'Don't blame schools for society's failure'

29th May 1998 at 01:00
A union report says schools cannot compensate for poverty. David Henderson reports

IT is "neither fair nor realistic" to expect schools alone to counter the harshest aspects of deprivation, said Ronnie Smith, Educational Institute of Scotland general secretary, introducing a union report on poverty and education.

The report draws on published academic work. It concludes from a study of examination results and poverty in Glasgow that "there exists a level of multiple deprivation beyond which schools are no longer able to compensate".

Professor Michael Pacione, head of geography at Strathclyde University, whose report influenced the EIS, told The TESS: "Poverty is an excuse for educational failure if you do not have the right home environment."

His study showed clear links between areas of Glasgow and academic success. The rather unsurprising finding was that poorer areas had poorer results, while more affluent areas had better results.

Mr Smith, defending the record of comprehensive education in tackling disadvantage, said: "Government must recognise that many schools and their communities are achieving a great deal in circumstances where as many as 80 per cent of children live with the effects of multiple deprivation.

"To expect schools alone, through setting arbitrary objectives, to compensate for such levels of disadvantage is neither fair nor realistic," he added.

He hoped the report would open up the debate on poverty and education and switch the focus away from blaming individuals and schools. "Education is a major factor in closing the poverty gap but on its own is not solely responsible," he said.

Statistics show inequalities are increasing. About 20 per cent of Scottish children are entitled to free meals, a figure that rises to 40 per cent in Glasgow. About 25 per cent of children live in households dependent on income support. And every year councils accept around 20,000 children in families as homeless.

The EIS recommends changes in local authority funding to tackle poverty. A perceived cycle of failure should not be reinforced by "using crude measurements of attainment but ignoring achievement. Who you are and where you live still affects your access to education. This is simply unjust."

Shelagh Rae, president of the Association of Directors of Education and director in Renfrewshire, agreed with the thrust. "It is true schools alone cannot compensate for multiple deprivation. That's part of the thinking behind the partnership areas in places like Ferguslie Park in Paisley where education, social work, health, housing, economic development all work together. When you start getting children to attend school and offer support, attainment levels do increase," she said.

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