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.