Poverty proves the pressing issue

24th October 1997 at 01:00
Margaret Thatcher said, notoriously, that there is no such thing as society. Yet the Education Reform Act 1988 dictates that the national curriculum should promote the spiritual, moral, and cultural development not only of schoolchildren, but of society. Now, the Labour Government is taking seriously the relationship between issues such as poverty, crime, parenting and school effectiveness. The TES's coverage today, and in future weeks, will reflect this new emphasis.

Poverty may not necessarily be a barrier to success, but if the Government is serious about raising educational standards it must act to alleviate its effects, children's campaigners warned this week.

A survey of a representative sample of families focusing on the issues that most concern them found that lone parents and families on low incomes felt most vulnerable to social pressures including drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and unemployment. It also confirmed that many did not know where to turn to for help.

For families under this kind of pressure, standards in their local schools came well down the list of priorities, according to the report Family Life: the age of anxiety produced for NCH Action For Children (formerly National Children's Homes). Opinion-formers who put education first, such as politicians and business leaders, are out of step with the public, the report indicates.

As school standards minister Stephen Byers outlined tough literacy targets for local authorities, NCH head of public policy Caroline Abrahams said the Government needed to firm up its pledge of support for inner-city families.

"The more socially excluded parents and children were, the more worried they were. It's not that they are not interested in education. But there are more pressing concerns closer to home, such as children being bullied at school or domestic violence," Ms Abrahams said.

"We're supportive of the idea of the Government and every other agency in this field raising their expectations for parents and children . . . But we can't expect more unless we put in the infrastructure."

Appeals for the Government to tackle child poverty are growing. They were made recently by Peter Robinson of the Centre for Economic Performance, who argued in a paper published last month that measures against poverty would make more difference than targets or education action zones.

The market research organisation Opinion Leader Research interviewed 1, 000 parents (69 per cent of them mothers and 19 per cent lone parents), 250 children aged nine to 16 and its panel of 100 "opinion leaders" shortly after the election.

Drug and alcohol abuse were the biggest concern for parents, with bullying and domestic violence the main worry for children. Alarmingly, 79 per cent of adults and 60 per cent of children agreed that a lot of domestic violence was kept secret. Two-thirds of parents worried about poor standards in schools (see table left).

The findings have led Harriet Harman, minister for women and the keynote speaker at the NCH survey's launch, to pledge to make domestic violence a ley issue for the new Cabinet sub-committee for women.

The NCH wants a string of measures directed at disadvantaged families, including: * community-based education schemes like homework clubs, mentoring and family literacy; * more flexible further and higher education with funding that does not deter disadvantaged students; * more support for families from local authorities including better advice and information services, parenting lessons in schools, social housing which keeps extended families together; * education programme on domestic violence including a module in schools; Family Life: the age of anxiety available free from NCH Action For Children public policy unit, 0171 226 2033.

Issues that worry parents and children

PARENTS

1 Alcohol and drug abuse 89

2 Lack of jobs for young people 82

3 Bullying in schools or play areas 74

4 Lack of facilities 70

5 Materialism (children demanding expensive clothes and toys) 67

6 Poor standards in schools 67

7 Poverty 66

8 Poor housing homelessness 66

9 Violence in the home 62

10 No child care 57

CHILDREN

1 Violence in the home 82

2 Bullying in schools or play areas 81

3 Racism 78

4 Alcohol and drug abuse 77

5 Lack of jobs for young people 73

6 Poverty 73

7 Poor housing homelessness 71

8 Lack of facilities 67

9 Poor standards in schools 62

10 No child care for working parents 56

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