Poverty and the work of the educational psychologist

By Ben Clyde

Today marks International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Educational psychologists are usually aware of the impact that living in poverty can have on the life chances of a child. Indicators suggest that the numbers of children living in poverty are increasing in the U.K. For educational psychologists these social issues can seem overwhelming and beyond our capacity to make a difference. However as reflective practitioners we need to be aware of how children and families who live in poverty are constructed. These constructions can be oppressive and we need to find ways to challenge them.

Poverty is not just an economic issue, but is a multidimensional phenomenon that affects all aspects of people’s lives. There are over 4 million children living in poverty in the UK. If we think about a typical class size of 30, this would equate to 9 pupils – a worrying statistic considering the long-term effects of childhood poverty in regards to education and life chances. Research from the Department of Education shows that there is a 21% attainment gap between children and young people eligible for free school meals and their peers in terms of achieving at least five ‘good’ GCSE grades (Grades 5-9).

Despite these figures it is sometimes suggested that the UK is a meritocracy, i.e. a political system where individual people achieve on the basis of their “merit”, which is their talent, effort and achievement. So achievement is not linked to the family and circumstances that they were born into. What the evidence suggests however is that there is very limited social mobility in the UK, very few people move out of the social class into which they were born. A simple reason for this is the access to additional educational experiences that come with better economic standing.

For those who believe that we live in a meritocracy the blame for living in poverty is largely placed upon the disadvantaged families. It is argued that they do not make the most of the opportunities available. This does little to address the systemic issues that serve to create and maintain such disadvantage. The problem is located in the individual; shifting attention away from the social structures and institutions that serve to maintain poverty.

As practitioners, we should aim to be aware of how people living in poverty are constructed. On the training course at the University of Birmingham, trainee educational psychologists tale part in a number of sessions under the umbrella term ‘anti-oppressive practice’. The idea of anti-oppressive practice is underpinned by the acknowledgement of the differing power relations within society. It requires an awareness of how social factors such as social class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, culture and disability can advantage or disadvantage the people with whom we work. We also need to be able to reflect on how what we do can benefit some people more than others.

To try and guard against this, being a reflexive practitioner is perhaps the most important factor when engaging in anti-oppressive practice. We need to hold in mind at all times the ways in which personal, cultural, social and structural contexts shape the difficulties that children and families living in poverty face. And we should resist and challenge constructions that suggest that families are to blame for circumstances that are outside their control.

Ben is a trainee educational psychologist in Year 3 of the initial training course for educational psychologists at the University of Birmingham.

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