EDUCATION NOTES: Poverty is no excuse – again

In 1999, two years into the Labour government, Education Minister David Blunkett threatened schools with closure if exam results did not improve. He said, ‘There are cynics out there who say that school performance is all about socio-economics and the areas that these schools are located in’, but ‘poverty is no excuse for secondary schools failing to achieve ambitious new government targets to raise the GCSE pass rate’. Ten years on and with the annual publication of the schools league tables, the current Education Minister Ed Balls says the same again, ‘Schools should stop blaming poverty for bad exam results’, and he attacks what he calls the ‘excuses culture that persists in many communities’.

Poverty is the explanation
It has been called ‘the secret that everybody knows’: that children of poor families are far less likely to do well at school than those whose parents are on a good income. To human beings it is obvious. As a general rule, the children of better-off parents experience conditions that can be agreed to benefit human development: good housing and food, a variety of experiences including holidays and a relaxed environment free from financial worry. For deprived children, poverty at home is supplemented by inadequate state provision. The poor attend less well resourced, often overcrowded classrooms with high teacher turnover. None of this is absolute and it does not automatically follow that a child will or will not have an interest in learning or humane values, but it certainly helps. It is not cynicism but facts that show the strong correlation between social class and academic results. Two examples: firstly, poor primary pupils are five times more likely to be excluded from school, than those in rich areas. Secondly, while overall about 14% of pupils in England get a free school meal, the high-performing grammar schools have just 2% of eligible pupils, compared to a figure of about 46% in poor areas, with their under-resourced and inadequate schools. Access to a free school meal is used as a measure of child poverty, although recent research shows this to be an inadequate guideline since half of the 25% of pupils living below the poverty line do not even qualify. Blunkett and Balls have plenty of children between them and know what it costs to provide the necessities and pleasures of life, as their own incomes indicate. They are not really in denial about this, they are simply lying, bullying and apologising for capitalism.

Social mobility White Paper
Just as Balls was making his pronouncements about punishing teachers, pupils and parents, the government was publishing a White Paper on social mobility. The report and proposals, entitled New Opportunities, is a gesture in response to both the persistence of poverty under Labour and to the impact of the current economic recession with all the social dangers that arise from this.

For despite the millions that have been poured into the education system, the polarisation between the working class and the better-off sections of the population has increased since Labour came to power. Indeed, Labour’s ten-year spending record has disproportionately favoured the middle class with only 35% of the poorest children achieving five good GCSEs compared to 63% of the better-off. There has been a 3% increase in the poorest children reaching a university degree compared to an increase of 26% among the better-off.

Labour’s reforms – neo-liberal reforms
Cabinet adviser Alan Milburn MP told the Social Mobility Commission that produced New Opportunities, ‘This is the right time for the government to make its core purpose creating an upwardly mobile society again.’ In come three proposals; £57 million to extend free childcare for disadvantaged two-year-olds; all ‘vulnerable’ mothers-to-be given access to a dedicated family nurse through pregnancy and the first two years; effective teachers to be offered £10,000 bonuses to come and stay at the schools which need them. Out go ‘value for money’, ‘no rights without responsibilities’, ‘feral children’ and ‘feckless mothers’.

Oh that Labour Party! It can smile and smile and still be a damned villain. For who has privatised most nursery care beyond the pockets of working class people but Labour? Who has delivered land, buildings and a massive proportion of the infrastructure of state education into the pockets of the private sector, but Labour? Who has privileged success and wealth and attacked the poorest and neediest in society, but Labour? And now it offers up a rescue package to salvage some of the wreckage it has made of the welfare state.

State education under attack
Blunkett was Minister for Education and Employment, Charles Clarke was Minister for Education and Skills and today Ed Balls is Minister for Children, Schools and Families. This shift in titles tells its own story. Labour has relentlessly attacked the very idea of state education, selling it off and fragmenting its provision until it has pushed back social responsibility onto the family and the individual, leaving each to buy and pay for what is out there in the market place. This is the expression of the alliance between Labour and the rotten and discredited neo-liberalism that has been such a disaster for Britain and the world. It will not be forgotten or forgiven.

Susan Davidson

FRFI 207 February / March 2009

 

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