Is money the root of all success?

26th May 2000 at 01:00
THEY kept calling me "Mr Mayor". But I hadn't run for the job in the end, and the chap who actually had been elected the Mayor of London was sitting 10 rows back in the audience. He took it well, considering that he had fought the longest and possibly bloodiest election campaign in modern British history to get the job. Still, as chair of the newly elected London Assembly, I found myself in the situation familiar to most Year 7 teachers on the first day of autumn term.

A new class (unusually small at just 25); new government procedures, without much guidance as to how to make them work; a public examination of the class in four years' time which could put paid to every budding career; and the media equivalent of the Office for Standards in Education turning up at any time to trash us. I could even spot the little gang of disruptives: "Point of order, sir..."

They call themselves the Blue Posse. Some of them are bright, but they do seem to misapply their talents; still, I would so much like to avoid having any exclusions on my record.

However the assembly class itself is hardly my main worry. My Red House colleagues have been doling out extra-curricular responsibilities. They've given me the responsibility for public health, housing and social exclusion. Besides the fact that this covers most of the known universe, I know I'll immediately run into the central question faced by everyone who works with young people: is there a causal relationship between economic and social disadvantage and educational underachievment?

We all know what the orthodoxy says. The educational statistics show clearly that there is what the experts call "a correspondence" between poverty and lack of success in school. Teachers can point to the difficulty of raising standards in areas where many families have a first language other than English, or where housing is poo or where a majority of children receive free school meals.

However, some experts and most Government ministers beg to differ. They say that, although the numbers show a relationship, you can't trace cause and effect so neatly. The performance of some children in similar schools can differ wildly, whether ranked by exam results, exclusions, truancy or any other indicator you care to name. Then, ministers would also argue that standards have risen as a result of initiatives such as the literacy hour.

A better place to start may be the puzzling contradictions among ethnic minority pupils. Every recent survey has shown a gap opening between the educational achievement of those groups who follow the so-called "Jewish" future - the Indians, the Africans, the Chinese. These are poor communities who outperform the majority community at school, earn more and better degrees, set up their own businesses and succeed despite evidence that they face racial discrimination.

On the other hand, those who are fated to what the academics call the "Irish" future - Caribbeans, Muslims, the Irish themselves - who seem mired at the lower levels of school, do less well in qualifications and are more likely to end up unemployed. Economic background appears to be a completely misleading indicator over two or three generations. So what is going on? I hope readers can help.

I cannot accept that there are inherent deficiencies in certain racial groups. This abhorrent, and simply does not fit the facts, since there are clusters of success in every racial grouping. But it's my job to find an answer. When I sit my electoral exam in four years' time, I'm certain that near the top of the paper will be this one: "Is eliminating economic and social disadvantage a necessary and sufficient condition for the raising of educational achievement in urban areas? Discuss."

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