Poor children as portrayed in Joan Eardley’s paintings and other photographs from the ‘Fifties. The poor are always with us.

By Keith Stoddart,  Secretary People’s Assembly Scotland

A  trip abroad for many these days may not seem like a big deal, but for one group of young Scots schoolchildren it was totally unexpected. This was not a typical class outing — the four young primary pupils made the 1,800- mile round trip from their school to the grand halls of the United Nations human rights council. The 10-year-olds were in Geneva to hear about the need to tackle poverty in Britain. Philip Alston — the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights who last November visited their school, which serves one of the poorest parts of Glasgow — had invited them to hear him present his report. Children had told him about hunger and the shame of poverty, about not being able to afford trainers, TV or food and about their parents’ use of foodbanks. Alston kept them in mind when he drafted his damning report, which he presented in June to hundreds of diplomats from around the world. He told them Britain was facing “a national poverty crisis.” Closer to home, far from the marble halls in Switzerland, the Educational Institute of Scotland, the country’s largest teaching union, knew well the effects of individual poverty and local authority cuts on their pupils and schools. A survey of its members published in conjunction with the Child Poverty Action Group, Face up to Child Poverty: Poverty-Proofing Your School, makes for depressing reading. Teachers described children’s reluctance to participate in extra-curricular activities as they lack basic equipment such as gym kit, boots or shoes. Others spoke of the avoidance of “charity” events or uniform-free days as parents do not have the money to donate and children are embarrassed that they do not possess the casual clothing their peers have. Young people expressed the view that school is warmer than it ever is at home, arriving at school unfed and having to be given something to eat before starting lessons, the stealing of food from other children and food from the canteen being taken home for younger siblings and possibly parents. Some schools reported pupils arriving in ill-fitting shoes and clothing too small for them “disappearing” for weeks until they had acquired alternatives. Schools described having to establish contacts with food banks and the St Vincent De Paul to set up referral systems for pupils’ families, and having to adjust the curriculum so that children who had gone nowhere other than their home or local shops were not asked to write about “what we did on our holidays or what happened at the weekend?” Homework was having to be tempered as at home there were no pens, pencils or even paper to “design a poster.” Ashamed of their situation pupils were isolating themselves from others at break times as they had no snacks, were poorly dressed or unwashed. Schools are having to try to address poverty issues at a time of shrinking budgets due to local authority cutbacks and teachers are having to supply “welfare services” out of their own pockets. And this is in the fifth richest country in the world, a country where “austerity is over.” None of this will come as a surprise to those attending the AGM of the People’s Assembly Scotland in the Unite premises in Glasgow this coming Saturday morning. It doesn’t appear to feature on the radar of many local councillors who are unwilling to stand up and fight for the weakest of their constituents. Local government is the area where the lack of funding is most obvious, even though their services are the ones most likely to impact on the poorest in our society. Many families are facing a summer of poverty with councils like Glasgow cutting back on universal concessions. Without any sense of irony, they ended free swimming for under-16s and pensioners at the same time as the Scottish Parliament was launching its anti obesity strategy encouraging these groups to be more active. Fortunately, all is not bleak. Some have tried to be innovative and use their depleted resources in an inventive manner to maintain some services and even expand existing ones. At the AGM councillors from two of these areas, Joe Cullinane (North Ayrshire) and David Ross (Fife) will explain both the challenges facing local authorities and what they are trying to do to mitigate the worsening cuts to come. Denise Christie of the Fire Brigades Union will outline how attacks on fire service budgets nationally impact not only on her members but all our safety. The People’s Assembly in Scotland is ready to stand with those councillors standing up for their communities, but we are also ready to expose those who have walked off the field before the battle has begun.

  • This article appeared in today’s Morning Star. Keith Stoddart is secretary of the People’s Assembly Scotland steering committee. The AGM is being held on Saturday July 27 from 10.30am-12.45pm at the Unite Building (5th Floor), 145-165 West Regent Street, Glasgow G2 4RZ.

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