It’s all about poverty, stupid!


Some sobering news for education systems in Scotland, via the Joseph Rowntree Foundation;

  • The gap between children from low-income and high-income households starts early. By age 5, it is 10–13 months. Lower attainment in literacy and numeracy is linked to deprivation throughout primary school. By age 12–14 (S2), pupils from better-off areas are more than twice as likely as those from the most deprived areas to do well in numeracy. Attainment at 16 (the end of S4) has risen overall, but a significant and persistent gap remains between groups.
  • Parental socio-economic background has more influence than the school attended.
  • Children from deprived households leave school earlier. Low attainment is strongly linked to destinations after school, with long-term effects on job prospects.

We have been attempting to tout education as the means by which we make societies more equal for generations now. We tried a tri-partite education system, with children streamed by ability, then we switched to comprehensive education. We tried experimental community schools for a while (I went to one) then sort of gave up and said that the problem was caused by bad schools, bad teaching.

You could argue that the politicians employed the old divide and rule trick- they made schooling all about choice, individuality and parent power – none of these things bad in their own right, but they were sold to us using league tables (which masked the inequality by making inner city schools look like they were under performing.) The end result is that we as parents increasingly looked after our own. Those that could afford to send our kids to private education felt under even more pressure to do so.

What the Rowntree report makes clear is what we have always known- inequalities in educational attainment are not about bad schools or bad teaching, they are about one thing- poverty. It is not as if every piece of research in this areas has not told us this.

Equality is not something that can be promised to the next generation, no matter how much we hot house our kids through exams. Blair famously said that his three priorities in government were “Education, Education and Education.” The fool forgot that you can not treat a problem be focusing only on one of the symptoms.

The report mentioned above lists a whole set of things that it thinks government can do to narrow the attainment gap between rich and poor, but the reality is that the only guarantee of any kind of change is to bring greater equality of income into our society and lift poor people out of poverty.

social class


Economic lie no. 5; competition can solve all our problems…

william, sports day

Some ideas are so central to our world view that everyone just assumes them to be fact. The domination of so called free market economics have forced quite a few of these kind of ideas into our thinking- one of them is the absolute necessity of competition.

Without competition we become flabbily inefficient, like some kind of state run farm in the old Soviet Union. Without competition we will never become the best that we can be, either as individuals or as countries. Without competition, we are told, all human endevour atrophies. All science is still born, all education is weak and pointless.

A what is more, without competition, there is no fun, no sport, no football no (Lord save us) cricket.

Be honest, at an economic level, do you think this is a closed argument? It might surprise you then to hear that there the value of competition in economics can be regarded as something of a mixed bag. Sure, it might drive down prices, but it might also drive down quality. It will ensure too that devices will lack interoperatability- each new produce will lead to the need for a new device- leading to huge waste and cost.

It might also deliver more choice for consumers (choice being another one of those current cultural holy cows) but this often leads to huge complexity, confusion and again much more waste.

What about competition pushing technology forward? We appear to be seeing unprecedented advances in computing at present. People are upgrading and renewing computers faster than ever before. Rather than buying a machine and using it for 8 years, people are renewing every 3 years, often due to the lower build quality, and cheaper parts end up breaking sooner. Again this is leading to huge wastage, not to mention the environmental impact of all those rare earth metals– which seem to be increasingly dumped in poor countries. There is now huge pressure to buy a new computer at the slightest problem, rather than fix the old one- they are cheap enough and new formats (netbooks, tablets, wrist) are made to look like essential accessories.


Competition might also be regarded as aiming to destroy the opposition. So a powerful company (say IBM) might ensure that their computer platform overcomes other ones. They are removed from the marketplace, even if the technological solutions they contained were better, more useful. The story is often told of computers that used to boot up in seconds but the company that won the competition went a different route.

