Friday, 5 April 2013

It's not about poverty

I suspect that this blog will be "stating the bleedin' obvious" for most teachers but I feel that teachers' voices are not being heard in the current arguments on education.

The national debate on education appears to be driven by a concern for those in poverty.  The 'close the gap' agenda pushes schools to raise the attainment of those who have been on Free School Meals at any time in the last six years.  The goal is to match the attainment of those who are not in poverty.  The argument made by government is that schools are letting down the former based on schools' low expectations.  The CVA model which assessed how well schools were doing taking into account the circumstances of the children was stopped partially because it was seen as 'too complex' but also because, so they argued, it reinforced low expectations of some students.

I recently read "The Tail" (Ed. Paul Marshall), as it promised to explain what could be done about the 1 in 5 children achieving very few qualifications.  Part of the book tried to define what "The Tail" was and pointed out that only 25% of the children in the tail received Free School Meals.  The point was emphasised that poverty does not define "The Tail".  Yet, during the remainder of the book, other contributors talked about children on FSMs as if they were "The Tail".  Many of the solutions suggested in the book were disappointing in that they relied on market forces, league tables and rising floor targets to drive the system.  I finished not knowing who "The Tail" were, nor what could be done about them.

Many people point out that people who live in poverty can escape their circumstances and achieve highly.  This is used to justify the claim that all people who live in poverty can do this.  As a mathematician I recognise the flaw in this 'proof'.  The fact that one person did well whilst living in poverty disproves the statement "All people in poverty will do poorly in education".  However, it does not prove the statement "All people living in poverty can do well in education".  It merely suggests that "Some people in poverty can do well in education."

This is an important point: Poverty is not a bar to doing well in education as some people have shown.  So what then, is the difference between those who do well and those who don't?

The government's argument is that it is down to the quality of the school.  Some schools with high FSM levels and high attainment are highlighted to demonstrate the impact of a good school.  The rest of us are urged to follow suit.  This doesn't answer the question though.  Some children do well from a poor background whilst in a 'bad school'.

In my experience, whether a child has Free School Meals doesn't matter as much as why they do.  A child whose mother is a young, middle-class widow, for example, and working part-time to support her children is likely to achieve well in school.  A child whose parents did poorly at school and have low-paid jobs or no jobs at all because they have few skills and qualifications is likely to achieve poorly in school.

It is not the poverty that makes a difference but the parent's, or other significant adults', attitude to education and the quality of the support given to the child that makes all the difference.  This is why schools with high immigrant populations tend to do well.  Though the children are classed as FSM and EAL, they and their parents are driven to succeed.  The LSE have recently (published between writing and posting this blog) carried out research which suggest the same thing (as reported in the Telegraph.)

I was once told that I was making excuses for failure but I am not.  Without identifying the reasons that so many of our young children do not do as well as they should, we cannot put in place policies that will truly solve the problem.

Now, that would be something worth writing about.


  1. I agree with your premise that just being on FSM is not necessarily an indicator that children won't do as well in school. But isn't this largely the case? And isn't it right therefore that using FSM as a marker for additional help is the easiest way to target those children with additional resources and funding? I would also argue, that for those children that would do well in school even though they are in receipt of FSM, are still from low income families and any additional help is likely to be welcome and useful (free laptop schemes for example).
    I agree that we need to look deeper at the root causes of poor attainment but we mustn't run the risk of losing the FSM marker to attract additional funding. And I think schools can be aware of deeper issues and make others aware of them but generally the job of a school is to educate as well as they can, the children they are presented with.

  2. Thank you for your comment. For me, the two are separate but connected issues. If we accept that FSM is only a proxy for the underlying issues and provide additional resources based upon that because it's the best we can do then I have no problem with it.

    However, what annoys me is the assumption that because some students can lift themeselves out of poverty, it is easy for schools to lift them all out. We get told that school XXX with high FSM also has high Value Added. FSM hides the real problems which are much deeper and just tackling poverty won't do it. You can solve poverty by giving money to people but that won't solve the educational issue.

    So give additional money to schools based upon FSM but look deeper at what mighht solve the real issues. I hope to give my own suggestions in a future blog and look forward to debating these.

