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


Modern fairy tales…

…stories are always important. Even in an age of communication overload.

In fact, perhaps they are even more important now- the ones that mean something that is. The ones that are not manufactured- squeezed through the entertainment machine, shrink wrapped. We can recognise all the big-brother-X-Factor-Britain’s-got-talent stuff for what it is- mindless twaddle to inoculate our Saturday nights. But then along comes Susan Boyle, and we all scramble to share the story.

Our stories say so much about who we are, who we wish we might become, and what we value along the way. I suppose this was always true- the stories collected by Hans Christian Anderson were the same. They come to define us- they unite us in a common understanding of the world.

There is a way of understanding stories as underlying narratives that shape our culture and our humanity. So we are who we are because of the story that we were born into, and we find ourselves acting as characters within this story. The degree to which any of us change this narrative according to our own choices is a matter for debate.

But enough of all this, time to tell a story. It is ‘true’- in the sense that it is based on something true, but not in the sense that it is absolutely accurate. That is not the purpose of stories. Neither are they meant to steal from the people who are contained within them. The characters in this story are free-

There was a school in a small town near where I live. It was an ordinary school, full of an ordinary mix of young people learning how to be old people. It was full of chatter and laughter and the bubbling of stewing humanity.

For some, the place was a stage on which they acted, reciting lines with growing confidence.

For others, it was a dark forest full of dangers. Each corridor a mass of thorns. The school yard belonged to wild animals hunting in packs.

And in this ordinary school, the teachers, with the best of intentions, decided to hold a talent show. Notices were posted, names gathered, egos bristled and the stage was prepared for great things.

So it was that on the appointed day, the show began. The recreation hall was full, and although most kids learn cynicism and scorn much more readily than algebra, it was a welcome break from the classroom and so there was an excited buzz in the air.

Violins screeched. Chanters howled. Dancers of a variety of shapes and sizes danced. Some had far too much confidence for their levels of ability, some were entirely the other way round. All had this in common- they were backed by their supportive group- they represented their ‘tribe’. They each represented a constituency.

Apart from one.

She was not well known, and not understood at all. She managed to always be at the edge of things, unnoticed.     Her school work was always completed, and averagely correct. Her school uniform was standard, if never stylish. Her hair was pump-water straight, and she wore heavy glasses as if to complete a disguise.

So it was, when she stood at the edge of the stage, there was a gasp, then some giggles. Unkindness is such common currency.

A perspiring deputy head teacher, also looking strangely bemused, stepped up to the microphone. “Ahem…” he said “Please put your hands together for Alice Smith, who is going to sing ‘Take me home country roads‘.”

The sniggering grew louder. Like the release of a gas valve, the whispers spread. What was she going to sing? Did she not know any decent songs? Who does she think she is anyway? Look at those shoes/that hair/the state of her.

But the teacher was not done “Alice has asked me to say that this song was the favourite song of her late father (ahem) who sadly (ahem) passed away a few weeks ago.”

The whispers ceased and silence opened like a cave as someone cued a crackly backing track.

I would like to tell you that Alice sang like a cross between an angel and a rock star, but this was not so. Her voice wavered in an out of the sound mix as her shaking hand moved the microphone around. She was for the most part in tune, but sang with a thin reedy voice.

Somewhere into the first chorus, her throat closed itself off into a sob. She tried to keep going, but the words came out in bursts and gasps, until she could sing no more. The backing track played on, and the hall was frozen mid breath.

Then in the middle of the audience, a girl stood up and started to sing.

Another girl joined her- then a boy. Then another and another. Eventually the whole room was full of children singing ‘Take me home, country roads, to the place where I belong, West Virginia, mountain momma, take me home, country roads…’ The saccharine sweetness of the words took on Shakespearean grandeur.

Something happened in that room. Many were openly weeping.

And God smiled a wide smile.

Protesting Shakespeare…

My daughter often tells me stories about her school that make my eyebrows shoot up.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not likely to go all 1970’s and say ‘It was not like that in MY day.’ I went to an experimental community school, where all sorts of unorthodox educational theories were tested out (and some of them found wanting!) I was interested to note that the website of the school today makes no mention of it’s radical background.

I mention this, as some of Emily’s accounts of her current schooling still leave me rather puzzled and concerned. Here is a sample-

The kids were shown ‘Braveheart‘ in history- as a way of understanding Scottish-English history. Now even accepting that most of the Scottish establishment loves to have a go at all things English, to suggest that the story portrayed in this film has even a passing resemblance to history is stretching it some, wouldn’t you say? Rather like learning about the dinosaurs by watching the Flintstones.

Then there is English literature. The chosen books for were Harry Potter, and one of the Philip Pullman series. Fine romping entertainment- but literature? Give the teachers their due- some kids simply do not read any more, so starting with something easily digested is not a bad thing… but today, they began talking about Shakespeare. Like generations of kids before them, the kids suggested that Shakespeare was boring. And when they learnt he was English, they all booed. The teacher told them not to worry as they were going to study the worlds greatest ever poet, Rabbie Burns soon.

Now I am not planning to argue about who the worlds greatest poet is/was, and even though I am no great fan of Burns, I am happy to concede that he is in the mix.

But I so hope that narrow prejudice will not be reinforced in our schools, and that my kids will be enthused by teachers who have a love for beautiful inspiring words.

So, by way of my little protest- here is a little Shakespeare (from one of Hamlets hugely cynical speaches)…

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—
nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 303–312

Merciful heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Splits the unwedgeable and gnarlèd oak
Than the soft myrtle; but man, proud man,
Dress’d in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d—
His glassy essence—like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.

Measure For Measure Act 2, scene 2, 114–123