Struggling financially? Your child’s school may shame you for it

Research released today by the British Humanist Association showed that some schools are putting heavy pressure on parents to make “voluntary” donations.

This set alarm bells ringing in my mind: it reminded me of some of the practices of schools in the US, as revealed in Robert Putnam’s Our Kids” (a compelling study of “incipient class apartheid”) in which schools collected “‘donations’, that were, in effect, mandatory” from students participating in extra-curricular activities.

Anyone who has struggled to find money for “optional” extras in their children’s schooling (trips, class photos etc.) will know that amounts that may be seen as trivial by the school hierarchy can be a big source of stress: it isn’t as essential as buying groceries or avoiding recourse to payday lenders, but you don’t want the school to think you aren’t “doing your bit” and you don’t want your child to be seen as “the poor kid” by other children (ask anyone who has ever been mocked for being seen in the “free school meals” queue how it felt).

In recent years, the term “poor shaming” has entered our lexicon. Sometimes poor shaming is deliberate, ranging from suggestions that low-paid people are lazy slackers to discounting poor-on-poor crime as “NHI” (no humans involved). But sometimes poor shaming is unconscious: the result of affluent people putting less-affluent people in impossible situations because they don’t understand what it is like to be poor.

And sometimes “poor shaming” isn’t about poor people at all. Sometimes it is about putting people on middle incomes in impossible situations. I spoke to someone (whom I know has good principles and puts their money where their mouth is) who genuinely thought that “if someone really wants to do an unpaid internship, they will find a way”. Many of us will at some point have been invited to a restaurant where a richer friend is a regular and spent the evening in fear of the bill.

Anyone who is struggling to meet basic costs (such as the 70% of families who are struggling to pay their rent or mortgage) will at some time struggle to pay for something that represents basic dignity or social participation. In a country with income gaps as wide as they are in the UK, this problem is particularly acute. Being one of the most unequal nations outside of the developing world isn’t just harming our health, our prosperity and our children’s aspirations, it stops us being able to feel proud of ourselves, too.

Duncan Exley, Director, the Equality Trust