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Poverty is the real difference between school attainment levels

school pupilsThe Scottish Government’s Parentzone website has published data on the performance of school leavers. The Daily Record highlighted how these figures show a shocking class divide between the wealthiest and least well off areas of Scotland. This is Dave Watson’s opinion piece in the Daily Record that ran alongside the article. In it he argues that the difference tells us more about poverty than schools.

These figures don’t tell us much about schools. What they tell us is that poverty ruins lives. The enormous gap in qualifications between children in poor and wealthy areas is simply a reflection of the inequality that scars Scottish society. An appalling number of families are relying on foodbanks. You don’t need to be an educational psychologist to work out that a well fed child is going to be a better pupil than one who is hungry. Saying that looking at these figures tell you more about house prices than it does about standards in schools is no joke, it’s the truth.

They certainly don’t tell us much about the teams who deliver education in the schools. Arguably it’s the schools where fewer children are getting qualifications that are working the hardest, as the team in the school attempt to help the children overcome a host of social disadvantages in order to learn. Think about it – if it were simply a matter of the attitudes of the staff would the pattern of poor areas and supposedly poor schools be quite so consistent?

One of the things that drives attainment is the chance to undertake educational enhancing activities. It is clear that better off parents have resources to allow their children to take part in a wider range of activities than their less well-off peers. For example, going to see a play live makes it easier to get good marks in English than just reading it in a book or out loud in the class.

Those who have the least opportunity to do these activities out of school because of lack of money, need to have these opportunities through school. Cuts in local authority funding, made worse by the council tax freeze, mean that the cost of school trips, whether for a day or a week, and sports clubs are increasingly falling on parents. These are burdens that many families cannot meet. Here in UNISON we have been told by members on low wages or zero hour contracts of instances of their children, knowing the sacrifices their parents would make to find the money, of not even telling parents about school trips. These charges mean that, far from narrowing the gap, we will see it grow.

There are some initiatives that could be taken in schools that might make some difference. Ensuring poorer children are not denied support that can’t otherwise be offered would be a good place to start – for example by ending the trend of getting rid of Classroom Assistants.

And let’s hope that the political response to these figures avoids nonsense about ‘improving aspiration’. As if the poor, who lets remember are mostly working for a living, don’t or can’t care for their children.

No one should be in any doubt that the real key to reducing the gap between how children in poor areas do compared to children in rich areas is to reduce the gap between rich and poor.

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  1. David Pavett says:

    It is clearly right and important to point out the relationship between educational attainment and poverty. That relationship is not always simple in that some deprived groups do relatively well so culture and aspirations comes into it as well. (See on this recent arguments about what factors best explain the success of the London Challenge programme.)

    But overall there clearly is a relationship and it requires a real divorce from reality to think that it might not be so, or to pretend that without abolishing poverty and stark inequality it could be otherwise.

    Unfortunately, Labour’s position on this issue is at best ambiguous and at worst delusional.

    The 2014 NPF policy document agreed by Labour Conference and the basis for the next manifesto, asserts

    We need to do much more to break down the link between a child’s background, and their attainment in education.

    (1) This leaves it unclear as to whether, if we work hard enough the link can be removed altogether and (2) the same document nowhere says that removing the link altogether requires the removal of poverty an extreme inequality.

    Tristram Hunt is rather more forthright (and absurd) and is fond of talking of “a commitment to breaking the link between deprivation and attainment.” He thinks this can be done by

    … zero tolerance of low expectations, smart use of data to track pupil progress, and the strategic use of sponsored academies.

    1. Gary Brooke says:

      Which, given recent revelations about the performance of England’s largest academy chains in relation to LA maintained schools, begs the question, which “sponsored academies” does Hunt regard as suitable or even able to break “the link between deprivation and attainment”? And how does his preference for market-led solutions explain the success of London Challenge? Anyway, if poverty is the enemy then surely that’s a job for government and the country as a whole and not just teachers? (Sorry, I’ve just crossed the line into heresy…)

      1. Robert says:

        I played sport in school thank god my old PE teacher found me a pair of old football boots, otherwise i would not have played. Then when I was picked for the county cricket team , at under fifteen they sent my mother list of stuff I would need to play from shoes to whites to my own cricket bat, in the end I said no need to worry I do not want to play it broke my heart.

        At 18 at work I played cricket at local level and was pretty good but those lost years cost me.

        Of course poverty matters and after three terms of a labour Government is it little wonder people in Scotland are looking at other parties.

  2. Barry Ewart says:

    Yes it may be hard to concentrate if you are hungry, feel scruffy, have dirty feet and holes in your socks and you are dreading what is coming soon- your weekly public humiliation in the gym.
    You may also not be able to stop thinking about your parents arguing over money last night and wondering what all these lessons to do with your life NOW!
    And there is no chance your parents can afford the school trip. And how you wish you had your own warm bedroom to do your homework in.
    And your poorly paid parents are often just too knackered to talk too much about your school work or to go to the parents evening.
    And you go through the education system with so many tests and exam results that tell you that you are ‘bright’ or ‘not as bright’ as the other children and this may stick with you for life.
    So other policies will help: a living wage, a shorter working week, decent homes, actions to address fuel poverty – tax the rich and big business and banks and fund schools properly particularly in poor areas plus use the money for free laptops for kids and free school trips for all, have more in- course assessment, have democratic schools overseen by democratic local authorities and school governers elected by whole communities in catchment areas plus end free schools and academies and make them democratic schools too – accountable to the local community and LA.
    We should focus on nurturing the critical citizens of tomorrow and not a narrow education system which produces an uncritical wheat as the future capitalist managers and a chaff do do al the dull and generally poorly paid but important jobs that make society work.
    We should also not forget the parents and offer free lifelong learning and radical adult education on the lines of Paulo Freire.
    Plus free HE for all paid by a tax on big business.
    50 years ago when I was 11 I caused some consternation amongst some teachers, as most of the kids were writing about bunny rabbits or something I wrote, “Why do so few have so much when so many have so little’ (I don’t think I had learnt about question marks then). Sadly nothing has changed!

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