Tuesday, 18 March 2008

My colleague Tony Evans found this wonderful article by Peter Wilby on the New Statesman website...

"'The Toxicity of Poverty'

"The poor," as the Bible advises, "always ye have with you." Should the same be said of failing schools? Ed Balls, the Children's Secretary, tells the Guardian that local authorities must produce "action plans" for 638 low-performing state schools. Yet only last year, a Downing Street press release boasted that "tough intervention . . . has reduced . . . failing schools from over 500 to barely 200". So what is going on?

The answer is that ministers keep raising the bar. In 1997, Labour called on local councils to set up "fresh start" schools where less than 15 per cent of pupils had got five or more A-C grades at GCSE. Now, it wants councils to act where less than 30 per cent get five A-C grades, which must include English and maths. There is nothing wrong in a country aspiring to higher performance for its children. Unfortunately, every time achievement levels go up, the gap between schools in poor areas and those in affluent areas remains stubbornly unchanged. Most of Balls's 638 target schools, like Downing Street's original "over 500", are full of poor children - as anyone who has studied the relationship between education and home background at any time in the past century could have predicted.

"I don't accept there should be a link between poverty and educational attainment," Balls said. He might as well say he doesn't accept the link between smoking and cancer. That poverty and low social status are associated with inferior school achievement is one of the few laws social scientists can state with the same confidence as physicists state the laws of thermodynamics. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) was recently told that poverty in early childhood poisons the brain: on top of the damage caused by inadequate nutrition, stress hormones impair neural development.

The extraordinary thing is that the government itself accepts the link that Balls doesn't. It publishes, in addition to "raw" exam results, "contextual value-added" (CVA) scores for each school. These take into account background influences on school performance, including the proportion of children eligible for free meals. The effects are startling. To take just one example from the 2007 GCSE results for state schools, only 28 per cent of Harrow High's pupils achieved five A-Cs including English and maths, easily the lowest in the borough. Yet its CVA score was easily the highest.

If Balls does not accept a link between poverty and educational achievement, why does his department publish, for every state school, a score that depends on precisely that link? It is tempting to make the usual joke about what he is talking. But his Tory shadow, Michael Gove, is a bigger offender. He talks constantly of a shortage of "good school places" which, he argues, frustrates parents. He should (and I think does) know better. A "good school" has a fair number of advantaged children. A "failing school" has a high proportion - say, 30 per cent or more - of children who, for various reasons, are difficult to teach.

As a report to the children's department in January put it: "It is a misconception to think that the unfairness of admissions consists in some groups being denied access to 'good' schools. It does not take adequate account of how intake contributes powerfully to the public perception of schools as 'good' or 'bad'" (Secondary School Admissions by John Coldron et al).

That is not to blame snobbish parents. Seeking schools with advantaged intakes, and avoiding those with large numbers of "problem children", is a perfectly rational strategy. Even parents who refuse to "work the system" still want the best for their children, as a new report for the Economic and Social Research Council shows. Cambridge academics interviewed 125 white, middle-class, Guardian-reading parents who sent their children to socially mixed comprehensives with below-average results. Nearly all the youngsters got to good universities, and several to Oxbridge. But most of the parents, said the report, "were vigilant . . . to ensure protection for their children". They helped with homework and paid for extra tuition and music lessons. Their liberal values did not extend to depriving their children of cultural capital.

While we have gross social inequalities, we shall have gross educational inequalities. Any school landed with large numbers of poor children will probably become "failing". As Philip Hunter, the chief adjudicator for schools, suggested to me in an interview for the Guardian, the best solution for many such schools is to close them and disperse the pupils elsewhere. But as Jack Shonkoff, Harvard's professor in child health, told the AAAS: "There are no magic bullets." The only way to remove the toxicity of poverty is to abolish poverty itself."

It is important that as we continue to struggle to deliver brilliant outcomes for all our young people we must also tackle poverty, worklessness and despair.

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