Children's educational achievement seems to have risen during the 18 years of Conservative government. But what of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged? Reva Klein looks beyond the exam league tables.
"There is no use wringing hands about the decline of the family and deteriorating neighbourhoods, nor in debating what the role of the school should be. The fact is, if you want them to learn, you'd better help them, feed them, make them feel more secure and give them someone to talk to ... We really do believe that "it takes a whole village to raise a child". Tom Sobol, Commissioner of Education for New York State, in an address to the North of England Conference in 1994.
All evidence points to Britain plc being a severely dysfunctional village for millions of children. The consistently eroding value of state benefit has meant that children from the poorest families are badly housed, badly fed, suffer from poor health and have low expectations of their future. Many have never known a parent or grandparent going out to work.
Using the European Community benchmark of poverty (in the absence of an official UK definition), relative poverty can be measured in terms of one half of the national mean household income.
By this yardstick, one in 10 British children, or 1.4 million, were living in poverty in 1979. As of 1993-4, the latest year for which figures are available, the numbers had risen to 4.2 million children, or one in three. In Northern Ireland, the proportion is nearly 40 per cent.
Excluded from these figures are the 200,000 children who are members of homeless families (a category that grew by 250 per cent from 1978 to 1990). Neither do the figures include older teenagers living on the streets or asylum-seekers.
Another indicator of poverty is the gap between rich and poor. In Poverty and Inequality in the UK: The Effects on Children, Vinod Kumar cites 1993 statistics to show that the real income of the bottom 10 per cent of the population declined by 14 per cent from 1979 to 1991. "This contrasts with the growth in the average real income of the general population of 36 per cent in the same period," he says. "The rise in the income of the top 20 per cent of the population in the same period was 40 per cent."
The increase in child poverty stems from the effects of rising unemployment, the increase in single-parent families, benefits falling behind average earnings and, in the words of Lisa Harker of the Child Poverty Action Group, "the Government's failure to provide affordable childcare services that would allow parents to go out to work".
The impact of poverty on children's educational performance is most clearly illustrated in GCSE results. While results overall have increased in the past eight years, children in the impoverished inner cities, with some notable exceptions, have been left behind.
As Professor Michael Barber pointed out in his 1993 report for the National Commission on Education, "Social class appears to be the single most important influence on educational achievement."
A study published in Urban Trends in 1992 looked at examination results between 1979-80 and 1989-90. It shows a widening gap between deprived and better-off areas. The proportion of pupils in deprived LEAs leaving school with no graded GCSEs was, in the main, more than 50 per cent above the national average.
Jesson and Gray's 1991 Nottinghamshire study further underlines the link between poverty and poor educational outcome, showing that half of pupils receiving free school meals had low GCSE scores (below 15 points when A=7pts, B=6pts, etc) as opposed to one-sixth of pupils who did not qualify for free school meals.
The School Milk Campaign's recent report states that up to 2 million children are suffering from malnutrition because of poverty.
There has been a rise of 40 per cent in the number of children receiving free school meals since 1991. But it is a terrible irony that the school meals on which many children have been increasingly dependent are no longer the nutritional certainty they once were. Given the findings of a 1991 survey on child nutrition, which showed that one in six children from low-income families did not have an evening meal, the deteriorating quality of school meals in some authorities is particularly alarming.
The end of a universal school meals service, ushered in by the 1980 Education Act, made local authorities responsible for setting nutritional standards. But the introduction of local management of schools following the 1988 Education Act has meant that it is now up to schools to decide how they organise their (free) meals service. What constitutes an adequate lunch has, in some schools and LEAs, more to do with budgets than nutritional value.