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Politicians of all persuasions insist that poverty is "no excuse" for low achievement or unsuccessful teaching. Social background, they say, should not determine a child's chances of educational success or a school's place in the league tables. Yet critics claim that exam results consistently show that schools with poorer intakes underperform. This is supported by a survey carried out by The TES earlier this month which showed that once the number of pupils eligible for school meals rises above 40-45 per cent of the school roll, GCSE results fall significantly. "To say there is no link between poverty and achievement in school is nonsense, and everyone knows it is," says one deputy head.

What is poverty?

In school, poverty is measured by eligibility for free school meals; that is, the number of children whose parents receive income support or job seeker's allowance. It is a crude measure, used largely because it is convenient. One in five school children now claim free school meals, up 40 per cent since the early 1990s. But 20 per cent of the 1.8 million who are eligible fail to claim them, largely because of the stigma attached.

Outside the school gates, poverty is defined differently.

It was not until 1997 that the Government officially acknowledged the existence of poverty in Britain, defining the poor as people living in households with less than 60 per cent of median income, after housing costs have been deducted. The latest survey of poverty and social exclusion from New Policy Institute (NPI), published in December 2002, monitors 50 indicators of poverty, including unemployment, teenage pregnancy, educational achievements, drug misuse, overcrowded households, youth suicide, and health.

New measures?

The current, relative definition has been criticised for setting a moving target; if overall income rises, the median income rises too. While some people may be lifted above the poverty line, people living in severe poverty remain unaffected.

The Department of Work and Pensions is currently consulting on changes to the way poverty is measured. The charity Save the Children, for example, says that poverty is not just about income but also the ability to participate in society. However, Dr Peter Kenway, director of the NPI, defends the low-income measure, saying it is simple and reliable.

"Downgrading or obscuring it will be met with great cynicism and taken as a sign that the Government is going soft on poverty," he says. A new definition would be likely to reduce the number of people classified as poor.

How much poverty is there?

According to the NPI survey, 12.9 million people were living in low-income households in 2000-01, one million fewer than in 1996-97, but still double the number from 20 years ago. Of the 50 poverty indicators, the survey found 24 had improved over the past five years, and six had worsened. The NPI includes the number of pupils leaving school without qualifications as an indicator of poverty; this figure has fallen from a third to a quarter over the past 10 years.

Child poverty

There were 3.9 million children living in homes below the threshold in 2000-01, 500,000 fewer than in 1996-97. According to the End Child Poverty Coalition, the proportion of children living in poverty grew from one in 10 in 1979 to one in three in 1998. One in three poor children do not get three meals a day, and they miss out on toys, school trips and out-of-school activities; they lack adequate clothing, shoes and winter coats.

Unemployment is the biggest cause of poverty. Children living in families without a working parent are most at risk, followed by those in single-parent families, families with young mothers, ethnic minority families, families with three or more children, and families with one or more disabled person.

Where is it worst?

Inner London has the highest levels of child poverty in the country, with one in two (600,000) children living in poverty, as do 41 per cent of those in Greater London. The south-east and the east have the lowest levels, with 22 per cent each. The local authority with the highest concentration is Tower Hamlets in London, at 74 per cent (see case study, overleaf). But at ward level, the highest proportion is in Scotland's Whitfield South, where 96 per cent live below the poverty line.

Ethnic minorities

People from ethnic minority groups are significantly more likely to live in poverty. Among children, 74 per cent of the UK's Bangladeshi and Pakistanis population live in poverty, as do 63 per cent of black African children and 40 per cent of Afro-Caribbean children. The figure for white children is about 25 per cent.

What is the Government doing?

In March 1999, Tony Blair said: "Our historic aim will be for ours to be the first generation to end child poverty, and it will take a generation.

It is a 20-year mission, but I believe it can be done." The Government's targets in its "crusade" are to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent by 2004, to cut it by half by 2010, and to eradicate it by 2020. In September 1999, the Government published Opportunity for All, the first phase of its anti-poverty strategy.

Among its policies to help reduce poverty are the working families tax credit, increases in child benefit, and the children's tax credit. It has also set up a children and young people's unit and the social exclusion unit, introduced schemes such as Sure Start, and made money available through the Children's Fund for voluntary and community organisations.

Is it working?

David Piachaud and Holly Sutherland of Cambridge University say that considerable progress has been made in reducing child poverty but little in bringing down poverty overall. While increases in employment and changes in benefits and tax credits have helped low-income families, they warn that employment levels must be maintained and further measures introduced if the Government is to have any chance of meeting its target for 2010. Figures released last week from the department of work and pensions also show that the number of children in poverty has fallen - but the Institute of Fiscal Studies says that the Government is still is danger of missing its 2004 target. "It is now further behind schedule than it was a year ago."

So how does all this effect education?

As the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, has said, "Childhood experience lays the foundations for later life", making children growing up in poverty more likely to suffer poor health, perform badly at school, and be unemployed or on a low wage as adults. The Plowden Committee report in 1967 established a clear relationship between educational attainment and social class. Nevertheless, there is still much debate about the effect of poverty on education. Education Divides, a report published in 1995 by the Child Poverty Action Group, noted that "by the late 1980s, in a new form of political correctness, the links between educational performance and social and economic conditions had become almost a taboo subject in public policy debate".

There are signs that this is changing. Some of the clearest recent statements linking social disadvantage and educational underachievement have come from the Government itself. In 1999, a Treasury review of 30 years of research concluded that: "Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are much less likely to succeed in education." Similarly, the social exclusion unit's national action plan says: "We know that children from disadvantaged homes face greater barriers to achieving their potential at school... we do not accept that we should have lower expectations of children from such backgrounds".

