As part of Teach First North East's 5 year celebrations, Sharon spoke at their awards ceremony about the issue of child poverty in education. You can read her speech below.
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Thank you for inviting me to speak today. It is an honour to be here to celebrate 5 years of Teach First here in the North East.
For me, just like everyone in this room, I see education as a crucial route out of poverty, whereby we unlock the potential of children by believing in them and offering them opportunities they might never have had, so that they can reach their full potential.
As the second President of the United States, John Adams, said: “Before any great things are accomplished, a memorable change must be made in the system of education … to raise the lower ranks of society nearer to the higher.”
Adams was speaking about his new fledgling country’s education system, in its widest sense, but what resonates with me in this quote is the belief that a memorable change can have such an impact on our lives, acting like a catalyst that can change the course of a child’s life for the better, if done the right way.
The facilitators of that change are teachers and everyone who works within the school environment. Each and every one of you here today can have a substantial impact on the lives of the children in your schools. That power must never be forgotten and must be realised at every opportunity available.
Whilst I am not standing here today to tell you how to do your jobs – teachers get enough of that from politicians already – what I am here to do is recognise the amazing work done day-in and day-out by teachers and how it is vital that this work is used to help alleviate poverty in our society.
Poverty is a multi-faceted and complex issue, where one fix will not address all the causes of poverty.
It goes without saying that to end poverty in our society, we need to address a whole host of issues, from low pay, to housing, to worklessness, and education should not be singled out as the silver bullet.
But what education can do is provide a vehicle out of poverty, if linked together with strategies in other places, but one thing education can do on its own is provide children, who endure poverty everyday of their childhood, with the sanctuary to escape it while still living in it, as teachers you can’t change that, but you can allow them to realise their potential and their worth without being burdened by the weight of poverty on their shoulders, in the knowledge that this gift of education can be their escape to a better, more prosperous and fulfilling life.
Regardless of what is going on down in Parliament or in government to address these issues, each and every day that a teacher walks into their classroom, they are doing what we all say we must do: break the cycle of generational poverty by inspiring children and teaching them that they have far more to offer in life, than what they may presume. To make them believe that their future really is in their hands, that it doesn’t have to be like their past or their present.
I see this often when I visit schools in my constituency just down the road in Sunderland or when I visit schools up and down the country, but also in documentaries, such as “Educating Essex” or “Educating Yorkshire” – which show the lengths by which teachers go to transform the lives of children.
One clear example that sticks out for me, is from Educating Yorkshire, where we see Mr Burton help Musharaf, a pupil with a severe stammer, to overcome his impediment which has the triumph of Musharaf speaking in front of the whole school in assembly for the first time, with confidence and with no stammer.
I don’t know about you, but when I watched that episode, and saw the final scenes, I was deeply moved and also humbled at the power of our education system to transform lives for the better and of course, I shed a few tears.
This power to transform a child’s life through education can be a valiant fight against poverty in our schools.
Today, there are three things that I want to talk to you about: the current state of poverty in the UK and how poverty affects education; what I have been doing during my time as a Member of Parliament, specifically around hunger – which is an all too real part of poverty in our society, and finally; how education and our schools can be a driver to alleviate poverty.
Current State of Child Poverty & impact on education
It has been estimated that in 2014-15, 3.9 million children were living in poverty – an increase of 200,000 on the previous year. As a percentage, this means out of all children in the country, 28% are living in poverty.
Here in the North East, there are approximately 132,000 children living in poverty.
These are all big numbers – unfathomable to many. But if we were to look at this matter on a micro-level, say the classroom, these figures would translate into 9 children in each classroom living in poverty.
These 9 children in your classroom will be living in difficult circumstances – I know, I was one of them – be it poor housing conditions, to a dysfunctional family environment, to looking after family members or their siblings or dealing with many of the other difficulties life throws at them without having the resilience to deal with them.
Poverty for these 9 children can also manifest itself as not having uniform changes or nice clothes for mufti-days, or money to go on school trips or to events that the school puts on, to even not having money to buy the ingredients for cookery lessons.
The persistence of poverty in our society has a knock-on effect on the education of our children.
It is a well-known fact that the most disadvantaged children are falling behind those from more affluent backgrounds.
This was clearly shown in 2015, when GCSE results were analysed and showed that 36.7% of disadvantaged pupils received 5 A* to C grades, compared with 64.7% of all pupils.
