Forget where you came from…

Mention poverty in the same breath as educational attainment and everyone is an expert, ready to impart their expertise and share with the world the elusive secret to eradicating inequality. And they can usually do it in fewer than 140 characters. Amazing!

I don’t mean to be flippant. The issue of education and academic attainment for disadvantaged children is very close to my heart. Why? Well, firstly, I am a teacher but if that isn’t reason enough, I am also a product of poverty: I was that child on that estate, let down by my family, my school, my community and society in general. So when I hear the most ridiculously simplistic remedy to this incredibly complex conundrum, i.e. ‘We just need to invest more money in education’, my blood boils.

Of course, money helps. It would be ludicrous to suggest otherwise. I also know that people making these statements are well intentioned, so I can somewhat forgive their crass, sweeping solutions. Yes, money is vital. It provides resources, facilities, teachers, courses, support staff, breakfast clubs, enrichment programs and specialist training – the list is endless. It can also  eliminate barriers that prevent access to education such as course fees, childcare and even bus fare. But to suggest that the inequality of educational opportunity can be fixed with cash alone (of which there is never going to be a bottomless pot) dismisses the many other complex issues, which arguably, create much bigger barriers.

I don’t profess to hold any answers here. I have my opinions like everyone else. But what I do have is an insight into what it is like to be one of these children; the experience of overcoming barriers of poverty to succeed in education, and on the other side, the understanding of the implications for a teacher trying to ensure that all children can reach their potential. These words exist only to offer insight and not to solve society’s issues in one blog post.

So let’s first consider achievement and attainment.  It is a fact that the most accurate predictor of a child’s educational success is their parents’ income.  In 2014, I find it astonishing that this inequality is still allowed to exist. The whole premise of the 1988 Education Act (and the main reason for me becoming a teacher) was to provide ‘equality of educational opportunity’. On the surface, it looks like we do that. Every child, irrespective of gender, faith, or special need, has an entitlement to a place in a state school. These schools follow the same national curricular and are inspected and measured by the same process, using the same criteria.  But dig a little deeper and the variables between children’s educational experience change wildly: the quality of teaching and learning; the standard of buildings; the quality of, and access to resources; the extra curricular provision; the range of courses offered; the behaviour; the social/economic/ethnic/cultural demographic of the intake; the funding; the pupil turnover; the management and governance of the school – and that is barely even scratching the surface.  It’s also worth adding here that this lottery of educational experience isn’t at all random.  A child is far more likely to have a successful experience of education, the more affluent the catchment area their school happens to reside in.

So, are schools failing children in their inability to close this gap between economic background and attainment?

The data is mixed. Figures show, that whilst a significant gap (between the attainment of poorer children compared with their better off peers) does exist on entry into the primary education system, it is all but eradicated by the time children leave – children from disadvantaged backgrounds do not trail their more affluent peers. However, throughout their secondary careers, the gap widens again, leaving a vast underachievement for those from poor socio-economic backgrounds.

Are primary schools doing something secondary schools need to switch on to, quick sharp? Or is the issue that as children become young adults, self-determination and cultural expectations/priorities override all else?

I think all schools have work to do in challenging inequality in the classroom as well as attitudes in wider society, and this is where more funding only goes so far.  Strikingly, one of the significant reasons that has been suggested that affects disadvantaged children in schools, is low teacher expectations, often leading to disengagement and poor motivation. I remember on my very first day of school placement on teacher training, this (terrible) teacher spoke to me about a little girl in the class. ‘Oh she’s not very bright…’, she said, in earshot of this 5-year-old, ‘… but she’s a pretty thing. She won’t amount to much. She’ll make a lovely mum though.’ I remember being appalled. I asked her why she would condemn this child, who had barely begun her education, to such non-existent aspirations? She thought I should remember my place and not be so impertinent.  But this child already had a father in prison and social services involved at home. Surely her teacher should have been the one person in her life that encouraged her to dream big – to strive for more than the universe had lumped her with. Unfathomable! Any teacher that does not promote high aspirations for ALL children, should be fired on the spot!

My job gives me enough insight to be very aware of the failings in the education system. I failed my way through it quite well myself twenty years ago. I wonder if that would have still happened if the monitoring, tracking and accountability systems that we have in place nowadays, were used then. Probably, given the lack of impact they seem to have now.  Whilst exam results overall do continue to climb, the gap between the haves and have-nots stubbornly remains. The government provides additional (Pupil Premium) funding for the most disadvantaged children and demands that it be used to specifically to ensure that they attain in line with their peers and also make expected progress. The scrutiny from Ofsted is incredible (but not so rigorous or consistent within the internal governance of schools) when looking at how money is being spent and the impact it is having on ‘narrowing the gap’. This demand for accountability is all well and good if the gap is narrowing, but what when every intervention, booster group, homework club, enrichment class, specialist support (*insert every other thing known to man), does not work? Some of us can’t and we don’t give up. We keep trying. More and more, over and over, and I can tell you, the pressure is relentless.  For some schools though, the funding is sucked up into the main school budget and justified tenuously.  The question needs to be: does relentless pressure improve outcomes, or does spending more and more money (which, despite monitoring and scrutiny,  is often not spent in the most cost/impact efficient way) actually close the gap?  Obviously not, given that I am even writing this and asking these questions.  So what else?