Am I suggesting that competition is bad then? It would be possible to make a strong case; what is the root cause for war if not competition? Does it not create far more losers than winners? Might competition not be dragging us headlong towards the end of our civilisation because of the damage being done to our environment? But this would be every bit as simplistic and one sided as the competition-is-always-good hegemony. What I would argue for however is the urgent need to look at the holy myth of competition and expose it to a measure of healthy doubt.

Clearly competition delivers huge benefits, but at what costs? I have mentioned potential environmental costs, but there are other more human ones too. The dream of success stalks us all- our huge need for measurable, quantifiable, objective evidence of our place in the human race. But in order for some to win, many must fail. And so we will do what we can to be one of the winners, not losers. However it has never been a level playing field; some will always be able to control the game on behalf of themselves and their families/friends. At present, by almost every measure, the world is providing less chances for those who have little than previously. We are discarding countless Einsteins, Beethovens, Marie Curies every day.

You could argue that even the costs of failure (our current banking crisis) has been outsourced. Those suffering from all the adversity programmes slashing our welfare, health and education budgets were certainly not the cause of the problem- in fact they were not even in the competition.

As someone who tries to follow after Jesus, it seems rather obvious that he did not seem to regard the winning of competitions as any kind of priority. In fact he seemed to favour the opposite; turning the other cheek, the first becoming the last, the lion lying down with the lamb. I know that neo-liberal economists do not tend to use Jesus as their major source material, but nevertheless it is strange how these ideas co-exist within so called Christian cultures. Perhaps the Jesus way of doing things is not really a good way for our children to get ahead?

Which brings me to my final point- the education of our children. When I was a kid back in the increasingly distant 1970’s, competition was bad. Enlightened parents and teachers tried to emphasise non-competitive games, encouraging co-operation and the shared experience. To be honest it was a bit shambolic, not much fun and the urge to compete was so strong in most of we kids that it was pointless anyway. Since then the whole attempt to imbue education with egalitarian principles has been totally abandoned in the UK. Competition is most certainly good- the more the better it seems, particularly under our current government.

school photo

The fear we live with as parents is that we do not skew the scales as far towards our own kids as we possibly can. The pressure is on to equip them for success in each and every exam, so that they can succeed in life. There is some evidence for the truth of this. Expensive private education hot-houses kids to exam success, and privately educated kids crowd the top professions in this country, particularly the political class.

Here is the rub though- as we start to look back on lives (rather than imagine forward into the lives of our kids) what successes do we most appreciate? What gives us most pleasure, satisfaction? Which of them might be regarded as having been worthwhile- not just for ourselves but for the world we were part of? If you are like me, this has little to do with money or exam results or career. It is much more to do with family, friends, community, creativity, love, kindness.  Is it possible that competition mitigates against some of this? Is it not at least a distraction, or perhaps given too much weighting in the choices we make for both ourselves and our kids?

Competition is saving us. Competition is killing us. Both are true, and neither.

Competition is overvalued, and needs to be subordinate to grace.



One of my old schoolmates posted this on Facebook recently. I must have been around 8 or 9 when it was taken. I will let you guess which one of this fine group of students is me. Mrs Ellis’s Class, Croft Primary School, circa 1975.

The fact is, I remember very little from my childhood. Through the joys of Facebook, a number of folk have made contact with me, and invited me to join other school pages/groups for secondary school too. They always seem to know far more about my school days than I do.

This might be because I have a poor memory, but also is something to do with poor memories. Mine was not a happy childhood- neither at home nor at school- too much difficulty, awkwardness, bullying and violence in both places. The end result was that childhood for me was all about insecurity and isolation. My lovely big sister had a rather different experience- she was cleverer and far more articulate than me so could hide her insecurities much better. I have spent the last 30 years slowly trying to rediscover me. It is a work in progress, and looking back at these ghosts makes it seem a lot closer.

