Let's talk about literacy! - Interview on the effects of poverty on education

Numerous economic and social challenges caused by, among other things, long term economic recession and unstable democracies, are a systematic issue not only for the Balkan countries, but also for the broader region. Statistics show there are high percentages of the region’s population living at risk of poverty or social exclusion. On the other hand, a large number of studies confirm that socio-economic and cultural status directly influence students’ success in school. With this in mind, the Network of Education Policy Centres (NEPC) organized a Summer School on the topic “Poverty in Education: what do we know and what can we do?”. The summer school took place in Kosovo in the period July 2-8, 2017 for education researchers, practitioners and NGO representatives, from Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Croatia, Mongolia, Turkey, and Macedonia, including Foundation Step by Step – Macedonia. NEPC is an international non-governmental membership organisation based in Zagreb, Croatia, that gathers 24 institutional members from 18 countries. The NEPC’s mission is to promote flexible, participatory, evidence-based and transparent education and they have been organizing the summer school on different education topics since 2008. On this occasion we talk about the effects of poverty on education with Lana Jurko, Executive Director of Network Policy Centers and Radmila Rangelov-Jusović, Executive Director of Center for Educational Initiatives Step by Step – Bosnia and Herzegovina and one of the expert trainers of the Summer School.

Why a summer school on the topic of poverty in education?
About 4 years ago we started discussing poverty within the network and how we can tackle its effect on education. We sent out a questionnaire to members and asked them if they had project dealing with poverty. It turned out that although all of them realized it was an issue none of them tackled poverty per se it was seen as an extra issue connected to other vulnerabilities mainly ethnic. At NEPC we wanted to change that and raise awareness of educators across our region on the effects of poverty but also give them concrete tools they can use in their classrooms, schools, municipalities. Summer school is just one of NEPC ways to do that. 

First of all, let us define poverty. Is it merely a deprivation of financial resources or it reveals some deeper and multidimensional aspects?
There are diverse definitions of poverty, but bottom line - poverty is much more than lack of financial means and resources. Poverty is closely connected with lack of choices and opportunities and almost always represents violation of human rights and dignity. For many people and children, poverty bring social isolation, poor health care, no access to education or cultural opportunities. We can also talk about situational poverty, urban, rural, relative or generational poverty as different concepts.

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Photo from the Project for Social Inclusion of Children and Youth from Underdeveloped Regions in Macedonia

Is there a culture of poverty or is it just a myth? Is there a pattern within the group of people in poverty or are they just as diverse as people in any other socioeconomic class?
Your question provides the part of the answer itself. Unfortunately, generalizations and consequently prejudices toward people and children in poverty still exists in many societies. This causes a lot of problems and further increases their social exclusion, but also classism. Number of research studies have provided evidence that the “culture or poverty” and many believes connected to it, are just myths, and it is our responsibility as educators to talk about that. As a society we have to work toward social justice and providing equal opportunities, instead of finding excuses in narratives such as “culture of poverty”.

Do you believe that the needed attention on the effect of poverty in education is given in our region?
In short NO, and this is not to say nothing is being done, there are in different countries different social measures and sometimes educational measures, that try to minimize the effect of poverty on education. However, this obviously is not enough as poverty is still a taboo topic. Poverty is still seen as something shameful and connected to a set of social issues that are not dealt with properly in society in general and in schools in particular.

Can you share with us some positive examples from our region of weakening the link between socio-economic status and academic achievement of students?
Depends what you consider our region, but if you take the NEPC region Estonia is doing really well in this regard. Their 2015 PISA results confirm this and from our recent visit there we found out about a whole set of positive measures they are taking. From free meals and transport for kids from low socio-economic status to peer learning support, free and school based extra-curricular activities, as well as community involvement. Wellbeing of children directly links to school achievement, as confirmed by research across the globe so Estonians seem to be on the right track.

Message for the educators: What can teachers do to create a more equitable and fair environment for learning for all students in the classroom?
There are many things teachers can do in their classrooms to make the children feel well. First of all, they can begin by being sensible and by understanding that not all children have resources and parents who can support their learning at home, or make assumptions whether children have or do not have access to internet or computers at home. These are just a few examples of how educators/ schools are taking the slippery slope to discriminating students of low socio-economic status and are perpetuating classism in the school and society. I would also recommend a text by Paul Gorski Myths on Poverty which also spells out nicely what as educators we can do!

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Photo from the Project for Social Inclusion of Children and Youth from Underdeveloped Regions in Macedonia

How can we create more equal education systems? What can be done on individual, school, and national level?
Educational equity would be the final goal of NEPC and everything we do somehow relates to this. There are numerous obstacles and it is not going to happen overnight. There are however policy measures that could be taken today that cost no money and even more can be done on class or school level. It is important not to get overwhelmed by all that is wrong and all societal issues. Talking about policy measures that cost no money for example is school entry policies for example that in many cases allow well to do families to enter their kids into elite public schools.

At NEPC we are just starting a project under ERASMUS + funding, “Breaking the Poverty Taboo: Roles and Responsibilities of Education”, BRAVEdu project which we hope will offer further policy and practices recommendations that would do exactly that create a more equitable education. Macedonia is also included in the project so we hope it could have a direct effect on your schools as well.


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