The most important influence on a child’s attainment throughout their education is family background. Poor children will start school with a smaller vocabulary, having heard 30 million fewer words than their wealthier peers. For teachers, that gap is challenge enough. However, the deficit is not only educational.
“I have watched colleagues feed and clothe their students. On occasion they have even housed them,” writes an annonymous secondary teacher in the South East in the cover feature of this week's TES. “I, too, have done all three.”
For many children, the disadvantage experienced is unimaginable. Schools in areas of significant deprivation have to deal with the effects of poor health that are not always immediately obvious. A life expectancy 10 years below the national average means that children face losing family members more frequently and much earlier in life. Bereavement counselling for schools in such areas is not an occasional service but a constant necessity.
It is to our collective shame that child poverty is rife in this, one of the richest nations on the planet. The inequalities are legion and social mobility is hobbled by the insidious protection of privilege.
This is not an attack on the current government. It is an attack on all governments. Child poverty is a problem that has persisted over many years and many administrations.
Disadvantage, however, does not have to be a life sentence; it can be overcome. The environment into which you are born will shape you but it should not define the life you will have, as Sutton Trust chief executive Lee Elliot Major’s candid story demonstrates in this week's issue of TES. When he faced one of the many obstacles that prevented him from achieving, he recalls asking “with a growing sense of injustice: why should I be penalised because of the family I happen to come from?” For that is what we do: punish the child for being born into the “wrong” family.
The Conservatives have positioned themselves as the party of social justice (why Labour have allowed that to go virtually unchallenged is another story). Education secretary Nicky Morgan, like her predecessor Michael Gove, wants to raise aspirations and give disadvantaged children, who have in the past faced the “soft bigotry of low expectations”, the same educational opportunities as their wealthier peers.
But it is difficult to aspire to a world beyond the damp walls of your home, your run-down housing estate, even your imagination. Poverty gnaws at aspiration and sucks ambition dry. The bigotry to be feared is not only the soft kind but also the hard, brutal, in-your-face bigotry of people who believe that for a poor child to succeed, a middle-class child must fail. And sometimes, just sometimes, even low expectations can seem out of reach.
It is within this world that many teachers operate. Why do they stay? Because, as our cover story author says, “an A* student is not always living an A* life”, and it is our teachers who shine a light on potential and offer kindness and support. “If we aren’t there to help, the sad truth is that no one else will.”
These children may start their educational journey hearing far fewer words than their peers, but such teachers ensure they learn the most important one of all: hope.