Education is frequently cited as one of the best enablers we have to break the cycle of poverty. We’re lucky to have Stephen Kelly, Head Teacher of Liberton High School as a member of the Edinburgh Poverty Commission. I caught up with him shortly after the end of the last school term and was keen to ask him about both the short-term impact of the current pandemic and also some of his longer-term insights. 

The first thing I find out from Stephen, which I wasn’t expecting, was that he’d had the virus himself as had several members of his senior team. It was an immediate and sobering reminder that Coronavirus isn’t an abstract concept but has a real and direct health impact. Within his team, there was a spectrum of how badly people had been hit, with some still managing complications many weeks after.

I move on to asking him about what he’s noticed this year about the impact of poverty on children and families. In the period immediately following lockdown being implemented, school staff were directly involved in supplying food packages, buying IT devices and delivering them to students, and more. One of the things we’ve found in our Poverty Commission discussions is that there are some organisations that provide a much better route to connect to all members of a community – such as schools, libraries and GP surgeries. The moment you set up a service that is intended to help people but needs them to travel and spend extra time to reach it, you’re creating barriers to access. Early on in the Commission’s work we heard from the Maximise! service that is reaching families through the school and it was a great example of a service that users feel works for them.

The school team spent a lot of time early in lockdown just phoning students and parents, checking in with families to understand their needs and circumstances. Stephen expands on the wide range of experiences, with some families in crisis. If you imagine a family with existing health or disability concerns, perhaps with no space and respite for the whole family to be together all the time, it’s obvious that’s not going to be a good environment to thrive, never mind to engage in learning. At the other end of the spectrum, some students were saying they preferred the new model and found it enabled them to avoid other anxieties that might come from the school environment.

A key aspect Stephen wants to highlight is the cumulative impact of poverty. The stress, anxiety and trauma that comes from constantly worrying about food, energy and how costs will be covered. The worry for the safety, health and wellbeing of yourself and those close to you. Helping learners overcome these concerns – from basic food provision through to the emotional support and bandwidth – so they can actually give attention to learning is just the start. Families who are already under pressure often have a feeling of being ‘othered’ and judged for the circumstances they are in. The stigma attached to poverty is real and visible in many school environments, especially those with a wide diversity of backgrounds and experiences in their school population. 

The next area we speak about is one where we have a shared interest – the area where education and employment meet. Both Stephen and I have involvement with DYW (Developing the Young Workforce), which seeks to help young people from all backgrounds find a good pathway from the world of education in to the world of work. Again, there’s an angle I’d not previously considered at the time I spoke to Stephen. As he explains, there are some young people who they had been working with over several years to develop and plan a pathway. The impact of Covid means that in some cases this pathway has now gone because of the impact on certain industry sectors, the removal of apprenticeship schemes, and so on. Teachers inevitably feel a sense of responsibility and will be doing their best to reach alumni who have now officially left school, to help them understand their options, keep them informed about the situation, and connect to other sources of advice such as DYW and Skills Development Scotland. Schools will find themselves measured by leaver destinations, even though many employment pathways are now difficult to predict and the success of the work they’ve done over the past few years is now uncertain. Both of us share a hope that employers will do what they can to recognise the situation and respond by offering support and connection where they can, building on strong progress in recent years through investment in regional pathways and DYW. One thing that can’t be replaced easily is the ‘rite of passage’ and the marking of the occasion of finishing school. It may seem like a minor point, but psychologists feel that leaving ceremonies and graduations can play an important role in enabling young people to mark the closing of one chapter before moving on to the next. 

Even though it was shortly after the end of last term when I spoke to Stephen, his mind was already turning to what awaited at the end of the holiday break – ‘exam’ results and the physical return to school after the summer break. Thankfully, we didn’t know then exactly what awaited teachers and students when exam results were published, as that would have required a whole extra article… What was already expected was the challenges of the return to school. Cleaning, hygiene and social distancing routines were going to add complexity. There would be a need to welcome young people back and significantly, this would have to consider the diversity of experience young people will have had. There’s the positive side of people coming back together again, teachers miss their students. Stephen also anticipated the need to recognise that some young people may need support to include recovery from trauma, to manage mental health concerns. The ability to plan this was complicated by the developing situation around what might actually be possible in a school environment, depending on restrictions and guidance in place at the time they returned. This was the final area we specifically discussed, leaving me to reflect on the conversation. Schools are often viewed as having one narrow role, in teaching children. Many of us who have busy lives and households welcome how they help us with ‘childcare’ while we work, and we certainly miss that when it’s not there. But how well resourced and appreciated are they for their wider role in supporting the diverse needs of children and families in our communities? We’ve seen this summer how a rigid ‘systems’ approach can risk failing those who need it most, without even really thinking about it. Schools have more potential to transform people’s life chances for the better than almost any other mechanism we have in our society, but it often feels that plans and resources in place to address the poverty-related attainment gap in education provide only low-level mitigation or slow, incremental change. Time will tell whether the reflection we’ve been prompted in to by the events of 2020 may lead to any more transformational changes. In the meantime, I’m grateful for all the extra work teachers are doing, and the positive difference they’re making

 With thanks to @sla_sandymac for interviewing @LibertonHighHT