Imagine being 8 years old and having to stand in a separate dinner queue from your peers to receive your free school meal, acutely aware that everyone else in the canteen knew your parents couldn't afford to feed you. I don't have to imagine as this was the system for free school meals used in primary school back in the 1990s. Thankfully we've come a long way since then...or have we...
I've read a number of stories over the past few weeks about children being humiliated and shamed in schools. Most recently, there was a school who sent a letter to parents wanting them that their children would be fed 'bread and fruit' if the parents didn't settle their lunch debt. And, to avoid 'embarrassing' their child they should pay up promptly. It's the last but that really rubs. The school acknowledges that enforcing this policy will cause potential shame and yet is willing to carry on regardless. I've of also heard schools in the States who have resorted to stamping children's arms if their parents have failed to pay the lunch bill. Of course, some pupils will respond to these dehumanising policies by simply not eating at all, Which, as we know, isn't a good idea.
What I find equally concerning about the whole lunch debate is how some people try to defend it by arguing that (a) at least they're giving the kids something to eat, (b) it's wrong to shame a school and/ or (c) if you're not entitled to free school meals then obviously you can afford to feed your children. It's the latter point I take considerable issue with. Given that 60% of working families are now living in poverty it's really not that straight forward.
I understand that schools are under a lot of financial pressure and I blame the government for that. However, shaming children for their parent's inability or unwillingness to pay for lunch is not the solution. Schools need to work with parents towards a solution that doesn't involve punishing the child. In fact, the only thing that shaming is likely to do is build a deep sense of resentment within the child towards school and home. I know many schools who don't feel the need to shame children even during these difficult economic times. It's possible.
I've mainly focussed on one aspect of child shaming here but I've noticed other examples recent weeks such as making children wear signs around their necks for uniform misdemeanours. Again, these at the extreme end of shaming but I also think it's done quite subtly in many schools. For example, how many schools use behaviour and/ or performance charts on classroom walls? I worked in a school where every form tutor was supposed to put up a RAG sheet of pupils' performance across all their subjects to show if they were above, on or below target. As this was in a secondary school it meant that not only would the rest of the form see it but so would the other 350 pupils who used the classroom. For me, these practices amount to little more than a modern-day equivalent of Dunce's Hat; a form of humiliation and shame which potentially has long-term psychological damage.
I'm not a psychology expert and nor do I claim to be. However, a cursory search on EBSCOHost reveals a number of studies which have highlighted the consequences of shaming children and the deep physiological damage in can cause including feelings of self-degradation, anxiety, depression, perfectionism and aggression. At a time when mental ill-health is on the rise amongst young people, it's probably best to avoid anything that will exacerbate these worrying trends.
Schools have a duty of care towards children. This includes protecting them from physical and emotional harm, treating them with respect and making them feel safe. It's a real shame that some schools are choosing to ignore this.