Cold shouldered in a polarised country

3rd March 1995 at 00:00
A fifth of Europe's poor live in the UK and their troubles have been highlighted in two new studies. David Budge and Antony Dore report on being young, British and penniless.

Charles Nelson, aged 12 years, was charged with sleeping in the open air without any visible means of subsistence. At a quarter to 5 o'clock on Tuesday am (March 13) Constable 180H was on duty in Stocks Place, Limehouse Causeway, when he found the prisoner huddled up asleep in a cart, and on awakening him and asking him what he was doing there at that time in the morning he said he had no mother, and his father would not give him any food, and he had turned him out of doors . . . Mr Saunders sent the prisoner to the workhouse for a week and directed the constable to communicate with the Industrial School Board Officer, with a view to get him to school."

Newspaper report of Thames Police Court case quoted in East End 1888 by William J Fishman.

Anyone who has read such harrowing accounts of 19th-century destitution or visited present-day India hesitates to talk about child "poverty" in Britain in 1995. In many respects, we are as a nation much better off than even the Macmillan generation who had never had it so good. Real disposable income per head of population is double that of 30 years ago, several life-threatening diseases have been eradicated, and far more young people are achieving exam success at 16 and going on to further and higher education.

Here endeth the good news . . . for as the Rowntree report pointed out last month and the new Child Poverty Action Group study (see page 4) reaffirms, there have been two countervailing trends in recent years: improvement and polarisation.

Between 1980 and 1990 the bottom fifth of British households saw their share of disposable income fall from 10 per cent to 8 per cent. If the European Union's economic measures are used, 20 per cent of the UK population are experiencing poverty (although the EU now prefers to use the term "social exclusion"). This means that one in five of Europe's poor lives in the UK.

Furthermore, the number of children living in families dependent on basic benefits has more than doubled in the past 10 years. And although the Social Security budget now amounts to more than Pounds 80 billion, between 1971 and 1991 the value of Supplementary BenefitIncome Support as a proportion of average full-time male earnings fell from 26 per cent to 19 per cent for a married couple. About 20 per cent of children (2.4 million) are, however, being brought up in single-parent families and their financial position is invariably worse.

It will be another 10 or 20 years before we know how these children will be affected by their poor start in life. But it is possible to make some informed guesses as the link between educational achievement and social status was well-documented long ago by a string of official reports: Crowther (1959), Newsom (1963), Robbins (1964), Plowden (1967) and Finer (1974).

More recently, a Leeds University study of 52 LEAs in 1992 discovered that more than a quarter of seven-year-olds from low-status neighbourhoods scored at or below level 1 in English and only 10 per cent reached level 3 or above. The pattern was reversed for those in high-status areas.

At secondary level, the Policy Studies Institute has found that in several English LEAs serving disadvantaged populations more than 20 per cent of young people left school without graded results between 1987 and 1990, compared with an English average of 9 per cent. Even more recent data show that pupils in advantaged areas were twice as likely to gain five or more A-C GCSEs as their counterparts in poorer areas in 1993.

Unsurprisingly, as the National Children's Bureau pointed out in a 1991 report, children from families living at or below the Income Support level often feel inadequate and devalued. They also change school more often, lose more days' schooling through illness and are more likely to be truants. Catherine Garner's 1991 report, "Does Deprivation Damage?", showed that truanting was twice as common in poor areas of Lothian.

Less predictably, the same study found that neighbourhood deprivation depressed a child's attainment, as did attending schools with large proportions of children from deprived neighbourhoods, whatever the child's family characteristics. Garner discovered that this could cost a 16-year-old at least two O-grade passes.

Moreover, it has also been suggested that the recent rise in exclusion rates and special needs statements may be side-effects of unemployment and the resulting stress at home.

So what can, or should, be done to help disadvantaged children to fulfil their potential? Arguably, some of the most effective responses would not be educational ones: a sharp decrease in unemployment, a minimum wage, a comprehensive day-care system to help single parents go out to work, and higher benefits for those who remain unemployed.

Plowden's more modest solution was extra funding for schools in educational priority areas. But the problem with EPAs was that not all children in such schools were disadvantaged and not all disadvantaged children lived in areas served by EPA schools.

In recent years the Government has preferred to provide LEAs with extra cash for disadvantaged children through the additional educational needs element of the standard spending assessment. But as the CPAG report emphasises, this method has helped to create some ridiculous anomalies - Bradford received per-capita funding last year of Pounds 2,791 compared with Hackney's Pounds 4,180.

Furthermore, relatively little of this additional needs cash is reaching schools. Overall, schools in the poorest areas receive only 5 per cent more per pupil than their better-off neighbours.

It is clear that more money also needs to be channelled into pre-school education because there is ample evidence that this provides an invaluable boost for the poorest children. Calls for the retention of the Reading Recovery scheme and smaller infant classes are also well founded. But it remains to be seen whether the political will exists to tackle this problem because none of the proposed strategies is cheap. The cost of providing nursery places for every child, for example, has been estimated at anything between Pounds 500 million and Pounds 1 billion.

If the National Commission on Education's prognostications are correct, however, such investments are worth making because the costs of doing nothing will ultimately be far greater. "We share the anxiety of many that we may be witnessing the emergence of an underclass," the Commission warned last year. "These are people for whom the problems of unemployment and poverty are so great that they lose a sense of belonging to the mainstream of society . . . social cohesion is threatened by the gap in incomes between the richer and poorer sections of society and also by the division between those who possess the skills increasingly required by the labour market and those who do not."

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