Step to loosen poverty's grip

Could this be the start of something special? After decades of poor results, primary pupils living in the most deprived areas in England are now catching up with their more affluent peers, according to a TES analysis (pages 1, 6 and 7).

While previous governments gave the impression of indifference or impotence, Tony Blair's administration deserves credit for the determination with which it has tackled underachievement.

For the first time in a generation, schools in deprived areas have been given significant extra resources to help combat disadvantage. And while the pressure to improve may have been uncomfortable, teachers seem to have responded positively to this additional support.

Ministers could be forgiven for feeling a touch of schadenfreude towards their critics on both left and right who claimed that their efforts were doomed to failure. But before we get carried away, it is worth pointing out that there is still a long way to go before pupils in deprived areas enjoy the success others take for granted. Eleven-year-olds in these areas still average almost a grade per subject lower than their peers in national tests. Secondary results in the same areas have hardly improved at all.

The Government must also do more for disadvantaged children outside the main cities. Places like Plymouth and Cumbria, which contain pockets of severe deprivation, have so far been neglected.

To improve matters further the Government needs to do more than to give schools more money, welcome though it may be. Ministers are right to identify education as young people's best hope of climbing out of deprivation. But schools alone cannot overcome the social problems associated with poverty. They need help from the wider community.

Unless that is forthcoming, poverty and low expectations will continue to hold back teachers and pupils in deprived areas. One of the most disappointing pieces of news so far this year was that Gordon Brown could miss his target of cutting child poverty by a quarter by 2005. The Chancellor also needs to raise his game. If schools can raise achievement despite these pressures, just think what they could do given a more supportive environment.

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