Disadvantage does not have to be destiny

Poverty limits children's life chances before they even start school, but the belief and support of their teachers can reverse this trend

Katie Ashford

Sunshine streams through the window, landing on Lewis' face. He wakes up. What was a gentle night for some children has been one of tossing and turning and waking and dozing for Lewis. It is the morning of his first day of school, and his older brother's persistent video gaming has disturbed what should have been a restful night.

Their mother enters the room and opens the curtains, stepping cautiously around the clusters of broken toys, strewn clothes and cables as she goes. She whispers softly in Lewis' ear and strokes his hair, which is damp with sweat and glued to his face. It's time to wake up and get ready for school.

Coco Pops, toothpaste, new backpack, a tricky tie, confounding shoelaces. The morning is rushed and frantic. Lewis is used to a much slower pace of life, and he tries to make sense of the hustle and bustle as his mother drags him through the streets and on to the bus.

They speed past the recreation ground, the dilapidated houses, the broken phone boxes. The bus grinds to a halt around the corner from the primary school, and Lewis and his mother walk towards the gate. Their tearful goodbye is quickly forgotten as Lewis looks around at his new environment and notices a group of boys playing on the floor. He approaches them shyly and watches their game. A piece of Lego is passed in his direction and a friendship begins to blossom.

Lewis and the 29 other children in his Reception class are beginning the most important journey of their lives today. The things they learn and the experiences they have over the next 11 years will dramatically shape their futures. They sit on the carpet and listen to Miss Hampton read a story about a giraffe; they drink in her magical words, enchanted by the illustrations.

But even on the first day at school, even before the wonderful Miss Hampton has done everything she can to help Lewis and his friends to learn, there is a distance between them. Lewis' family care for him and have the same hopes and aspirations for him as other families do for their children, but for socio-economic reasons they are less equipped to help their boy achieve these goals.

By the time he starts school, Lewis is already 30 million words behind his more advantaged peers. His home lacks the richness of language and cultural experience that others offer. Poverty frames his existence. His mother is on benefits and struggles to make ends meet. She had to make serious cutbacks to buy Lewis' uniform and feels guilty that he can't have a room of his own. This poverty, crippling and overwhelming, has trapped Lewis' mother and many others like her in an unending spiral of misfortune. She wants nothing more than for her children to be lifted out of the circumstances they were born into, but the truth is that it is never easy.

A numbers game

Lewis' family is not alone. Some 3.5 million children in the UK grow up in poverty. Of those, few manage to release themselves from the shackles of disadvantage. Imagine if, on Lewis' first day, we told him and 24 of his classmates that they would never go to university. Imagine if we told 14 of them that they would not achieve five A*-Cs in their GCSEs. Imagine if we told six of them that they would spend 11 years of their lives in school but leave illiterate and innumerate.

No teacher would ever want to say that to a child. No parent wants that for their child. No child wants that for themselves. But the harsh reality - the painful, agonising truth that we have to confront - is that this is what is happening to young people in this country. Those who start their lives in poverty rarely end up achieving academically. It's a tragedy, one that is arguably the most pressing and urgent issue of our generation.

Yet in spite of these terrifying statistics, teachers still turn up for work every day, undefeated and unbowed, because we believe in the power of education. We believe that books and numbers and art and words can change a child's outlook on the world, that they can transport young people to different times and places, that they can improve their life chances.

We must not be defeated by the percentages that supposedly decide the direction and destiny of our most disadvantaged. We must never think that just because a child's background is less than ideal, they cannot achieve as highly as other, less impoverished children.

Lewis needs everyone around him to have the very highest expectations. All his teachers, throughout his time at school, need to make sure that no time is wasted, that he remains on task in lessons and doesn't get distracted or disturbed. He needs the right amount of discipline to keep him on track.

But it isn't simply discipline that Lewis needs. Despite the challenges he faces at home and the difficulties his smaller vocabulary may present him with, he needs rich and rigorous literature that will broaden his horizons.

Currently, we live in a society where Lewis' deprivation determines his destiny. Teachers are struggling against the tide to change this and I refuse to believe that it is a futile endeavour. Let's do what lies within our control to help Lewis and others like him.

We must remember that we have one of the most important jobs in the world: the decisions we make in the classroom, and the expectations we have of our pupils, have the power to transform their lives.

Katie Ashford is director of inclusion at Michaela Community School in Brent, north-west London

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Katie Ashford

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