    1. I can accept that much low attainment is to do with poor parenting, chaotic home lives, low value attached to education and the other myriad social problems that affect our communitites. However, the fact is schools cannot do very much about these things. They can try to reach parents and families - I believe many primary schools run literacy programmes that ostensibly are for the children but are in part a way to reach parents too. They can aim to make better relationships with families, but in general apart from constantly raising the issues with our politicians there is very little schools can do to change what happens in the home lives of these children. Because of this your post sounds like a shrug of the shoulders for raising the attainment of these hard to reach children. I'm sure that is not how you intended it, and I understand your frustration with the simplistic government approach of throwing money at schools to solve the problem of poor attainment that is mainly caused by problems schools cannot solve! But I just think schools have no choice but to try to be creative, to think how it may be possible within the remit of the school and the money available to try to reach these kids.

      Large high schools can be very alienating places where getting to really know pupils and their families rarely happens. Perhaps mentoring would help for some. Consistency of form tutor, a very pro-active head of year who monitors closely those at risk of low attainment? Changes to the timetable that prevents these kids hiding behind misbehaviour or reticence and classes of 30 other children for an hour before moving on to the next lesson and repeating the process?

      Late addition! I wrote this comment last night, then today this article came up in the guardian!
      Very relevant!

    2. Yes,I saw that article too and I'm planning to contact them next week to have a chat!

      I'm not trying to shrug my shoulders, quite the opposite. I am concerned that, whilst the government is blaming schools and missing the point, the problem remains unresolved. I would urge all schools to do what they can to help all children make progress - but isn't that what we've always tried to do?

      I have heard arguments on the right suggesting that left-wing teachers try to keep children uneducated so that there is always a working class to vote for left-wing parties. Gove's "militant", "trots" and "enemies of promise" comments suggests he believes this bizarre conspiracy.

      Is there a problem with underachievement in education? Yes. Is it the fault of the schools? Partially. Will the current proposals for fixing the problem work? No.

    3. Hi Rob
      Read this today and thought you may find it interesting (if you haven't already seen it!)

    4. Yes, this looks very good. Thank you.

  3. Rob - from my experience as a teacher/school leader I would agree that parental expectations, aspirations and support are the key reasons for young people's success at school. Parents on all levels of income can have high expectations of education, but the reality is that parents who may have had very negative experiences of schooling themselves, and who may have low income/social status are sadly less likely to be supportive of their children's education. Those who see education as a crucial opportunity for opening doors for their sons and daughters, and a way of giving their children better life chances than they themselves had, work with schools to support and encourage the child at the centre of the relationship.

    I was deputy and head in independent schools, having been educated in the state sector and having taught in four state schools. It seemed to me that one of the main reasons independent schools achieve well (in addition to the fact that most are to some degree selective) is because parents are usually very committed to their children's education - they expect and demand high standards from their children and from the schools themselves. I know this is true of many parents whose children attend state schools too, and that there are excellent state schools where the staff and the parents work in positive partnership. I have unbounded admiration for excellent state schools who achieve a huge amount WITHOUT parental engagement and support. It’s also true to say that when parents are on-side and supportive, including in terms of setting parameters for acceptable behaviour at home, pupils behave better and work in a focussed way in school, too.

    Could we do more to build relationships with parents, and work particularly hard with the disengaged, whatever their income and social status?

  4. Thank you for your comment. I know, from conversations with staff at independent schools, that sometimes parental support can sometimes be too much!

    I do think we need to find ways to engage all parents, particularly the 'hard to reach'. That's why I felt it was a shame to cut funding to Sure Start Centres. The first rush of parents was bound to be the pushy middle-class (nothing wrong with that!) but it was always going to take time to get the other parents on board. Parents need support and some need more than most.

    I agree that the challenge is finding ways of achieving this.

  5. I've certainly had my share of pushy parents in the past - it's true that some independent school parents can be very demanding/challenging/assertive (and even aggressive at times). I'm sure many teachers and leaders in state schools have had similar experiences.

    But I always felt I understood where pushy parents were coming from. Usually they were just motivated by love for their child, which has to be the most natural and understandable thing in the world. I would find it much harder to deal with unengaged/unsupportive/uninterested parents - that's much more difficult for me to get my head round.

    1. Most of the time the parents are supportive but either don't know how to support their children or are inconsistent or their idea of 'support' is just downright unhelpful.

      That's why I do like to "Troubled Families" approach - though I hate the name. It is making an impact See