Compound this with the fact that England has a stronger correlation between parental social background and children’s test scores than many other developed countries, then it is clear that schools are a prime place for us to help alleviate some of the issues children in poverty face.
There are many more facts out there that show that poverty is impacting on the lives of children and their educational attainment. Such as the fact that only 5% of children eligible for free school meals – seen as a key determiner of poverty – gained 5 A grades at GCSE.
Or the fact, that a child living in one of England’s most disadvantaged areas is 27 times more likely to go to an inadequate school than a child living in one of the least disadvantaged.
The list of facts and figures could go on. This is one of those examples where the facts really do speak for themselves and instead of some Government heads being buried in the sand, they should be facilitating progress and improving the lives of the worst off children in our society.
What can we do?
This is why I have been a key supporter of poverty proofing the school day, and have spoken on this matter often in the past and also worked to introduce policies that can help alleviate poverty.
This has included campaigning to introduce universal free school meals – I’ve partly succeeded and we now have Universal Infant Free School Meals, the story behind that is a speech in itself – this is so important because these meals provide children with the necessary nutrients at lunch time to help improve learning, behaviour and wellbeing.
What some people don’t realise is this meal can often be the only nutritious meal a child has in a day. With this fact in mind, this can mean that children who rely upon their free school meals can go without during the school holidays when they do not receive their free school meal. The impact this has is well-documented by teachers who see malnourished children who return from the long summer holidays having fallen behind only to improve and catch up again after a few weeks of access to free breakfasts and lunches to aid their learning.
This issue is commonly known as child holiday hunger, and is an issue which I have campaigned on for a number of years now, in my capacity as Chair of the APPG on School Food.
Some out there think that, when the school gates lock for the school holidays, it is none of our business about how a child eats, or doesn’t in some cases, when they are at home.
But children are at school for 190 days of the year, and the rest, a total of 170 days, their food is the responsibility of their parents totally. Some may say this is right and how it should be.
But what I say, is that when children in 21st century Britain are going hungry for sustained periods, then inaction is simply not acceptable.
If we are to seriously address child poverty through education, then we cannot do it with hungry children, especially when all the hard work that goes into improving children’s life chances is reversed, if they are too hungry to learn, all because some say it is none of our business to get involved.
I have also campaigned on school uniform policies, which can be a source of contention in schools where it can be used as stealth selection or cause bullying amongst pupils, to even more inane issues which get overlooked, such as not having the right stationary, books, equipment or ingredients when a child comes to a lesson to learn.
These are only a few of the things I have campaigned on, and what we can do to help eradicate poverty from the school environment and the impact it has on a child’s attainment.
But for teachers directly, you are in the perfect position to inspire, lead and nurture children to be the best they can possibly be.
Remember the example I gave earlier from Educating Yorkshire – you too can be your own Mr Burton and change a child’s life – I’m sure you’re doing it already. It just takes passion and determination – something I know you all possess already to be here.
Teach First is a perfect example of how we can help change the lives of children in the most deprived areas, where poverty is the most apparent.
The driving force of the charity is that every child deserves the best education possible and that a child’s socio-economic background does not disadvantage them, and you place high achieving graduates in schools where they can relish the chance to really improve the lives of children and young people.
That is why I want to thank everyone at Teach First and all of you here today for doing that – it cannot be under-valued the impact that charities such as yours are having to help raise the attainment of children in the most deprived areas of our country.
I truly believe that poverty is not an inevitability – we don’t need to see poverty in our society. What poverty tells us is that we have failed as a society to address social and economic issues which cause poverty, due to a lack of political will, innovative thinking and a drive to act.
But schools and teachers are the perfect conduits for allowing us to end this issue once and for all, as long as you are supported by policymakers who create an education system and environment conducive to such work and not one that encourages more social separation and division.
Each and every person here today has the power to change a child’s life – just like Mr Burton did with Musharaf – and Mr Ridley and Miss Brown did for me - and I hope when you go back to your classrooms following today’s celebrations that you will continue to do what I know you all do anyway: inspire children, regardless of their background, to dream big and be the best they can possibly be and not allow their background to limit them.
I started with a quote, and I will end with another, this time from the inspirational former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, who in her final speech as First Lady said:
“We can be whatever we dream.”
Remember that when you go back to your classrooms and to those 9 children who live in poverty – they may not know it, but you do.
Help them realise their dreams.