‘Teachers on their own cannot compensate for the endemic childhood poverty the government is failing to address’

If David Cameron was serious about tackling the educational underachievement of poor children he would concentrate on reducing childhood poverty and the developmental delays it brings, writes a teacher union leader

Mary Bousted

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On the morning after the general election David Cameron declared his ambition was to create a Britain where “a good life is in reach for everyone who is willing to work and do the right thing”. In David Cameron's Brave New World everyone who makes an effort will be fairly rewarded, and his government will be one that offers opportunity for all – no matter where they come from.

These are bold and important words describing a wholly desirable state of affairs. Social cohesion and economic productivity rely upon the provision of equal opportunities to achieve, no matter what your parental background or income. 

So, what is the current state of play regarding poverty and social mobility in the UK? The answers are in the recently published 2015 report of the government’s own Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.

The commission does not give David Cameron’s government a clean bill of health when it comes to tackling poverty and inequality. Rather, the commission concludes the UK is fast becoming a more unequal society and, unless something tangible is done, inequality and poverty will become an entrenched and defining feature of UK plc.

The report warns that Britain is in danger of becoming a permanently divided nation in which there is a growing social divide of income and class. The facts are shocking: the UK today is marked by extreme inequalities of wealth. Oxford University professor Danny Dorling has recently revealed that by 2014 the combined wealth of the 1,000 richest people in the UK had risen to £519 billion, a 55 per cent rise in just four years.

And this exponential rise in wealth has happened at the same time as most other people in the UK have become poorer. The facts are undeniable, says Dorling. Britain is fast becoming the most unequal society in the rich world.

While the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. There are more than 1 million children in the UK today living a life of persistent poverty – excluded, say the commissioners, from the opportunities and rewards that life in modern Britain offers.

Statistics show that in contrast to the significant decline in child poverty witnessed between 1998/9 and 2011/12 – when 1.1 million children were raised out of poverty – the percentage of children living in poverty by 2020 is expected to increase to 23 per cent. This is well above the 5 per cent target set by the Child Poverty Act in 2010.

There can be no doubt that poverty matters when it comes to educational achievement. Inequality begins at birth and grows with the child. Wide developmental gaps of nine months between advantaged and disadvantaged 3-year-olds double to 18 months for 4-year-olds. Children from high income families are exposed to about 30 million more words than children from low income families. The range of cultural and leisure experiences which advantaged children enjoy are little more than a mirage for their poorer peers who lead, in comparison, lives much more likely to be marked, and marred, by parental stress, family dysfunction, poor housing and bad diet.

Any government which was serious in its intentions to tackle the educational underachievement of poor children would want to create the conditions by which fewer children were born into poverty and started school with the developmental delays that brings. Such a government would accept the fact that more equal societies produce fairer and more even educational outcomes. It would also acknowledge the reality that schools cannot, on their own, compensate for the uneven educational playing field caused by child poverty; as well as the fact that good teaching disproportionately benefits poor children.

Although the social mobility and child poverty commissioners accept there are "countless stories" of people born into poverty who succeed against the odds, they argue this is not the point. Children born into poverty have "to swim against the tide" to get on. Today's Britain, conclude the commissioners, does not “provide a level playing field on which people can aspire to succeed”.

If Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, has his way the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission will have to be renamed. He wants child poverty to be removed from the commission’s remit. Thankfully, his attempt to scrap the current definition of "poverty", which is 60 per cent of average income, by taking "income" out of the definition in favour of a range of indicators, including worklessness and educational attainment, was defeated last night in the House of Lords.

All those involved in education should be deeply concerned about these proposed changes. The commissioners are obviously deeply worried. They state the obvious truth that: “A country that is the fifth richest in the world should not have 2.3 million children officially classified as poor” (this figure combines persistent with intermittent poverty). And they warned that Mr Duncan Smith’s new definition of poverty would miss the point because it simply “is not credible to try to improve the life chances of the poor without acknowledging the most obvious symptom of poverty, lack of money”.

The commissioners warn that unless the government is serious about reducing poverty (and on current evidence it will miss its 10-year child poverty targets by a mile) then its ambition, to make the UK a country where the good life is there for the taking by all of the UK’s citizens, will remain an ambition and nothing more. The commission argues there is every danger the government "will end up measuring life chances but not working towards a clear goal of improving them”.

In other words, Mr Cameron, warm words will not do. Your ambition for a one-nation Britain needs to be realised through action – and on this test, you and your government are failing, and failing badly.

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. She tweets at @maryboustedATL

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Mary Bousted

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU

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