'Myth' of escape from poverty

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
A think tank says inspirational teachers make little difference to under-privileged children, reports Nicholas Pyke

INSPIRATIONAL teachers are all very well, but they make little difference to poverty-stricken pupils, says a Government policy adviser.

According to a new book from Demos, the independent think tank, most deprived children never escape their background despite the help of talented teachers.

Learning Beyond The Classroom has been written by 25-year-old Tom Bentley, a part-time adviser to David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, and a rising star in the Labour firmament.

He proposes shifting the emphasis away from traditional education in the classroom. Instead, he says, learning should take place in a variety of alternative locations, from the shop floor to the museum.

Government ministers have set great store by the notion that better teaching can transform education in deprived areas. They have promised that by 2007, every child, apart from the most disabled, will be peforming at the expected standard for their age, whatever their background.

But, according to Mr Bentley, many pupils are emotionally under-developed and cut off from support networks familiar to the middle classes: "It is unrealistic to expect that young people will accept or be able to cope with the demands that school places on them," he says.

The "romantic image" of teachers transforming pupils' lives is largely illusory, he says. "It is inadequate because it does not address the systemic nature of the underachievement we see around us. It relies on the myth that individuals can buck the system and transform their destiny, but ignores the fact that these individuals are the exception. They leave many others, with similar potential for achievement, behind."

All children, he says, need "exposure to a wide range of positive role models".

With its emphasis on vision and innovation, the book will be well received by ministers. It has already been endorsed by Professor Michael Barber, the Government's top education adviser.

Mr Bentley proposes reaching out to disadvantaged children by mobilising a range of other institutions in the cause of education. He suggests that:

* Pupils have the option of community-based learning at 14;

* They take lessons in a variety of places;

* Formal assessment adopts a broader view of intelligence;

* Schools help pupils find part-time employment and work-based learning;

* Every pupil should be given a mentor.

Learning Beyond the Classroom: available from Demos on 0171 353 4479 price Pounds 16.59 including pp

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