Historian Antony Beevor’s book The Second World War opens with the mind-boggling story of Yang Kyoungjong. In a few short paragraphs, the idea that we have control of our destiny is exposed as a myth.
Yang was a soldier in German uniform who surrendered to American paratroopers in Normandy in 1944. They thought he was Japanese; in fact, he was Korean. In 1938, aged 18, he had been forcibly conscripted by the Japanese. A year later, he was captured by the Soviets; in 1942, the Red Army drafted him into their forces. The German army took him prisoner in Ukraine in 1943 – and a year later Yang was sent to France.
After time in a prison camp in Britain, Yang was finally able to escape the global events that seized control of his early adulthood. He moved to the US, and died in 1992 in Illinois.
Beevor presents Yang as “perhaps the most striking illustration of the helplessness of most ordinary mortals in the face of what appeared to be overwhelming historical forces”.
For that reason, Yang’s tale came to mind at a literacy conference in Glasgow last week (See “A week in primary”, page 8), addressed by Neil Mathers, head of Save the Children in Scotland.
Mathers underlined that the “attainment gap” – the age-old Scottish problem that yet another generation of politicians is promising to fix – cannot be closed without confronting wider societal context: after years of declining poverty rates, the problem is worsening. One in five children in Scotland lives in poverty, but, warned Mathers, that could soon surge to one in three.
Just as Yang found himself buffeted around the globe by events utterly beyond his control, many more Scottish children will experience poverty in the years ahead simply because they had the bad luck to be born at a turning point in social history.
Poverty is a powerful undertow that counteracts teachers’ best efforts to help children.
As poverty proliferates, so does a whole host of associated problems faced by teachers, from poor mental health to obesity. Last Sunday, researchers from the University of St Andrews presented some groundbreaking evidence of a causal link between poverty and increased calorie intake.
Teachers, so often, are set up as the antidote to societal problems. The Scottish government’s Attainment Challenge, for example, may be well-intentioned but it also serves to divert attention from the roots of the problem.
And now pupils, too, are being given more power and responsibility in schools than they ever have before.
This is the era of pupil voice, growth mindsets and Curriculum for Excellence’s “effective contributors” – laudable attempts to fuel educational success by getting our young people to think and do more for themselves.
But does the shifting of responsibility on to pupils allow others to abdicate their own responsibility?
Is the current veneration of “pupil agency” like an inadvertent, insidious version of Norman Tebbit’s “Get on your bike” message to what he saw as the feckless unemployed?
In other words, is it another way of deflecting attention from policymakers’ own failings?
The hard truth is that poverty has a singularly corrosive effect on society. And so long as it exists, it doesn’t matter how good our teachers are, how resourceful our pupils are: countless children will fall through the gaps that poverty prises open.