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Inner - city life a double burden for the poor;Briefing;School management

Competition could result in New York-style education ghettos, the BEMAS conference was told, reports Al Constantine

INNER-CITY schools face a bleak future despite Labour's plans to help poor working families, Janet Ouston, academic and school governor, says.

At the annual conference of the British Educational Management and Administration Society (BEMAS) in Manchester, she echoed recent attacks in the national press on the Government's failure to acknowledge a link between poverty and low achievement.

She questioned whether the benchmarking system of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority could distinguish between levels of poverty. It uses free school meals as an indicator of social disadvantage, lumping together all schools with an uptake of more than 35 per cent.

"Schools reasonably ask how, if they have 65 per cent of their pupils eligible to receive free school meals, they can be considered 'similar' to those with 35 per cent."

Privatisation and the steady drift towards a "quasi market" since the Education Act of l988 had created a hierarchy of schools - felt most keenly in urban areas - through divisions in test results, league tables and public esteem.

Competition among schools had led to more streaming and affected schools' intake policies to the detriment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

More competition had also hastened migration of middle-class families to suburban boroughs, where they perceived that the educational climate was not as bleak.

Dr Ouston, of the Management Development Centre at the Institute of Education in London, warned of the possible repetition of the "New York experience", where similar socio-economic trends led to physical and social deterioration, a shortage of suitable employees and worse quality of life for many inner-city areas.

While she conceded that Labour's Working Families Tax Credit proposed a significant step towards fighting poverty, the possible further alienation of the unemployed had not been properly looked at.

"lt would take many years for education to have an impact on poverty, or for the reduction of poverty to have an impact on educational attainment."

Meanwhile, those involved in the education action zones had already expressed concerns that "their status may be seen as a stigma by communities, rather than an opportunity to develop existing strengths".

Zones could increase social exclusion if they were perceived to be "based on the assumption of a deficit model of the inner-city family".

She criticised the Office for Standards in Education for compounding problems by running an inspection system that takes no account of the difficulties of teaching in the inner-city.

"Negative judgments are made most frequently in schools serving disadvantaged families," she said.

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