We must put a stop to poverty

31st July 2009 at 01:00

May 7 was the date of the Daily Telegraph's first revelations on the expenses of our representatives in Westminster. Hidden away on the same date were two other fascinating reports - this time by the Government itself - that are just as damning an indictment of modern Britain.

The latest national statistics on Households Below Average Income, produced by the Department for Work and Pensions, showed a widening wealth gap over the last three years; and the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England, produced for the Department for Children, Schools and Families, showed the impact of increasing poverty on education.

According to the DWP report, there were four million children living in UK households last year with below 60 per cent of contemporary median net disposable household income. After housing costs, this represents an increase of 100,000 on 2006-07.

For the population as a whole, on the same measure and over the same period, the total figure rose by 200,000 to 13.5 million.

Put crudely, these figures show that, before the recession struck, there were trends of an increase in relative poverty in Britain. This can only get worse in the near future as the downturn bites. Most recent research is now suggesting that, 12 years into a Labour administration, inequalities in British society have got wider. Lord Mandelson's comment about being "intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich" now seems to be a sick joke.

And this is the context in which our schools have to operate. Interestingly, recent publications on the impact of this (The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and Towards a More Equal Society? Poverty, Inequality and Policy since 1997 by John Hills, Tom Sefton and Kitty Stewart) suggest that the more unequal the society, the worse it is for all of us - including the "filthy rich".

For example, one in 10 people in fairly equal societies such as Japan, Spain, Italy and Germany reports a mental health problem in a given year; in less equal nations such as Britain, Australia, New Zealand or Canada, the figure rises to one in five - and to one in four in the United States. It does seem that inequality helps to bring about anxiety and tension.

This makes it hard for schools to do anything other than tinker at the edges. To compound things, the other report I mentioned, the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England, tells us that these inequalities have a profound impact on young people's education. For example, only one in five of the poorest fifth of the sample attains five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C including English and maths, compared to almost three quarters of the richest fifth.

Teachers have said for a long time that they cannot cure all the ills of society, and recent research backs that up.

Henry Maitles lectures at Strathclyde University's faculty of education.

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