Poverty of ideas

26th June 2015 at 01:00

I recently attended a symposium on health inequalities at the University of the West of Scotland's Paisley campus. There was no thought of blaming medical professionals - no one would suggest that the yawning health gap between Drumchapel and Bearsden was the responsibility of local surgeries.

Over the past 40 years it has become commonly accepted that there is a direct and causal link between poverty and health. People with the poorest health and highest mortality rates live in the areas of highest deprivation, and that deprivation can seriously affect their life chances. Research in this field is voluminous and continually growing. It is now effectively unchallenged.

Yet, when it comes to educational inequalities, debate concentrates on schools and teachers. Virtually all educational research is on specific areas of schooling, rather than the effects of poverty, but when one examines the studies on poverty and education that do exist, the links are clear.

As early as 1973 the National Children's Bureau was warning that "among children generally, the single factor most strongly associated with high attainment is social class". While Gordon Brown was chancellor, the treasury department made the same links, noting that "children from disadvantaged backgrounds are much less likely to succeed in education".

There is a strong relationship between parent's earnings and their children's performance in maths and reading tests between the ages of 6 and 8. In Scotland, a cursory glance at league tables of academic achievement and free school meal entitlement reveals a strong and continuous correlation. By and large, with the odd exception, the schools that have poorest results also have the highest indicators of poverty.

This is not to say that there is no variation between schools in similar areas; sometimes they can have moderately different results. Often the differences between them are minute yet pondered over to the point where we ignore the real differences - which are not between schools in similar circumstances but between those in affluent areas and those in deprived areas.

Therefore, we should not be surprised at growing educational inequalities. It is very similar to health: the educational gap has grown larger as the wealth gap has grown. And if educational disadvantage is intrinsically linked to socio-economic disadvantage, educational reform per se can at best have a marginal impact.

This isn't an excuse for doing nothing. The ways in which schools support social inclusion, such as homework and breakfast clubs, and positive attendance rewards, are useful but can't fundamentally alter the imbalance caused by social deprivation. Politicians have to get their heads around that and stop blaming teachers - poverty is the government's responsibility.

Henry Maitles is a professor of education at the University of the West of Scotland

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