Henry Hepburn

Want to help people in poverty? Give them the cash

Perhaps those in poverty are the ones who should decide on measures to close the attainment gap, says Henry Hepburn

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Here’s an idea: if you want to give poor people a better education and boost their life prospects, just give them more money.

Some would say that’s already happening in Scottish education. Through the Scottish Attainment Challenge and the Pupil Equity Fund, more than 95 per cent of state schools are getting more money in exchange for coming up with innovative ideas to tackle the “poverty-related attainment gap”.

The problem with this, as one headteacher told me last week, is that a cadre of middle-class professionals is deciding how these hundreds of millions of pounds will make poor people’s lives better – things are being done to, not decided by, poor people.

Some ideas will, of course, prove highly successful; others less so. But this headteacher was far from certain that the resultant hotchpotch will, overall, make things better. It wouldn’t happen in the healthcare system, said the head, where a new drug is subject to stringent testing before it can be administered to the general populace. Relatively untested ideas are, however, far more likely to find their way into the everyday life of a school.

Which gets us back to the original point: if so many ideas to close the attainment gap amount to little better than fumbling in the dark – sometimes you’ll happen to find a key that works, sometimes you won’t – why not just give the money to the people it’s supposed to help?

'Middle-class' policies for the poor

If you’re living in grinding poverty, struggling to get from one meal, one mental health episode, one day to the next, your priorities are immediate. Give people more money, then, and they can spend it on what they see as their immediate priorities. It might be feeding a child, buying them shoes, getting them materials for that school project they were stressing about. Yes, some of it will be squandered – but would this amount be any more than the education system squanders when it holds the purse strings?

Another nagging question: what is this ubiquitous attainment gap, anyway? Has anyone defined it? If not, is it any wonder that we haven’t come close to fixing a problem that’s been around for longer than anyone living today has walked this earth?

Regardless, the idea of the poverty-related attainment gap has seeped so far into the fabric of Scottish education that some report it being reduced to an ugly acronym – “the Prag”. (We hear it said, too, that the abbreviation of the Pupil Equity Fund is inexorably mutating into a verb – there are children out there being “Peffed”.)

There is a danger of perspective being lost, of the emergence of platitudes rather than meaningful action. Think of what happened with Curriculum for Excellence, when tiny children in schools started talking about why they were “effective contributors” or “confident individuals”. If the managerialist language of policymakers is regurgitated in classrooms – if a noble endeavour is reduced to a series of vacuous mantras – it feels like a sign of stagnation rather than progress.

The danger, too, is that we expect teachers to perform that old, impossible trick of solving society’s problems. Yes, they can do fantastic things to shape children’s lives. Yes, they can mitigate the damage of traumatic home circumstances. But as staff at one innovative school tell us this week (see pages 14-19), much of the damage is done by the time children start primary school, never mind secondary.

Nebulous as the attainment gap is, it can be entrenched even before a child is born. There is some outstanding work going on in schools to close it – but those endeavours must not obscure deep-rooted causes that lie far beyond the school gates.