The poorest are still with us

6th May 2005 at 01:00
The most revealing education story of the election campaign was not the work of any political party.

But it told us more about the challenges facing the new government then any set-piece political press conference.

Research commissioned by Sir Peter Lampl, millionaire philanthropist and chair of the Sutton Trust, found that after eight years of Labour government, British children who grow up poor are less likely to escape poverty as adults than their peers anywhere else in the developed world.

Instead of challenging this social rigidity, the school system helps keep young people in their place, it said. And things are getting worse. For a Labour party committed to education "for the many not for the few", this is a damning indictment.

Since 1997 parental "choice" has remained sacrosanct - at least for those parents with the money and know-how to play the system. But if any government is serious about tackling underachievement among disadvantaged youngsters it needs to improve standards in the sink schools struggling to educate large numbers of poor children. Finding a (third) way to raise standards in these schools without changing their intake has so far proved beyond ministers.

Labour hopes two policies will square this circle. The first is academies: private sponsors, shiny new buildings and millions of pounds of public money to transform inner-city education.

The second is improved childcare and early-years support, much of it provided through extended schools. Ministers hope that academies will push up standards in the most deprived areas while early-years education and support combined with after-school childcare will mitigate the worst effects of disadvantage.

There are, though, some obvious problems. Critics of the city academies say their status and control of admissions means they can simply displace problem pupils into neighbouring schools.

And although schools have been waiting years for someone to tackle the barriers that prevent poor children from learning, it is unclear how many actually want tp become extended schools.

In some ways, however, these concerns miss the point. Academies and extended schools, combined with extra money, probably will have some impact on low achievement. But they will do nothing to undermine the current system of social selection. As the Sutton Trust report pointed out, while one in six pupils nationally is poor enough to qualify for free school meals, only one in 30 in the best state schools does so.

Unless a third-term Labour Government has the courage of its convictions and ensures disadvantaged pupils get a fair deal from schools, it will condemn the next generation of poor children to a life in poverty.

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