In depth: How Edinburgh plans to tackle ‘hidden’ poverty divide

Despite the impression of Edinburgh as an affluent city, figures show almost a quarter of children are affected by money issues. Picture: Johnston Press
Despite the impression of Edinburgh as an affluent city, figures show almost a quarter of children are affected by money issues. Picture: Johnston Press
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It’s Scotland’s capital city, the second financial centre of the UK and tourism hotspot. But away from the bright lights and bars, almost a quarter of Edinburgh’s children are classed as living in – often hidden – poverty.

A project aiming to lift children out of poverty in Edinburgh has tallied up £273,000 in unclaimed entitlements for families in just seven months, exposing the extent of a vital part of the problem: Knowledge, access, and overcoming embarrassment.

In all, some 22 per cent of the Capital’s children live in poverty. That’s around 20,000 – and that figure is expected to rise significantly by 2020. Poverty is defined as living in a household where the income is 60 per cent or less of the national median income.

In an attempt to raise awareness and highlight issues, the City of Edinburgh Council put in place its 1 in 5 project three years ago. This was first piloted in six schools in 2015 and has since been rolled out to 80 with a target for all Edinburgh schools to become involved in the next two years.

Molly Page, the council’s life-long learning development officer for health and well-being, is spearheading it by continuing with the project’s pledge to “poverty proof” the cost of the school day.

She said: “We wanted to look at how we mitigate the impact and de-stigmatise poverty. People say that Edinburgh is quite an affluent city – but at least ten per cent of children in any area and up to 35 per cent in other areas are living in poverty.

“There is an impression that people in poverty are on drink and drugs, they are feckless – but if you look at the research, that’s simply not the case. The majority of people in poverty are in working families.

“Pupils go into primary schools and they want to do well, they enjoy it and so do their parents. What we see begin to happen is that children start to disengage with school, maybe because they can’t access all the same opportunities as others.”

Funding was secured for a pilot scheme looking at income maximisation – attempting to recoup unclaimed benefits and entitlements on behalf of families. In partnership with the Community Help and Advice Initiative (CHAI) charity, the city council assigned a full-time family advice and support worker who undertakes appointments in five schools. The council is ­hoping to extend the project, subject to funding.

Families in poverty often lack the money to pay for essential items, including school uniforms and equipment. Yet around £80 million of benefits and entitlements remain unclaimed by Edinburgh residents.

Since the pilot scheme was launched in September last year, welfare advice officers at Tynecastle High School, Stenhouse Primary, Dalry Primary, Pilrig Park and Rowanfield schools have helped 61 families to reclaim £273,000. Ms Page added: “It’s an incredible achievement and has a real impact for these families.”

Beth Hardingham, CHAI advice worker, said: “There’s a lot of money that’s there that should be accessed where people aren’t aware of it, people are frightened of the process, they are unaware of how to actually go about doing it.

“We let people know what their rights are, what they are entitled to do and also help them with the process of making the applications.”

Tynecastle High School, where almost one in four pupils is living in poverty, has seen a huge impact since September and when the 1 in 5 project was introduced two years ago.

Laura Barnett, leader of English at Tynecastle, said: “One of the major things was pupils coming in without having had breakfast – around 30 per cent. So we now run a free breakfast club every day. ‑The 1 in 5 project has meant we’ve been able to let parents know what support is available. We also make sure that when a letter goes home with a cost attached, we let parents get in touch with us if that cost will put a barrier in place and try to manage it.”

Yvonne McGregor, pupil support officer at Tynecastle, has seen the income maximisation initiative have a positive effect on pupils.

She said: “Out of the 13 families that has accessed CHAI, I know families have received over £30,000. It’s had a massive impact on everyday life at home and at school – it has helped families put food on the table and pay for additional activities.

“It has also had a huge impact on pupils’ attendance and the stigma that they need support is taken away as it’s completely confidential.”

Lorena McLaughlin, CHAI deputy service manager, said: “We look for markers including are they at risk of homelessness and can we intervene in any way? Can we help with a repayment plan for debts and to help teach financial capability to allow people to learn how to manage things.

“CHAI has been doing this kind of work for a long time so we’re quite aware of how we can maximise people’s incomes and the benefits they can get from that. But now we are going into schools with a view of raising the attainment of the children. We don’t want to let poverty or the risk of homelessness impact on children that can’t fight it themselves.”

CHAI has found that 70 per cent of parents would have waited longer to seek advice had they not had the opportunity through the income maximisation project. Project officer at the Improvement Service, Paige Barclay said: “We can help families earlier before they reach this crisis point where they really can’t cope financially anymore.

“We are measuring the social benefits that you would normally struggle to place a monetary value on – things like social inclusion and parents becoming more involved in school. We’ve found that for every £1 invested, there’s £32 return in terms of these social benefits for everyone involved.”

Cllr Alison Dickie, vice-convener of education, children and families, said: “Poverty isn’t a life choice but ending stigma is and Edinburgh’s schools are leading the way. We know through research that the level of income families receive makes a difference to children’s outcomes and has a positive impact on attainment.

“Evaluation has also found that parents who might not otherwise have accessed welfare services are more likely to do so and it has also helped build closer relationships between vulnerable families and their schools.”

CASE STUDY

THE income maximisation project with CHAI helped one mother recoup around £8,000 after it emerged her two children were sleeping on the floor in her unfurnished flat.

The mother applied for free school meals but had been refused. English wasn’t her first language, so CHAI officers arranged an interpreter for her. The woman was working 16 hours a week on minimum wage and had applied for child benefit, working tax credits and child tax credits.

She had also attempted to apply for free school meals, but due to the language barrier, she didn’t understand the form and had handed over the wrong paperwork.

Lorna McLaughlin, CHAI deputy service manager, said: “What we uncovered was that she was in a private rented flat – the rent was £650 a month. She couldn’t cover that, so she had rent arrears.

“She came from a background of domestic violence and homelessness and it looked like the homelessness was going to happen again. We appealed decisions on housing benefits that hadn’t happened because of the language difficulties, got a new claim in and she got money back – at least £300 a month to help pay with the rent.”

She added: “Through the trust and understanding that built up at the very end of the first appointment, she disclosed that this was an unfurnished flat. She had no furniture and her and her children were sleeping on the floor. Immediately we were able to put in grants and get beds, sofas and mattresses.

“The stress that someone has when they have financial difficulties – it’s survival really, it’s very emotional. That family could have been homeless again – an eight-year-old and a five-year-old boy would have experienced homelessness again.

“You have to build up trust with people – they are confidential, they’re impartial. Building up that relationship is key to people feeling they can trust us.”