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Education gap grows as wealth gap widens

In Britain, Labour argues that it has brought 500,000 children out of poverty, although anti-poverty pressure groups dispute this. The Government's own figures reveal that, over the past year, the poverty level of children has increased, with some 100,000 more now in poverty. We also know that 25 per cent of all children in the west of Scotland are officially in poverty.

As the recent Unicef report showed, those taken out of poverty are often at the margins and a slight misfortune can plunge them back in again. This is because income (as opposed to work status) is the key determinant. Moving people into very low-paid jobs may be of value in terms of self-respect, but it is not a key factor in dealing with deprivation.

This is not an issue relating to Britain alone, or one between rich and poor countries. The World Bank points out that in St Petersburg, income inequality between the richest and poorest 10 per cent soared between 1989 and now; in Buenos Aires, the richest 10 per cent's share of income soared from 10 times that of the poorest in 1994 to 23 times in 1999; and some two-thirds of the world's population receive virtually nothing.

Often, the poorer the society, the greater the gap between rich and poor. Even in the ghettos of Eastern Europe during the Holocaust, the lavish lifestyles of the black marketeers and smugglers contrasted with the death and mayhem in the lives of ordinary people.

Scotland is not immune from this and we find inequalities growing here, too. The impact on education is far-reaching. There is a mass of research evidence to show that those in deprivation do far worse in terms of educational attainment, and thus in terms of opportunity, than those in better-off areas. While there can be the odd blip, a survey of those schools with lowest attainment generally correlates to those with the highest negative social factors.

The Treasury reported as far back as 1999 that the key predictor of educational attainment was parental income: that's why the education gap grows as the wealth gap grows. It is far harder for kids to move out of poverty and the areas of deprivation than we had perhaps previously assumed. This is not to say that schools can do nothing, but the challenge facing the SNP government is that it needs macro planning, not tinkering at the edges.

Henry Maitles

is head of the department of curricular studies at Strathclyde University

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