much less “able to pay” other essential costs on behalf of their children.



Linked post

Learning Lessons raises  questions about how young people are helped with extra costs at school.  For older pupils, Education Maintenance Allowances must be part of the answer.  A separate post here looks at those.


As a final point, the material on this site concentrates on funding issues and it is that aspect of Learning Lessons on which the discussion above concentrates.  However, the report is about much more than financial support and has plenty of valuable material that goes well beyond funding.  Many of the messages  are familiar from, and potentially helpful in, debates about widening access to higher education.








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