I often look back to my childhood when considering why this gap exists. To put into context, I was from a single parent family. My mother worked. There were periods when she didn’t and we lived on benefits. I had free school meals and clothing vouchers. Beyond my immediate experience, there was nothing else open to me or my future. I hardly ever went to school. I hated it. I was singled out and mocked for being the poor kid from the estate, wearing my knock-off clothes from the market. It wasn’t a pleasant period. I felt like I was different. They were the types that would get good jobs, become professionals, not like me. I still took most of my exams though. I got nine GCSEs, all above C (even a couple of As) – you might wonder why I consider that ‘failing’ at education. For me, it was.  Just imagine what I could have achieved with support, involvement, guidance and more than 20% attendance! The point I am making is that I was clearly capable but was not given the opportunity to meet my potential.  And a failure to reach a potential is, for me, the biggest kind of failure there is.

Obviously my teachers had given up on me long before I left at 16. But more than this, and the biggest issue facing many children from similar backgrounds to me (which is largely ignored and can’t be fixed by just money), is the inherent culture of zero aspirations. I grew up with no importance being placed on education. You went to school because you had to, then you got a (usually low paid, unskilled) job and earned your keep. Access to higher education is more prevalent now, but then it didn’t even enter my head as an option for someone like me.

My parenting contributed massively to this lack of aspiration. More than there being a general passivity (missed parents’ evenings etc.), there was the active discouragement and dismissal of education and aspiration.  My brothers all played truant and took no exams. I hardly know how I managed to just about hang on. But I remember when I decided to re-enter education as an adult and still facing this anti-aspiration attitude. The comments from my parents: ‘Why do you want to do that?… We don’t do that kind of thing… I don’t think that you will cope’.   And at every hurdle I faced along the way I was told ‘It’s clearly not for you… you should just give it up.’  But the worst was the unjust, reverse snobbery I received after I qualified to teach. Comments like ‘you think you’re better than us… You need to remember where you came from.’ etc etc.  And whilst in no way do I believe this attitude is the ‘rule’ for a family with a background like mine, I know I am certainly not the ‘exception’.  Of course, there are many disadvantaged families who do encourage their children to aim high and support them in their learning.  There are individuals, like me, with a level of self-actualization and motivation to succeed, and will do despite their background, not because of it.  But something needs to change – we need a massive cultural shift.

How do we tackle that?  This culture of ‘remember where you came from’ and the idea that if you succeed you are no longer ‘one of us’ needs to change. I have never understood why so many people that have struggled all of their lives, like my mother, would want to keep their own children ‘down’ to face the same struggles and live with the same poverty. I don’t think it’s consciously done, just more indicative of a lasting class system in this country where it is frowned upon to even think above ‘your station’.  That class system is abhorrent.  I still belong nowhere. I’m not like my mostly middle-class colleagues and friends.  I’m not like my family on the estate.  These rigid class boundaries still dictate who we are, regardless of how socially mobile we are becoming.  I don’t know that you can ever escape them if you’re from poverty. For me, it’s too ingrained in who I am; I question and limit myself constantly. That’s what needs to change.  And it can, if we have aspirations for our own children and refuse to burden them with these dreadful limits.

The media have a lot to answer for too. What message do we send to children from poorer backgrounds (and also to their better-off peers) when their families are constantly vilified and marginalised for being lazy, worthless burdens to society? Constantly rob people of their dignity and self-respect and see how motivated they are to achieve.  We create more affluent children who diminish their peers and define them based on their parents’ income, always perpetuating this hierarchy of human beings.

We also need a government who recognise the need to tackle tax avoidance of the richest and who are willing to invest in the infrastructure of society. Jobs need to be created. The sheer number graduates currently unemployed is criminal.  To  encourage children to acquire so much debt in obtaining a degree, in order to have no job at the end of it, again adds in to the ‘what’s the point?’ attitude.  While this country is governed by those that want to privatise the air we breath (as well as education and the NHS) leaving us at the mercy of the richest who can focus on profits and tax dodging, and not on reinvestment, development of communities, eradication of poverty and rights/fair pay for those that work and help for those that cannot.

Like I said, I don’t have the answers, I just know it’s not as simple a solution as ‘more money’ alone. Money, is of course a large factor, but we need to begin by changing attitudes about class and poverty, from all aspects of society. We are all responsible for every child and every child deserves the chance to believe that they can be whatever they want. They have a right to an opportunity to achieve it. We have no right to impose a ceiling.  Where you came from should never limit where you’re going.


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