School should be a safe, nurturing place – not a daily nightmare

Writing in the Guardian, Deborah Orr argues that the stigma of being the poor child in class is far worse today than it was when she was at school 40 years ago…

You never forget them. The children who were marked apart. In our class at primary school, they were called “Bugsy”, all three of them. The children who turned up bedraggled, a bit whiffy and wearing only a rough approximation of school uniform. You’d hear the bolder, more domineering children talking about them. “So-and-so smells.” “So-and-so wears gutties [plimsolls] instead of shoes.” “So-and-so’s Bugsy.”

…However sorry you felt for those kids, you couldn’t show it. Voluntarily associating yourself with such misfortune was seen as far more foolish than having it imposed upon you by adults. You never heard from them what it was like, being that distinctive sort of outsider, because you never spoke to them. Those children were despised and feared, as if their poverty was infectious.

But this week, more than 40 years on, I finally did hear, first-hand, from children who have to turn up at school under such stress, every day. In a new report, Through Young Eyes [click to download pdf], children in this situation were interviewed by the Children’s Commission on Poverty.

“If your shirt, like mine, has got tags with a different name … they automatically know that it’s handed down from someone else,” said one child. The report says that some state-funded secondary schools have uniforms costing as much as £500. These are schools, surely, that use uniform policy as a way of keeping out the riff-raff…

Other expectations have changed in recent decades, too. There’s a lot more stuff to not have…

As for school trips – they were modest affairs. The vogue for school trips abroad was only just coming in, and I never went on one myself. It was normal never to have been abroad. Today’s children talk of having to listen to their classmates returning from trips that are far beyond the means of their own parents, and having to endure enthusiastic references to the experience for months to come.

What makes the heart ache is the stress of having to endure endless worry and discomfort, in a place that should be safe and nurturing. How can a child thrive while lugging such a burden? Even if you accept that the poor bring it on themselves, with their fecklessness and their bad choices – which I certainly don’t – it’s surely clear that such blame should not be visited on children…

More at: School should be a safe, nurturing place – not a daily nightmare


In the full article Deborah Orr points the finger at David Cameron’s tax cutting aims but leaving the cause aside, do you agree with the premise that the situation for the poorest children at school now is worse that it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago? Please tell us why/why not…


Don’t forget you can sign up to receive our daily email bulletin every morning (around 7 am) with all the latest schools news stories. Your details will never be given to anyone else and you can unsubscribe at any stage. Just follow this link!

Inspiration for life in the mainstream - 'groundbreaking school' for children with autism
Pupils are exploiting needy teachers, says former Cheltenham Ladies’ College head
Categories: Policy.


  1. Busy Mum

    The parents who make most use of our school’s regular second-hand uniform sales are those who would be deemed ‘better-off’. The ‘poor’ never take advantage so it is the ‘wealthier’ children who go around wearing second-hand uniform.

  2. Angry_Teacher_

    SchoolsImprove Your catch line doesn’t match the story. The story wasn’t about safety and nurture it was about equality, separate issues.

Let us know what you think...