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Can't escape Canning Town poverty

A fifth of Europe's poor live in the UK and their troubles have been highlighted in two new studies. David Budge and Antony Dore report on being young, British and penniless.

Sharon Dray remembers May 4, 1979 for two reasons. First, her child Bradley was born and second, a general election brought a Conservative government to power.

Nearly 16 years later, this son of the Thatcher generation is preparing to leave his school in Canning Town, east London. From the hill behind his comprehensive, Canning Town is dwarfed by that other 1980s' symbol, Canary Wharf, with the towers of Europe's financial capital on the horizon.

Bradley's horizons are less auspicious. After taking four GCSEs this summer he may go to college, but is not sure. "I know people with several GCSEs who have been to college and they end up taking any job they can. I might as well do it now." He dreams of becoming a car mechanic.

Sharon is sure that poverty has damaged Bradley's education and therefore his chances in the world. Canning Town is the poorest area of Newham, the most deprived authority area in the country, according to the Department of the Environment. In 1993 male unemployment reached 35 per cent in two wards; 37 per cent of children are entitled to free school meals in the borough and nearly half the children with long-term illnesses live with unemployed parents.

Once the cost of food, bills and rent has been deducted from Sharon's Pounds 99.20 weekly benefits, there is little money for luxuries for her four children - and that includes school uniforms and trips. She was recently asked for a Pounds 4 "voluntary contribution" for her daughter's history trip to the Imperial War Museum. But when the money could not be found her daughter stayed at school. "What will she be doing when the others are writing up their trip?" asks Sharon.

Her children are eligible for free meals. But rather than make them stand in line holding their meal ticket, she gives them money to go to the chip shop or Chinese take-away with their friends. "I remember too well when I was at school and my dad was on strike at the docks. We had to line up separately to get a cheaper meal. I won't put my children through that."

Sharon returns to money repeatedly to explain why the promises of choice and government reforms don't apply to her family. If Newham schools are not delivering opportunities - the borough was sixth from bottom in last year's GCSE tables - the cost of transport stops her sending her children elsewhere. Transport costs are also blamed for her elder sons not finding jobs in wealthier parts of London.

While Canning Town boasts a brand new leisure centre, it won't relieve the boredom of urban living because "I can't afford to send my children swimming every week". (The admission price is Pounds 1.30.) Whatever attempts have been made to cast wide the net of enterprise culture, it has not covered the short distance between its bastion in the City of London and the Dray household.

Sharon does voluntary work at the Canning Town Detached Youth Project - an organisation that helps disaffected youngsters. The project has seen truancy in the area rise sharply in the past three years. On average, every Newham secondary pupil who recorded an unauthorised absence last year missed nearly four weeks of school. Project manager Don Irving believes competition for pupils between schools means it is easier for them to allow the difficult and disruptive to stay away.

The centre has also dealt with an increase in requests for help in buying school uniforms, brought back at the request of parents but another drain on poorer families.

With the traditional East London industries lying idle, most new jobs are part-time, temporary and low paid. Mr Irving does not hold out a great deal of hope for Bradley's generation as they emerge with a few GCSEs and a record of achievement to become the flexible workforce of the 1990s' service industry. "If you were cynical you would say they are the first generation who are likely to never do a day's work in their lives."

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