How strong is the connection?

Research shows that low income could account for 66 per cent of differences in GCSE attainment. Comprehensive school pupils in the poorest urban areas are, on average, only half as successful at GCSEs as those from the most advantaged urban areas.

However, David Reynolds, professor of education at Exeter University, says the correlation between social background and educational attainment is statistically strong only when children from poor backgrounds are grouped together. "The effect on individual pupils is much less than you might think," he says. "But when you group poorer pupils together in schools, the effect is quite marked." The message for teachers, he says, is that they should not assume individual pupils from poorer backgrounds have poor educational ability. On the other hand, government should assume that the performance of schools with large numbers of pupils from socially disadvantaged backgrounds will be determined to some extent by their intake.

The Government appears to be in denial on this point. David Miliband, the schools standards minister, said in January: "The evidence is clear... that schools serving similar types of pupils achieve dramatically different results." As the TES research ("Poverty is the excuse", March 7) makes clear, this is not true: schools with more than 45 per cent of pupils on free school meals, and with intakes based purely on catchment, achieve similar GCSE results. Results only really start to rise once the proportion of free school meals falls to 30-40 per cent. This is where the "peer group effect" kicks in: the number of less deprived students reaches "critical mass" and standards begin to rise.

As Professor Reynolds says, schools with a mix of social backgrounds and ability levels tend to perform better.

Poverty puts up "barriers to learning"

There seems little doubt that poverty can hamper a child's ability to learn. It can mean families don't have money to buy books or clothes, that children miss school because of illness or tiredness, or that they lack the support and motivation that comes from a stable home where learning is encouraged.

Geoff Brookes is deputy head at Cefn Hengoed community school in Swansea, where 37 per cent of pupils get free school meals, and the vast majority come from a large council estate. One of his school's priorities is to make sure every child gets at least one meal a day, while teachers also encourage some pupils to get to school early so they can have tea and biscuits for breakfast. The school provides uniforms to children from families that can't afford them, and washes clothes for others who have no alternatives. "In education terms we are on a hiding to nothing," says Mr Brookes. "For some kids, the best we can do is provide stability and security."

Poverty lowers expectations. "I'd like to be normal and go on the dole," was one child's response when asked what he wanted from life. As Mr Brookes puts it: "Their survival instincts are intact, but their aspirations are low. They don't see school as important; it's just something they have to do."

The link is complex

It's an accumulation of factors such as family problems, health issues and discrimination that limit the chances of poorer children, rather than simply low income. As one teacher in a pupil referral unit puts it, it's not "poverty per se" that has the greatest effect on a child's attendance and achievement levels, but their "domestic set-up". He tells of a pupil who disappeared for days at a time because she was looking after her younger sister and their mentally ill mother. "She ran the house, kept the bailiffs away, paid the bills, and tried to make ends meet. They were very poor and, of course, her schooling suffered."

Although many poor parents get financial support from social services, often it's an inability to prioritise which affects their children's education. There are stories of poor children with pets and mobile phones, but without enough clothes, books or food. "Giving our pupils skills that could help them break the cycle of poverty is probably more important than GCSEs," says Mr Brookes.

Unfortunately, GCSE results still determine the position of such schools in the league tables, a fact which rankles with many heads and teachers. "It seems unfair to measure our pupil referral unit in the same way as a grammar school, but they do," says one. "Social background gets in the way of education because we can't spend all our time on pure teaching if we have to deal with all sorts of external things that are also important."

What should schools do?

The key, according to Professor Reynolds, is to concentrate on teaching which, he acknowledges, can be difficult in schools with large numbers of disadvantaged pupils. "There are things that you've got to do in very poor communities that you may not have to do in wealthier areas."

In some schools, there's a fine line between being a teacher and a social worker. "We can't overcome poverty," says one, "but we can develop a support structure which recognises that school is often the only stable part of a young person's life."

But there are some things schools can do to offset the damaging effects of poverty on young people's confidence and self-esteem. Organising breakfast clubs, for example, so no child starts the day hungry; providing poor families with uniforms; hiding the stigma of free school meals; running mentor support systems; and encouraging greater parental involvement. The NPI suggests that breakfast clubs help children with punctuality and attendance, concentration and discipline, and improves their social skills and contacts between teachers and parents.

Can schools make a difference?

Yes. There are numerous examples of individuals from the poorest backgrounds who have climbed out of poverty through education. And there are many examples of successful school initiatives to combat social disadvantage. High-quality pre-school provision, special reading and numeracy schemes, smaller class sizes, and greater parental involvement all help.

Despite all the changes in the past three decades, the education system has not dramatically reduced the gap in attainment between the social classes.

"The evidence is that very good schools for working-class kids can help them catch up to lower middle-class kids," says Professor Reynolds. "But not all schools do it, so overall the system does not make a difference. In general, education has not set poor children free, and that's a failure of governments, including this one."

Did you know?

* One in five school children claim free school meals, but 20 per cent of the 1.8 million who are eligible fail to claim them because of the stigma

* One in three poor children do not get three meals a day; miss out on toys, school trips and out-of-school activities; and lack adequate clothing, shoes and winter coats

* Unemployment is the biggest cause of poverty, although far from the only one

* Inner London has the highest levels of child poverty in the country

* People from ethnic minority groups in the UK are significantly more likely to live in poverty

* Children growing up in poverty are more likely to suffer poor health, perform badly at school, and be unemployed or on a low wage as adults

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