A lack of values, not money

12th August 2005 at 01:00
Education Secretary Ruth Kelly says: "We must treat seriously the possibility that - despite all our efforts - who your parents are still affects attainment as much in 2004 as it did in 1998." ("Alarm as gap between rich and poor widens", TES July 29).

Like many of the middle-class people who run schools, Ms Kelly does not appreciate what actually happens in poor families. The terms "poor families", "deprived children" and "children on free school meals" are trotted out as if everyone knows what they mean.

Commentators seem to think that the only difference between poor families and the better-off ones is monetary. The poor may holiday in Skegness rather than Provence and receive their school meals free, but in other respects they are essentially the same as the higher earners.

But, for a significant number of families, nothing could be further from the truth. The following is an account of a visit I made, not so long ago, to the home of a Year 7 boy in the north of England.

The boy's mother told me she could do nothing with him and I should speak to his father. I would have to come to the house because his father would not come to school as he had no time. I arranged to attend at 4.30pm the next Friday.

I arrived to find dad on the front lawn with a friend assembling what appeared to be roof spars from some timbers. He ignored me and I was ushered inside by the mother, stepping over the construction as I went.

The kitchen was filthy. The cupboard doors were covered in greasy finger-marks and the bare chipboard floor had a layer of grease and dirt which must have built up over years.

I waited and waited for dad to come in. I was just beginning to feel like an idiot, and thinking about leaving when he appeared at the door.

Throughout the interview the boy sat on the work surface and shouted constant abuse and denial of everything at his father, who did nothing.

When I got home my jacket stank of stale cooking fat and cigarette smoke.

None of this behaviour had anything to do with how much money the family had. This was a different kind of poverty: poverty of social mores, of ambition, of intelligence; poverty of discipline, communication, respect, courtesy and all the other things that middle-class commentators and ministers seem to think are the norm everywhere, simply because they are the norms in their circles.

To believe anything other than that this environment is determining the boy's failure to engage at school is to be ostrich-like. Schools cannot possibly undo this kind of damage. The breakthrough will only come when society starts to expect more of everyone.

Richard Clubley 3 Falkland Rise Dronfield, Derbyshire

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