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It's poverty that fails them

More research is needed on how deprivation lowers pupils' attainment, says Henry Maitles

IT HAS become commonly accepted by society as a whole that there is a direct and causal link between poverty and health; that people with the worst health live in areas of highest deprivation and that that deprivation seriously, and in health terms fatally, affects life chances.

Indeed the research in this field over the past 20 years in particular, since the publication of the Black report in 1980, is voluminous and growing and is now effectively unchallenged. A glance at health journals or any book on health policy over the past few years shows article after article outlining the links.

In particular, research into health in neighbouring areas of deprivation and affluence (such as Bearsden and Drumchapel in the west of Scotland) has allowed the debate on tackling health inequalities to be taken forward. For most health professionals, the key to dealing with health inequalities is to tackle poverty; few would think that the key task is to question the competence of doctors and health centres operating in the deprived areas.

Yet although exactly the same links can be shown in education, different conclusions are drawn and much more individual teacher and school criticism is drawn. Schools, even in the revamped exam and target-setting tables, are unfairly compared and parents are urged to take the conclusions from these results and act accordingly, thus exacerbating the problem.

To go back to Bearsden and Drumchapel, it can be shown that in every instance of educational attainment, whether it be Standard grade or Higher passes, attendance rates or even attendance at parent nights, the causal link is the relative affluence of the area. It doesn't matter what measure of relative affluence or deprivation is used - car ownership, house ownership, free school meals, income, unemployment - the educational results will be the same: the areas of lowest attainment are the areas of highest deprivation.

However, there s no body of research (and this is personal self-criticism as well as general criticism of the educational research community) that has developed attainment and poverty links. A thorough search of all the educational journals does not show any systematic evidence of this kind of research. Indeed, the latest issue of Research in Education (issue 65, winter 1999-2000) has just arrived on my desk. It is full of research ideas and practice, all of it valuable, but in its densely packed sections on new research projects and new research reports and latest reports from the Scottish Council on Research in Education there is not one piece of ongoing work defining the links between deprivation and low educational achievement.

We need to ask ourselves why this is and what we are going to do about it. It is all too often assumed that if pupils are doing badly in a particular area, then the fault is the school's, and we should send for HM Inspectors. This is not an argument for doing nothing. Just as health promotion schemes, healthy eating campaigns, anti-smoking advertising, anti-drug awareness education and classes on preventing heart disease, for example, can have a limited positive impact on health, so can the kinds of things carried on in schools, from homework clubs to positive attendance rewards. But society, and particularly the educational community, must not believe that this can fundamentally alter the imbalance caused by social deprivation.

Only a challenge to poverty will have long-term effects on inequalities in health. The research community in education should start to develop the kinds of evidence that will back up what we really know - that only by bringing the third of all children below the poverty line in parts of Scotland out of deprivation will we see the kind of education system develop that will give every child genuine opportunity. This needs to be communicated forcefully to the Scottish Executive.

Henry Maitles is head of modern studies, faculty of education, Strathclyde University.

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