Poverty as the over-riding reason for low attainment of school pupils

Carl Parsons 

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Here we go again. Blame schools and now local authorities for low attainment in education and particularly for the gap in attainment between children from affluent families and those from poor families. It should be easy to mount convincing arguments about poverty, simply low family income, as the root cause of low achievement in schools. People need to understand that we are talking statistical probabilities, not certainties, that children from poor homes will do less well in school exams. The fact that these arguments have not been successful and we witness a trend against welfare means that schools are expected to provide the solution to low educational attainment. Schools are expected to narrow the gap, no, now it is close the gap, in performance between the affluent and the deprived. Consequently schools are blamed when the gap remains, beaten up by the much heralded, but tiny number of, examples that have achieved high attainment from pupils growing up in disadvantaged circumstances.

Underachievement in education of pupils from poor families is an injustice, a tragedy, a scandal, a moral disgrace, a political absurdity. Such neighbourhoods, and the schools there which struggle to educate poor children, are allowed to persist through a collusion of those who want to blame poor people and the vested interest of the middle classes (squeezed middle?) frightened of losing resources.

The lower performing school is not a natural phenomenon but one created and sustained by local and national policies. Even if it is the unintended consequence of these policies it is still recognised and accepted. It is considered at best collateral damage and at worst what the undeserving poor have coming to them. Being born into a poor family where parents have little experience of educational success themselves should not in itself mean greatly raised odds against the child being an educational achiever and getting favourable employment, pay and life chances.

Learning that does not happen before the child is two will impede later development. By 22 months, babies born in the lowest socio-economic groups are already measurably behind the more affluent The ‘school readiness’ of children from poorer families at age 5 is well below that of children from better off homes. The national statistics for the most and least deprived 5 and 11 year-olds show lower proportions of children from poorer households achieving the expected levels. Attainment at 16 shows the same marked class/income difference, year after year, no matter what the aspirations for ‘closing the gap’ may be.

In three aspects of the national political and cultural environment, information is disregarded, misapplied or perniciously used to maintain unjust, limited access for some to educational advantage. These aspects are: poverty and inequality; school improvement and effective schools research; the selective disregard of international comparisons.

Poverty matters from the earliest age. It is a grinding and weighty collection of disadvantages and the British know how to create and maintain inequalities of income and wealth better than almost any other European nation; Only Ireland and Portugal are worse in terms of child poverty, according to the latest UNICEF data. Measures of inequality put the UK well ahead of France, Netherlands, Germany and of course the Scandinavian countries; only Ireland and Latvia were worse on inequality. We delude ourselves if we do not acknowledge this.

Poverty is not a state of mind but a real, physical experience of limitation. Poverty is a problem and cannot be disguised by calling it social exclusion. Poverty is often, if not exactly an inherited condition, one more likely to be experienced by those whose parents were poor. Poverty affects people’s health and, on average in the UK, practically all diseases strike earlier at more people the lower their social class. Heart disease, cancers and mental health problems including depression affect the poorest people most, and those in what used to be called social class five live an average of 12 years less than those in social classes one and two. People are on average more stressed, parental discipline is erratic and harsher, diet is poorer and smoking more prevalent. Add to this the sense of exclusion, the not unnatural ‘why bother to vote’, the marginalisation sometimes evident from where your estate is located. So poor people live on average more painful, less happy and shorter lives. The totality of their insecure and stressed condition impacts on the educational experience of their children.

School effectiveness and school improvement has been a lucrative movement for academics and trainers and has proved an attractive arena in which politicians have hoped that failing schools and the attainment of poor pupils can be improved without meddling with fundamentals of society or the economy. There is a host of school improvement authors – good people, good researchers. Their international journal, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, had a December 2006 issue largely devoted to improving schools in challenging circumstances.  The International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) is the uniting global get-together at different locations in the world in the early part of every year.  All this activity from top scholars is missing the point. It is a distraction, even if an intellectually attractive one. Token mention is sometimes made of the need for pro-equity policies, even redistributive frameworks, but they still go on about how much can be achieved by school change. This sits alongside research over the last 40 years which has pointed to the overwhelming strength of socio-economic factors in determining school outcomes. At most, 20% of achievement is attributable to the school. The best expression of the school effect is given by Stephen Gorard. He writes: ‘The clear majority of variation in examination outcomes between pupils cannot be explained even by the best data and the most complex of school effectiveness analyses. Of the 30 to 40% that can be explained, the vast majority of this (75 to 90% of it) is attributable to the prior and individual characteristics of the pupils’ (my emphasis). This is in his 2010 British Journal of Educational Studies paper teasingly entitled ‘Education can compensate for society – a bit’. And it really is only ‘a bit’.

International comparisons are well represented in The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009) and in UNESCO and UNICEF reports. There are well corroborated claims that more equal societies do better at: mental illness; use of illegal drugs; teenage birth rates; homicides; conflict between children; prison population; social mobility; health and social problems. The Wilkinson and Pickett publication led to unusually aggressive responses from the political right. Notable amongst them was Christopher Snowden’s The Spirit Level Delusion; others mocked it as ‘a laugh’, and, along with other right-leaning writers, attacked the data, the analysis and even the authors.

The Gini coefficient measure of inequality for affluent countries (2008/9) shows the UK position as more unequal than most other continental countries, and higher in the UK than at any time in the previous 30 years. It should be an embarrassing position. The 2012 UNICEF league table of child poverty in the rich countries shows that child poverty levels are higher in the UK than in most the neighbouring countries with which we would like to be compared. These comparisons are ignored! The English (we can’t say British anymore) way is technical and mechanistic and determinedly apolitical and amoral.

In England, political and intellectually deceitful choices are made not to associate school failure with poverty and class, which makes the punitive approaches to struggling schools not just crude but dishonestly incompetent. Frank Field is losing heart over his ‘cost-free’ proposals for greater equality which no one important is listening to. Iain Duncan Smith is hardening up on reducing the crutch of welfare ‘for their own good’, as we knew he would. And Alan Milburn, as equalities czar, is stern and demanding on closing the gap – and getting more assertive and less credible with each news release.

We use terms like succeeding against the odds and notice no irony in the knowledge that the odds are created and embedded. We want to reduce levels of poverty yet retain a low minimum wage such that approaching 60% of families in poverty are in work. Reducing child poverty is key to narrowing the educational attainment gap. Increasing social mobility will not happen with the policies in place in 2012, policies even less redistributive than in earlier years. The UK is a long way from being a fair society, much less fair than our European neighbours. Blaming schools is a calculated, cruel deceit from those who think that heroics, going the extra mile, beating the odds should be commonplace in teaching while not demanded in any other occupational sector. Get real, Mr Gove.

Carl Parsons is Visiting Professor of Social Inclusion Studies at the University of Greenwich. He has recently published Schooling the Estate Kids (Sense Publishers)

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