‘Saving’ the ‘bright but poor’

25th May 2012

The tragedy of this country’s appalling social mobility and of the disgraceful link between socio-economic background and educational attainment is not just that the top 10% (educationally) are so dominated by the richest but what happens amongst the other 9 deciles. It’s not by “rescuing” a few poor kids so that the quads of Oxford echo with a few more accents that we will have dealt with educational disadvantage. Yes, access to top universities should be equitable, but sending a handful of poor kids to Oxbridge whilst leaving tens of thousands of other disadvantaged pupils trundling into adulthood with Es or Us, disproportionately high chances of going to prison, and a reduced life expectancy would not mean we had created social mobility or equality.
The privileged classes are duping themselves if they think that their missionary zeal in ‘rescuing’ the ‘deserving poor’ approximates in any way to genuine social justice or mobility. When it comes down to it, is selecting a few bright kids for special attention on programmes to access top universities all that different to creaming off the top through grammar schools? Ok it happens later than an 11+ and don’t get me wrong- I’m not arguing that these programs aren’t worthwhile (I’ve been head of Gifted and Talented and think it’s a critical area- I’m even planning a workshop on Oxford this weekend!) but the value of G&T programs is that they are part of offering all pupils personalised support matched to their ability. They are not the magic bullet that will suddenly make this country equal.
I love the focus on teachers having high expectations and it’s great that fantastic schools and teachers are helping pupils from every background achieve top grades. But let’s not forget that the bulk of the link between socio-economic background and educational achievement is not made up of pupils on Bs who could be getting A*s or students going to lower tier Universities who could have gone to Oxbridge- what about the half of pupils who don’t go to university at all! I fear our obsession with “bright but poor kids” means we’re starting to forget about the pupils who are getting Es, Fs, Gs and Us, who struggle with lives as young carers, who are out on the streets at night or who struggle with profound mental health problems. Yes, a fantastic school might help them get into Oxbridge- but there might be a few other things we could help them with too.