Poverty and ambition

Alana Ross

The national obsession with tests and targets misses the point of teaching in deprived schools, says Alana Ross, president of the Educational Institute for Scotland

I have spent my entire teaching career, over 30 years, in deprived areas of Glasgow. For those of you who have always lived and taught in middle class areas, this may seem like a visit to another land. For those of you who have similar experiences to my own, perhaps by sharing our ideas we can help one another.

Over a quarter of children live in low income households and, obviously, in some areas that proportion is much higher. Poverty is a major element in multiple deprivation where factors combine to reinforce disadvantage. Poverty denies people choice.

There is no point in telling people how important it is to have a healthy diet when they have little opportunity to access such a diet. Local shops are unlikely to stock a range of fresh fruit and vegetables and, since most people are reliant on public transport, it is impossible to do the kind of shopping which is all too easy for car owners. Lack of money means that many children do not have access to books and toys, which are such an aid to pre-school learning.

Few people leave middle-class areas to live in areas of deprivation. Most of the residents have been born there and, while many overcome the barriers to success which society has erected, a significant number find them insurmountable and a cycle of deprivation follows.

Many adults in these areas are disaffected by their own educational experience and, as a result, education is not a priority.

Many lead a chaotic lifestyle, which can mean children are late for school or absent for no good reason. This does not mean the parents are any less fond of their children - they, too, are victims of circumstances. Often, as the children become older, truancy becomes another major problem.

Drug-taking and alcohol abuse is rife among young people in many housing schemes, including some of primary school age. Feeding the habit often leads to a life of crime. Also, life expectancy in these areas is well short of that in more affluent areas.

Another problem, which exists at some level in all areas of society, is peer group pressure. For many children who live in areas of deprivation, it is simply not "cool" to do well at school. I often despair when I see youngsters who have done well at primary school dropping out of the system in their early secondary years because of the pressure not to do well.

In particular, while the world has opened up for many girls in recent years, it would be difficult to say there has been increased opportunity for young women in deprived areas.

Given this miserable picture, how can schools compensate?

Let us not underestimate the dedication of those teachers who have made a commitment to schools in difficult areas. They have always gone the whole way in trying to ensure that school is a positive, happy experience for all our children. Sometimes, though, we need to stand back and question some of the accepted practices in our schools.

Two practices, which I find questionable, are the great goddess National Testing and her twin sister Target Setting.

We exist in a culture where "if it can't be measured it's worthless". I would dispute this. For example, how do we measure a child's increased happiness at school or an increase in confidence?

What are national testing and target setting for? To help the child's attainment? Surely diagnostic testing does that. To introduce an element of competition among schools? Perhaps, but why? Perhaps it is just a beast created by politicians to argue their respective "success" rates.

Both national testing and target setting can be destructive to those fighting against the odds to help children achieve their potential.

Two years ago, my own school hit the press for having the (equal) worst attendance level in Scotland. Some children interpreted this as being the worst school in Scotland. The reality was that a family of four children had not attended school from February to June. The school received a telephone call recently to ask how our attendance rate had improved so dramatically. Answer: the aforementioned family had left.

This obsession with measuring does no favours to those of us who seek to give our children the best possible educational experience.

To help compensate, one answer is to bring athletics coaches, artists and musicians into deprived areas after school. However, a dependency on public transport and the associated costs is a major barrier to participation in these activities, which are readily made available to the children of well-off parents.

On a brighter note, some new initiatives should help. It was one of the discipline task group's recommendations that a home-link worker should exist for each cluster, and pound;10 millon of new money has been announced by Education Minister Cathy Jamieson, some of which will help provide them.

Such a worker would help parents with parenting skills and financial management, which can be at the root of so many problems (we are still waiting to see it happen!). In Glasgow, nurture classes are being set up in several primary schools to try to help overcome behavioural problems at an early stage.

Schools working on their own cannot compensate for deprivation. Only when all agencies work together can we begin to do so. We must cater for the whole child from as early an age as possible Every child has the right of access to books and toys. Every child should have the right to participate in sporting and other activities. All children should be able to visit places outside their own environment. That would be a step in the right direction.

The Westminster government has made a commitment to reducing child poverty by 50 per cent within 10 years. I wish them well.

Alana Ross talks on Deprivation: How can schools compensate? at 3pm, September 13

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