Piecing Together the Jigsaw Policy Lab 2: child poverty and the education system

Piecing Together the Jigsaw is a Common Weal and Edinburgh University project to connect the politics of child poverty, education and welfare together through participatory discussion and learning. The second Policy Lab of this project on Friday 25 November will look at education and attainment. Here, teacher Robert Connell offers his thoughts on the relationship between child poverty and the education system.

IN 2010, the Scottish Government adopted Len Barton’s definition that “inclusive education is concerned with the quest for equity, social justice and participation.  It is about the removal of all forms of barriers of discrimination and oppression and it is about the well-being of all learners.” Six years later, it seems clear that relative poverty is the single most common, persistent and significant factor in Scottish children being unable to access equal educational provision.

The devastating impact of poverty on a child’s opportunity to access the full benefits of education in the same way as their better-off counterparts is well documented. The welter of evidence of not only the scale and pervasiveness of poverty’s damaging effects, but the interdependence and coincidence of poverty with most other factors which negatively impact upon inclusion, seems to mark it out as the single biggest barrier to our children being fully included in education on a level with their peers . For some families, just surviving is the daily priority and so they will not, and cannot, engage with education in the way that many teachers may expect, and that most other children not only can, but often will with ease. This is not only due to their relative comfort with the curriculum and typical style of teaching during school hours, but also because those from better off households are far more likely to benefit from confidence-building out of school activities – which usually require money, transport, time or all three.

Sheila Riddell, Director of the Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity at Edinburgh University, maintains that despite equal access to education being well-established policy, inclusion is effectively hamstrung in practice due to lack of resources and the absence of policies in areas outside education which would support it. Inclusion for all in the same way is impossible in practice in our society, in part due to “the immense power of structural forces which reproduce a range of social inequalities”.

“Poorer children can quickly feel alienated and 'othered' in a system designed for an academically-friendly background they do not have. Compared to their better-off counterparts, pre-school provision is often incomplete and of lower quality, by upper primary the sense of disconnection can become ingrained, and by late adolescence the overwhelming feeling for many is one of hopelessness.”

Writing for the respected Joseph Rowntree foundation, Donald Hirsch (Director of the Centre for Research in Social Policy, Loughborough University) was quite clear that "child poverty and unequal educational opportunities are inextricably linked". It seems important to note the terminology here - Hirsch chooses to say that child poverty is inextricably linked to unequal 'opportunities', not 'potential', not 'outcomes'. He goes on to describe many of the ways in which schools and the education system as a whole have served to reinforce this disadvantage rather than alleviate it. Poorer children can quickly feel alienated and 'othered' in a system designed for an academically-friendly background they do not have. Compared to their better-off counterparts, pre-school provision is often incomplete and of lower quality, by upper primary the sense of disconnection can become ingrained, and by late adolescence the overwhelming feeling for many is one of hopelessness. Children from non-poor backgrounds have twice the chance of going to university and overall, as Hirsch describes, "we are a long way from making the slogan of equality of educational opportunity a reality". Of course some children manage to progress well despite their circumstances, but Hirsch argues that policy should be guided not by the exceptional experience but by the typical one, and the average figures are shocking. For example, by the age of three, a child in poverty can expect to be developmentally nine months behind the rest.

As thoroughly exposed by Wilkinson & Pickett in 'The Spirit Level’, even when you adjust for any other relevant factor you choose (disability, single-parents, parental education etc.), relative poverty has a very damaging effect on educational opportunity. Policy-makers are very fond of the ‘running race’ analogy for educational success, that all have a chance to reach the finishing line. However, we do not have the same opportunity, as we do not have the same starting line, we are not confronted with the same hurdles, and sometimes we are not even judged by the same measures. The common view of education as a meritocracy does not stand up well in studies of factual evidence, and may be thought of as a way of avoiding proper consideration of the system’s shortcomings and inequities which prevent generations of disadvantaged children from fully accessing the benefits of school.

“‘Encouraging’ people to find work, or hoping that employers will pay more wages, and businesses pay more tax, because they ‘should’ is a dereliction of responsibility. If you want to alleviate child poverty, you need to increase the incomes of the worst off in society.”

The attainment gap experienced by children from poorer households is of course not just a Scottish or British phenomenon. Studies from across the world find that children in relative poverty arrive short of school readiness, and fall further behind their cohort throughout school. As shown by Wilkinson & Pickett, it is also clear that these effects are greater in more unequal countries such as the United Kingdom or the United States, than in more equitable ones such as Finland or Norway.

In addressing the poverty which so noticeably increases the incidence of inclusion problems of so many types, it is to be welcomed that Scottish Governments over the last 15 years have made the reduction of child poverty a specific targeted priority, that some progress has been made, and that the focus continues with the Child Poverty Strategy for Scotland. It is also recognised that the system of tax credits introduced by Westminster has helped alleviate poverty across the UK, and that this has helped many children escape the very worst of the educational and other disadvantages of being poor. However, the tax credit system, along with housing benefit for landlords, exacerbated and entrenched structural poverty due to low wages and lack of job security where policies promoting a high-wage economy and rent controls would have had long-term built-in positive effects on inequality. This also serves to highlight an area where there often seems to be a disconnection between rhetoric and policy on poverty and inclusion. ‘Encouraging’ people to find work, or hoping that employers will pay more wages, and businesses pay more tax, because they ‘should’ is a dereliction of responsibility. If you want to alleviate child poverty, you need to increase the incomes of the worst off in society. This can be done by tax credits, other welfare payments, a living wage, a basic income, rent controls, land reform or many other progressive policies, but stating a desire to decrease child poverty (or alleviate its effects) without enacting a policy which makes poor people wealthier is meaningless. In education, as in life, poverty has clear adverse effects on opportunity, not just on outcome. If policy is to address the attainment gap, politicians will have to directly address this reality.e 

If you would be interested in attending the policy lab on Friday 25 November please contact ben@common.scot. For more information on Piecing Together the Jigsaw as a whole click here.

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