Cyprus Mail

Our View: Coupons for school snacks stigmatises poor children

WHEN it was reported during the last school year that many children at state schools did not have the money to buy a sandwich at break-time, society decided that action was needed. Children from poor families could not be left to go through the day without a snack everyone agreed, and there were discussions on how the issue could be resolved.

One leading businessman offered to provide all the snacks while other businesses offered cash, as the penniless state was in no position to shoulder the full cost – protecting the earnings of well-fed public employees was a higher priority. In the end, the Christofias government allocated €600,000 for snacks and the same amount will be spent by its successor. Earlier this week, education minister Kyriacos Kenevezos announced that lotto company, OPAP Cyprus would contribute an additional €250,000.

While there may be adequate funds to cover the school year that starts next week, the way the education ministry plans to offer this help leaves a lot to be desired. It will use the system of coupons that was rather unwisely introduced by the previous government. We say unwisely, because the use of coupons brands children as poor and being dependent on charity, something that is unlikely to boost their self-esteem.

And the last thing we would expect any school to do is to label children as being poor and needy in the eyes of their fellow students, who can be cruel and unkind. It is no exaggeration to say that coupons stigmatise children from poor families and make many of them feel embarrassed. One of the main ideals of education – treating all children as equals – is undermined by the coupon system.

The education ministry is obviously aware of this sensitive issue and in a circular it sent to schools regarding the provision of the breakfast snack it urged them to “carry this out with utmost discretion and absolute confidentiality and with full respect for the dignity of each individual.” Legitimate concerns and sound advice from the ministry, but officials are deluding themselves if they seriously think there can be any confidentiality in a school environment. Surely all children know which among them pays for a sandwich with the coupon?

Regrettably there do not seem to be any alternatives to the coupon system, which is also wrong because it makes a child a direct recipient of state welfare. Ideally any help to the child should have been given via an adult – parent or guardian – who is eligible for state assistance, but this requires having a properly functioning state welfare system with adequate funding. We have neither so it would seem we have to live with the appalling coupon system.

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