Stuck in the poverty trap

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Unemployment was low, wages rising and hopes high when Plowden was published. Today, says Victoria Neumark, the reality is bleaker.

Thirty years ago, Plowden talked of poverty in the down-to-earth terms (earth closets in rural schools, for instance) of educationists secure in the knowledge that social ills could and would be fixed. In 1997, education officials in Knowsley, which is top or near the top of all the league tables for unemployment, deprivation and ill health, do not want their borough to be seen other than in "positive" terms.

Is this what has happened to poor people in Britain in 1997? Fear of market forces, fear of not presenting correct appearances, has done what the welfare state failed to do: it has banished the face of poverty.

Except, of course, that it hasn't. The many changes which have affected children's lives in the past 30 years have all borne down most heavily on children in straitened circumstances. In place of classic images of ragged children playing hopscotch in city streets, today's snapshot of poor children is much more fragmented: watching television or video, peering out of a top-floor flat, hanging disconsolately around shopping malls, excluded from places of affluence.

Phrases such as "loss of community", "sense of hopelessness", "problems with homelessness", "unsupported parents" and "generations of unemployment" are affixed to the waste of human potential which we have all come to take for granted and which schools, for the most part, try valiantly to reverse.

There are politically sensitive dimensions to the poverty problem (issues such as lone-parent families, ethnic minorities, drugs and crime), but when it comes right down to it, it's no fun being poor and it's harder to have fun if you are a poor child. In many inner-city areas, from Knowsley in Merseyside to Handsworth in Birmingham to Peckham or Hackney in London to the valleys in Mid Glamorgan, primary schools form oases of purpose and harmony. Most people love their children and want to do the best for them; activity centred around primary schools often seems to offer a way to celebrate hope for the future.

At Hafod primary school in Pontypridd, Mid Glamorgan, the headteacher, Jean Lewis, says: "What strikes me most about our parents is how well they cope on such little money. The children are always well dressed, fed and warm. Years ago, in another school in a really deprived area, I used to take in my own children's clothes, but we have nothing like that here." Citing her active group of parent helpers, her supportive governing body, TEC-funded (Training and Enterprise Council) extra-curricular clubs and activities for children, life-skills classes for mothers and constant liaison with teacher-training bodies, Mrs Lewis is proud of her vibrant school in its small, close-knit community. Such schools do exist everywhere, but they are fighting against the odds. As Mrs Lewis says, "We've got to be positive and offer children abetter future."

Angela Piddock, head of Wilberforce primary school in north Westminster, London, is equally committed to the potential of her children, but much more worried about their future. In the mining valleys, mass joblessness is relatively recent; on the Wilberforce estate, some of Ms Piddock's pupils are coming from three generations of unemployed. "There is a kind of hopelessness, even among young children," she says. "They are cynical in a way that you didn't see in the Sixties, when everyone believed there was a job."

Bill Laar, Office for Standards in Education inspector and education consultant, has also noticed increased scepticism about their future from quite young children. And he sees even more alarming indicators of children suffering from poverty. His perspective, based not on passionate commitment to the children in one classroom, but on evaluating research and visits spread over time and place, is that there is no doubt that low income affects children's educational achievement.

"How can they learn effectively?" he asks, pointing out that lack of funds affects everything at home, from healthy diet to availability of books. Most of all, poverty affects the parents' morale, so that they can feel too tired and stressed to give their children the nurturing attention which they need.

According to the Child Poverty Action Group, 30 per cent of children are now born to families on or below the poverty line, which is less than half of the average wage (for a married couple with three children, this threshold would be Pounds 203 a week). Such families often also live in sub-standard housing and, importantly, may attend schools whose extra funding on the basis of "social need" has been arbitrarily cut or redirected by central government. For instance, Westminster does much better than Knowsley, though it has many more well-off families. Delegation of budgets and wide variations in the amounts of money available to local education authorities mean, again, arbitrary variations in the per capita funding which follows pupils. Perhaps most perniciously of all, as the case of Knowsley illustrates, individual schools with problems are reluctant to claim special treatment, lest word get out and parents desert the school, causing it more funding problems.

Within this overall picture of a reduced commitment to improving the lives of the less well-off, Bill Laar also pinpoints the effects of unsupported parenting. It is much harder, he believes, for single parents to create an environment where affection and creativity can blossom; still harder when they are on the breadline. Yet parents who cannot find the confidence or time to concentrate on their children are creating "psychological devastation".

David Winkley, headteacher of Grove primary school in Birmingham, also sees family breakdown and lack of stability in children's lives as the main difference between the poverty of now and 30 years ago. Although he can see children without shoes when he looks at old school photographs, reminding him of grinding indigence, Dr Winkley feels that the working-class warmth of the Birmingham of the 1950s and 1960s went some way to compensate children for their lack of material things.

That active support of the whole community still exists in Grove school, where the children mostly come from ethnic minorities, but many schools hardly see the fathers of their pupils. In their turn, the children, who used to play out in the street but return home to rough and ready authority, are now confined to the home but within it are uncontained by adult authority.

Ironically, the pluralism and freedom which comes from a less authoritarian attitude in society at large seems to have imprisoned children in an empty licence: without the inner security which comes from knowing that what you do is closely monitored by your parents, childish mischief turns sour and bangs angrily for attention.

Delinquency and drugs are closely linked. Few primary schools actually have a drugs problem among their pupils, but on estates such as the Aylesbury in south London, children are all too familiar with both the effects of drugs and the rewards of dealing. Careful parents lock their children in. That, in turn, contributes to what Dr Winkley calls "spiritual poverty". Children can't play out on the streets, and the football leagues and multitude of out-of- school clubs which dominated the lives of schoolchildren of the Sixties and Seventies are gone, dealt a death blow by the teachers' action of the 1980s.

Play schemes have also largely bit the dust, hit by cuts in local authority spending. In many areas, drugs are the only recreation on offer (and the only source of employment).

On the Penrhys estate, a strange wasteland of housing stranded between former mining valleys in the Rhondda, south Wales, Wayne Morse, headteacher of Penrhys junior school, is determined to buck the trend. Fed up with seeing his bright 11-year-old pupils go off to secondary school only to slide a few years later into a "vicious spiral" of early parenthood, joblessness and isolation, Mr Morse and the local church have instituted a pastoral programme which tracks and supports primary pupils moving up to secondary school.

Along with infusions of cash from businesses which provide school trips, visits from theatre groups and sports tuition, the school aims to help pupils widen their horizons so that "their intelligence is not just wasted". Mr Morse is "a Plowden man". He believes in the future.

But the future, as ever, cannot be built on promises alone. Bill Laar speaks of a worrying trend. In the past two or three years he has seen an increasing number of "really badly malnourished" children in inner-city schools. It's just anecdotal, and it's just a few, but these children are not just poor, they are paupers. Should their parents be ashamed to send them to school that way? Or should we be ashamed that 30 years after Plowden, we still have children who are too hungry to learn?

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