However, the trip down memory lane, painful and fractured as the memories are, forced me to count blessings too. The secondary school that I attended (not the one above) was a rather experimental ‘Community School’- located in the middle of our small Nottinghamshire town, with ice rinks and sports halls, day centres and adult education all mixed in. The building was open plan and teachers and adult learners mingled with us all on first name terms. The experimental nature of the school did not survive long- scandals over the so called teaching of swear words and loose discipline found the front page of The Sun, and there was a conservative fight back after Thatcher came to power.

But something of this school made me who I am. The fierce sense of social justice, the love of English literature. These are friendly ghosts. They can stay.


I have been thinking about social class. This was triggered in part because of listening to Polly Toynbee’s programme on Radio 4, ‘The Class Ceiling’  This was in two parts, and examining some of the myths and enduring realities of social class, and social mobility, and asking what social class means now.

It was an old issue for me, as a former student of social policy. For 40 years since the second world war, social class was the central concept of British social policies. After the war, even the Conservative party had to grapple with the fact that the working classes were no longer prepared to be passive fodder for the industrial machines that produced wealth for a ruling elite. There was the shadow of communist revolution hanging over us all of course, which always tends to focus the altruism of the rich, but it was also a time of idealism when we really believed that we could make things better.

The end result was a kind of political and economic hegemony- accreted through a combination of Keynesian economic stimulus, more or less progressive taxation structures, health care free at the point of delivery and education systems that sought to operate as a kind of social engineering- measuring success by the degree to which working class kids were able to attain similar educational success as those whose families came from well off backgrounds.

Whether any of this worked is a real debate- was the real hope for a more just and egalitarian society ever really realised?

Education is a case in point- we started out with the tripartite system- Grammar, Secondary Modern and Technical schools. The idea was that children could be tested aged 11, and them streamed into the kind of education that would get the best out of them. Except, kids from disadvantaged backgrounds continued to do really badly.

So we tried Comprehensive schools- educating all kids together, regardless of ability. That did little for disadvantaged kids too.

Finally we tried a few experiments with ‘Community Schools’ (one of which was my own) where we tried to engage the whole of the community in the education of our schools. They did not deliver different results either.

Education cannot compensate for society. The deep seated political, social, psychological and economic forces that tended to perpetuate the class system proved remarkably difficult to shift. And being ‘poor’ in a rich western society means that your disadvantages are stark when compared with the averages.

However, in many ways, I am one of the beneficiaries of this countries attempts towards social justice. I grew up the child of a single mother, living off state benefits. But I did well enough at school to be offered a place at University, and the state funded my place there, and paid me a grant to allow me to live whilst studying. I then became a middle class professional social worker.

It all began to break apart in the 1980’s. Thatcher shattered the bipartite cross party attempts to support social justice. Greed was good. Let the wealthy chase money, because this will benefit the whole of society in the form of ‘trickle down’. Return to ‘traditional values’ (whatever they are) flog the delinquents and smash the unions of the great unwashed. Sell off the council housing stock, as the Englishman’s (and Scottishman’s) home is his castle and we are all middle class now.

What is interesting, and perhaps worrying, is that according to the programme mentioned above, since these times (and despite 14 years of a so called Labour government) the gap between the poorest and richest people in our society is about the same as was the case in Victorian Britain.

You are less likely to attend university if your parents did not than 30 years ago.

You are less likely to own your own home if your parents did than 30 years ago.

We are far less likely to see Cabinet Ministers who came from council estates (or whatever has replaced these) than 10 years ago.

If your parent are not ‘in the know’- steering you towards the right experience, via contacts and internships- then you are far less likely to succeed.

Does any of this matter? Well I think that aspiring towards social justice- to a society where people’s measure of success is not determined by their parents social standing- is a good thing. It was one of the things that led me into social work- the thought that it was possible to make a difference. Social work without ideology is- administration.

The fact that at present our society is becoming more unequal- the rich are richer than ever, and those without are increasingly shut out of the opportunities that are available to those who already hold all the cards- has to be of concern to us all.

