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Reality hits home on poverty

Poverty is no excuse for underachievement," Stephen Byers, a former Labour school standards minister, used to tell teachers. Mr Byers, now a backbencher, was at this week's Labour party conference in Brighton but his favourite dictum was conspicuously absent. The Prime Minister and Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, were keen to speak of their concern about the Government's failure to narrow the gap between the educational haves and have-nots, but noone was suggesting that schools can do all or even most of it. Ms Kelly talked of the need for parents to support schools. Mr Blair said that Labour had lifted many children out of poverty but had not yet decisively altered the balance of advantage.

Teachers who battle every day with children whose lives are blighted by unemployment, broken families, drugs and miserable housing have always known that the key to raising standards for those at the bottom of the heap lies as much in parents and society as in schools. Research from the Centre for Economic Performance suggests that poverty remains the main influence on educational achievement. Ministers have begun to recognise this. Sure Start, the programme that targets families with young children in poor areas, and the children's agenda that aims to draw together different services, are examples. We report on page 12 that ministers are contemplating ways of making parents take more responsibility for their chidren's education.

A policy which concentrates mainly on giving parents more choice appears to be shifting towards one which also emphasises that they must co-operate with schools. More, as yet unspecified, disciplinary powers are promised for heads. Choice remains at the centre of government thinking, but there is a new acknowledgement that it has so far served the interests of the middle class rather than the disadvantaged. Whether these good intentions will translate into practical politics among the distractions of more glamorous schemes such as academies is unclear: schools in the most deprived areas need more money, more support and a culture that accepts that league tables can never measure their achievement. But the change of heart is at least a start.

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