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School shoes and social mobility
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Susan Young - Education Otherwise

Susan Young April 2011

Susan Young gives her weekly round-up of the issues and events in the world of school leadership and management. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of NAHT.


School shoes and social mobility

Though there is lots of education news about -- GCSE retakes results, new government allocations to local authorities and academies -- it's the anecdotal story of the school shoes which has haunted me this week.

It was simple enough: a teenage boy, who's usually heavy on his footwear, had managed to wreck his school shoes a couple of weeks before Christmas. His dad had only just started work again after a period of redundancy, and the family had budgeted down to the last pound for Christmas.

The boy had black trainers, so his mum thought it would be OK to send him into school for the last few days of term wearing these, before buying proper shoes again before January when she was paid. However, uniform checks had shown he wasn't wearing allowed black shoes, but banned trainers, and so the boy was spending his days in isolation.

The mum didn't want to have to discuss her family's financial matters with the school, but didn't want her boy sitting in a room by himself not learning, especially since he's normally commended for hard work and good behaviour.

Posing her problem on a social networking site, she was bombarded with advice -- to buy cheap or charity shop shoes which might only last a week or so. To call the school. To contact a payday loan company for the money. To have budgeted differently for Christmas. There were various reasons, mostly pretty good, why she couldn't do most of these.

But what came most strongly out of the discussion was that these kind of money worries are becoming quietly but increasingly common among families who are used to being insulated from such things -- and by default, is going to become more of a problem for schools. There is serious talk of a triple-dip recession, and it was only last week that Blackpool council decided that the biggest investment it could make in learning would be to try giving every child a free breakfast, milk and lunch so that they would not be hungry in school.

The bigger problem of families in deep poverty may well be tackled by the Department for Education's new commission on social mobility and child poverty, the membership of which was announced this week.

But it seems to me that a different set of schools are going to increasingly experience the fallout of financial problems from families who have previously seemed comfortably off, and that they may manifest in different ways than before. These families may have had a parent lose a job, or hours in a job, or (under some circumstances) be hammered by losing child benefit in the new year.

Strict uniform policies, so beloved of Governments, may become a real barrier to learning for children in some families. For some the crunch point may be a teenage boy's shoes: others may be deterred from applying to secondaries which demand a differently-coloured polo shirt for each year group, or extensive, specified sports kit.

What may have been perfectly reasonable uniform requirements before the (first) recession began may now be actively pricing children out of certain schools, many of which will be the desirable, high-achieving institutions who signal their new success locally with stringent uniform requirements.

It's not just going to be uniform, but equipment, school trips and getting enough to eat as well. And the thing is, that a lot of these parents, like the mother in this story, are not going to want to be discussing their finances with the school.

Clearly, most schools are going to have much more awareness of this growing trend than most politicians, but it does seem to me that there is scope for doing things better at both a local and national level.

Locally, schools perhaps need to improve a little in having those difficult conversations with parents who are genuinely financially struggling, and consider ways in which they can balance the need to be strict on uniform with making it easy for every family to comply. Whatever happened to sew-on logos, for example, which allowed families to shop around for the underlying uniform?

And, nationally, if we are really keen that every child should reach their potential, as schools minister David Laws reiterated again this week, then a genuine and stringent financial brake should be put on the cost of school uniform so that children aren't gently priced out of the more desirable schools. It's a small problem -- but the consequences can be huge.


Susan Young is an education journalist



Page published: 20/12/2012