Confirmation of inequality

12th February 2010 at 00:00

Three reports in January seemed to be contradictory. The Westminster Government's report on inequality has highlighted large and growing gaps between rich and poor. This, to some extent, backed up a Save the Children review, which said there were more children living in extreme poverty now than when New Labour came to power in 1997. Lord Mandelson's claim about being comfortable with extreme wealth seems to have worked. As a recent Unicef report showed, those taken out of poverty are often at the margins and a slight misfortune plunges them back in again.

However, the British Social Attitudes Survey, while revealing positive changes such as attitudes to homosexuality and co-habitation, seemed to show that people were not as concerned with the gap between rich and poor as they were a decade ago.

These seeming contradictions suggest timing is everything. Perhaps if the survey had been done after the two reports showing rising inequality, the responses might have been different. For education, the evidence of this inequality is stark, with an almost exact correlation between free school meals or parental income and attainment. So the education gap grows as the wealth gap grows. While universities are "encouraged" by their own league tables to hoist their undergraduate tariff, this will further exclude pupils from lower-achieving schools from getting to some universities.

While effort is put into examining tiny differences between like departments in like schools, the real issue is lost. Government micro policies (eg homework clubs) can have a positive overall effect (although not in terms of inequalities), but it is macro policies that hold the key in dealing with the present levels of inequality and poverty.

In the run-up to the UK general election, how we defend education in the light of projected cuts across the board will be a problem without a major redistribution of wealth, something the mainstream political parties are frightened to touch. I haven't been as active in my trade union as I might have been, but plan to be so from now on.

Henry Maitles, Department of curriculum studies, faculty of education, Strathclyde University.

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