Home > Education, Labour, The Coalition > Unequal opportunities: How do we redress the balance?

Unequal opportunities: How do we redress the balance?

Last Monday, as part of its ‘Schools’ season, BBC2 screened a documentary by ‘Today’ presenter John Humphrys which aimed to answer one simple question with a complex approach. That question, quite bluntly, was just why do ‘rich, thick kids do better than poor, clever children’? This isn’t merely another example of ‘dumbing down’ the language of politics, indeed these labels are those of the Conservative Minister for Education himself, Michael Gove, in a statement to the Commons Select Committee in July.

Despite decades of huge levels of spending on education, we have just as high a level of striking inequality between the poor and the rich than at any other time in the last fifty years. So, where are we going wrong?

The programme centred around Humphrys’ experiences meeting key figures in the Education system.  One of these inspirational interviewees was Amanda Phillips, head teacher of a Tower Hamlets primary school, one of the most socially-deprived areas in England. She revealed something that strikes a chord amongst many of us involved at the grass roots of early years education; her teachers go on preliminary home visits to three-year-olds who have never set foot on grass, been taken to the zoo or visited a museum. Part of her philosophy which is rapidly improving the effectiveness of her school is that she made the brave decision to spend a large chunk of her budget on introducing what she terms ‘middle-class experiences’ into the lives of her pupils. This is a relatively radical but hugely impressive idea, and one with which I and most teachers I know would concur. The children of poorer parents (who are more than likely to be growing up in one of the four in ten UK households without anyone bringing in a wage) are at a huge disadvantage before they even start their formal education, a disadvantage which is virtually impossible to overcome without early intervention. There are many parents who are drawn into financial hardship through no fault of their own, and for them there is not necessarily a link between income and ambition. Lots of them will wish nothing but success upon their children, and they will do their utmost to provide as many learning experiences as they can. For some poorer children, whose parents make the lifestyle choice to live on benefits, where is the incentive to work hard and achieve when they have no role model? Our responsibility is to these children, to show them that there is a far greater future ahead than the experience they have so far, that the life of the adults they know is not the one they need to live themselves. Many of these children don’t know what a nursery rhyme is, are never taken to play in the park, even to know what the sea looks like. The standard government response from whichever party is in power at the time is to insist that public spending on education is higher than before. The colossal point they’re missing is that all the money in the world won’t reverse the problem. Yes,  financial hardship is a huge problem we need to overcome, but the real cost to their children is not a lack of means, but the poverty of aspiration.

Very often, school populations will be comprised of children who live together in the same immediate area. If these schools happen to be in an area of high deprivation, a large proportion of these children will never know anything but a life of struggle and lack of opportunities. The disadvantage they have is that unless their parents fight for a place in a good state school they become stuck in the cycle of generations of families who don’t work, and have no desire to. This is when income and wealth really come into play. The luxury afforded to the children of the middle classes is choice, the choice to opt out of the state system and give their children an education which is paid for from their own pocket. No-one can deny the opportunity being offered to these pupils – small class sizes, a vast array of educationally-enriching trips and experiences, being taught alongside the children of equally highly aspirational parents. It sounds like a Utopia. Some of the children attending schools such as Mossbourne, the country’s most successful public school, just don’t have the incentive to take full advantage of attending these schools, whilst there are brighter, poorer children who would take full advantage of such an opportunity. Scholarships are rarely a solution. They generally comprise less than a handful of the places available and only  well-informed parents have a chance of getting their children one of the treasured few. How many families really have the luxury of spending up to 25,000 per year, per child for a public school education? Of course these establishments have an important place in our system and a valid contribution to make, but the benefits of an education within them should not be allowed to supersede the achievements of a poorer child who has had to struggle far more to achieve anything like the same results. It should never be the case that a CV listing one of these schools is a lifetime guarantee of advantage. We have to prize achievement based on personal merit above anything attained through the financial assurance of others. Surely what we really need to do is bring the experiences of the richer children attending public school (enlightening school trips, focused, responsive teaching and smaller pupil to teacher ratio) to the vast majority who will never be lucky enough to receive a place.

As teachers, we have a fundamental responsibility to ensure that poorer children are given the best possible start in life. Experience shows us that the children of the middle classes will always achieve in one way or another. Even if their talents are not academic, they are likely to  attend extra- curricular clubs and activities where they are given the chance to develop self-esteem and a sense of worth. The pupils who really need our teaching, care and support are those born to parents who either can’t, won’t or don’t share our ambition for their children. Of course, this is not to say in any way this is a problem attributed to all poorer parents. There are many who through no fault of their own can’t work or have been  made redundant, and still want things for their children that they have never had themselves. Still, experience in classrooms shows that it is very often pupils born to more financially-secure parents who are the ones who have those essential ‘middle-class experiences’ such as bedtime stories,  eating meals together around a table,  learn to count to 5 before they even step foot in nursery.

Another potential solution to help reduce the gap in achievement is the grammar school. This is a controversial subject, and has rather fallen under the radar in recent times as all three main parties have chosen to distance themselves from grammar schools. Whilst in power, Labour banned the building of new ones and in 2007 the Tories announced the withdrawal of their support for them. The official line of the DCSF was ‘we don’t support academic selection’. Rather worrying when we consider that a survey by the National Grammar School Association revealed that 76% of adults support the building of new grammar schools at a time when just 164 schools out of a total of 3, 361 in England are selective. The truth is, life is entirely based on selection. We are doing children no favours bringing them up in a world free of competition. In shielding them from any form of disappointment, we are merely storing up problems for the future. In my view, grammar schools should be at the very heart of the battle to redress the balance of educational inequality. They bring together children, regardless of the income of their parents, where the only thing that counts is their ability. By attending grammar schools, the children who may fall through the cracks of a standard secondary education are afforded the opportunity to break the glass ceiling and achieve success. It also ensures that money can’t buy achievement, as will, sadly, always be the case with fee-paying, independent schools. I would much rather live in a country where the children we educate have had to work hard for their success than had their parents pay for it. We shouldn’t prevent the top 20% from entering selective education because by default the other 80% can’t attend. For the children who don’t make it to grammar school, we have a different responsibility. Formal, academic education may not be the best route for them, so why aren’t we working on alternatives that really do allow these children to succeed. Instead of spending upwards of £25 million on each new academy, why not invest that money in training schemes, apprenticeships and practical skills from the age of 11? There doesn’t have to be a one size fits all approach to education. We have to understand that the needs of poorer and richer children are not the same.

So, in the midst of conference season, it seems the Coalition’s plan is to forge ahead with more academies, at least for this political term. The effectiveness of these institutions is another debate for another time, but we shouldn’t forget that at the heart of the academy plan is devolved power. There will be no unity of thinking or ethos between schools in the community as to how to reduce inequalities, yet surely the only way we can reduce the inequality is to work together on a collaborative basis, to ensure that we meet the needs of all our pupils, irrespective of the community into which they are (un)lucky enough to be born. 

It is an uncomfortable, unfortunate truth that very often financial means go hand in hand with ambition. We need to do everything in our power to show all children how important it is to have a goal and to work hard to achieve it. For those children who come to depend on school as a sanctuary and safety net, we have a duty to raise achievement, regardless of all other factors. What we have to ensure is that our guiding principle going forward is that no matter where children come from, it is where they are going that is by far the more important belief.  We’re unlikely to ever secure an even distribution of wealth in society, but with time and shared commitment, equality of aspiration is something we can achieve.

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