However, as I look at this now, my feelings are mixed. Despite all our efforts, we did not achieve an egalitarian society. Perhaps there has never been one. For everyone who moves up, someone else moves down.

And how are we measuring this success? We use the currency of our cultural addictions- houses, shiny cars, lifestyle choices, disposable income, consumer power. All those things that got us into this mess in the first place, and we hold onto like a drunkard to a gin bottle. We know this thing is not sustainable, nor is it making us healthy or happy or fulfilled- but it is so hard to shake ourselves loose…

Jesus knew this- I think this was the point of this ‘Camels through the eyes of needles’ point.

So, do I want to see a more equal society? Yes, absolutely. I think it should shame us to think that we live alongside an underclass of people whose offspring are condemned to some kind of broken ground hog day. And when we have riots, to talk of people as ‘ferral’, less than human. We should set ourselves to challenging this and seeking to bring grace- wherever we can.

Because the most beautiful expression of the Christian faith is still to be found in the gutter, not in any Cathedral. Redemption is not just an abstract thing to be encountered when we die- it is also an everyday miracle to be loved into being.

But perhaps this is not the whole story of what we aspire to- to live as counter-cultural critical participants in our lovely but broken world?

Perhaps it might mean seeking to apply a different kind of measure to our worth. Not an economic one, but one based on simpler and older classifications- shared lives, including the outsider, belonging to one another, generosity to the stranger and good husbandry of the earth we are wedded to.

In this we are not seeking to be social climbers but rather to be becoming the beloved of God.

Filming war…

Emily regularly tells me stories about lessons at school deliberately to wind me up. It is an innocent enough sport, and I am easily defeated.

One of the things that she teases me with is the teaching of all sorts of subjects- History, Religious and Moral Education, English Literature- through the medium of Hollywood movies.

So History is taught by watching- Braveheart.

Shakespeare is taught be watching Leonardo Di Caprio pretending to be Romeo.

Moral issues are taught by watching war films- a whole series of them it seems.

I am not meaning to have a pop at teachers- I think they do a difficult job with passion and skill- but (as Marshall McLuhan said) the medium is the message- and film has this way of sowing images in our minds that are hard to shift.

And when these images are manipulations of the truth (as all film is of course, to a lesser or greater degree) then I think it is important to ask whose world view we are buying into- whose version of truth is being propagated.

It is difficult to escape the realisation that the lens is controlled by the powerful, and not the weak. The powerful even strap cameras to their bombs and missiles. It makes for great TV.


This was brought home most powerfully to me recently when watching the great John Pilger’s film ‘The War You Don’t See.’ This film deals with what happens when cameras go to war- in an age of ’embedded’ reporters, and carefully controlled press briefings.

If you have any interest in justice in an age of technological warfare waged by superpowers in out name, you must watch this film. It is available on you tube- here.

Here is the trailer

The film also makes some points about the role of war films in all of this that made me sit up. Like most blokes, I like a good war film- heroic buddy movies for the most part- escapism for those of us who have never been exposed to the harsh realities of war.

Most of us can see through the jingoism of the world war two films,  and also the nonsense of the Rambo/Schwarzenegger comic book violence, but Pilger made some interesting points about the modern crop of films- even those who appear to carry an anti war message. Pilger pointed out how they carry a myth of the soldier as innocent victim, and in doing so distort entirely the reality of modern war, which above all is characterised by it’s ability to dehumanise and so denude ‘the other’.

It is war reduced to video game and CGI.

Fiction becomes truth- fake heroism, the vindication of our way of life in the face of despotic extremism seen in the lives of our enemy. Despite the fact that the enemy then become victim to our own despotic extremism.

Just in case you do not believe me, it is worth watching the back end of this clip-

The question is still with me- does showing our kids war films make it more likely that wars like this will not be be fought in the future?

I doubt it.

How about getting hold of a copy of the Pilger film?

That might.