The education reforms and school funding policies that Conservative governments have introduced over the past 15 years have failed to remove the "barriers to learning" hindering the progress of children from low-income families. In fact, the barriers are higher than ever in the secondary and post-school sectors, according to a report published yesterday by the Child Poverty Action Group.
The authors, Teresa Smith and Michael Noble, lecturers at Oxford University, reached this conclusion after sifting through a mass of research evidence and official statistics, and canvassing parents, schools and education authorities.
They say the Government's much-vaunted policy of giving parents a wider choice has primarily benefited the middle class. "The most popular schools are increasingly able to select their intake, rather than the other way round, " they say. "The 'flip-side' is the rejected 'sink' school with declining numbers and resources, often located in a disadvantaged area."
Grant-maintained schools have done little to help the poorest children, judging by one survey of 55 LEAs which revealed that only about 8 per cent of such schools served disadvantaged areas.
The Assisted Places Scheme, which provides an independent school education for children from poorer families, has not furthered the egalitarian cause either, the authors say. The scheme's ideal "client" was originally said to be the "able boy or girl from the working-class, inner-city home", but studies have shown that under 10 per cent of pupils involved have fathers in manual work.
City technology colleges claim to have attracted more working-class and black children, but the report points out that it is not clear how representative the CTC pupils are of their local neighbourhoods. One study concluded that "families not already valuing education are less likely to apply and, if they do apply, less likely to be able to convince the CTCs that they should be selected. Those children most in need will not benefit from CTCs."
Smith and Noble contend that both central and local government should improve funding formulas to ensure that schools catering for disadvantaged children receive sufficient help. And they argue that high quality pre-school provision and smaller class sizes are essential if the education chances of poorer children are to improve.
They also say the hidden costs of education are a further barrier to achievement. Many children miss school trips that their parents cannot afford.
More worryingly, parents say they are being asked to pay for essentials such as exercise books, writing and art materials, and cookery ingredients. The researchers warn that under the 1988 Education Act charging for such materials is illegal, although they add that the schools may have sought voluntary contributions.
Another concern is the huge disparity in the price of school meals (anything from 55p in Humberside to Pounds 1.26 in Kingston upon Thames in 1993). The availability of clothing grants also varies dramatically - 15 per cent of LEAs surveyed by Smith and Noble offered no grants, whereas one authority provided 69,971 in a single year.
Some LEAs are also loath to provide educational maintenance allowances for pupils staying on beyond 16, or further education awards for those moving on to sixth-form colleges. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the authors found that poor staying-on rates are still linked to social disadvantage. There is evidence that children from the poorest circumstances can succeed, Smith and Noble say, but the odds are heavily against them.
"It cannot be right that having denied large numbers of families an acceptable standard of living, we then prevent their children from having the full range of educational experiences and facilities which are on offer for the children of the better-off," they conclude.
Education Divides: poverty and schooling in the 1990s, by Teresa Smith and Michael Noble, Pounds 7.95 (including pp) from CPAG Ltd, 1-5 Bath Street, London EC1V 9PY.