Poverty in Society: What role for schools?

5th August 2014

In his blog, the author argues that there is more to poverty than quantitative differences in pupil performance and circumstances:
“This ‘gap-focus’ is only presenting half of the picture of what poverty means. In comparing the haves/have nots, we focus on the quantitative differences rather than the qualitative differences which are more akin to the lived experience of poverty”
Some saw the blog as reason to dismiss the gap-closing agenda as a smoke screen for continuing inequality. @acet2001, for example, suggested that the “whole pupil premium agenda is a con designed to shunt blame onto schools”. However my position is somewhere in the middle- there is more to poverty than educational inequality but that does not make ‘gap-closing’ any less important.
Classroom Truths’ argument raises (at least) two important points:
1. Even if gaps were fully closed and educational outcomes were no longer determined by pupils’ socio-economic circumstances, pupils’ lives would still be very different and unfairly so; living in overcrowded housing and counting the pennies for meals is unfair and no fun, whether or not you have a string of A*s to your name. Reductionism about lived poverty is insulting.
2. Even if a school pulls out all the stops to equalise educational outcomes something is still not right if disadvantaged pupils can only achieve these outcomes by spending holidays in literacy-boosting summer-schools and after-school revision classes whilst more advantaged peers sun themselves in Tuscany and are picked up from school for pony club. Why should some socio-economic groups have to do more to achieve the same?
Classroom Truths is therefore right to remind us about unequal circumstances and experiences. However this doesn’t make addressing unequal educational outcomes any less important. Nor does it make pupil premium (for example) any less useful and important. Many schools have ‘closed the (attainment) gap’, showing it is possible. These schools’ pupils will have more opportunities in the future (even if the odds remain unfairly stacked against them) and over the generations, these pupils’ families will face different circumstances and have different experiences. I don’t think this is a zero sum game where every Mossbourne pupil who gets an A* takes away another pupils’ opportunity. Education (and ‘gap closing’) therefore remain crucial engines for fairness in the long-run. 
Classroom Truths still has three important points to make:
  • “The exceptional upward mobility of a minority of pupils” is not enough to make a system fair, indeed, it is often used to justify persistent inequality. Beneficiaries of ‘assisted places’ and ‘grammar schools’ who argue for these systems as engines of mobility are a case in point. ‘Mobility’ for the minority through education is not enough.
  • Even if the link between educational (exam) outcomes and socio-economic outcomes were completely broken, young people’s life chances would still be affected by socio-economic factors because they result in unequal social and cultural capital (for example).
  • Even with full ‘mobility’, if society remained deeply unequal, the experiences of those who ended up in extreme poverty would be damaging regardless of whether intergenerational educational inequality caused it or not. The effect needs dealing with, not just the cause.
The fight against poverty will only be won when no-one experiences the distressing effects of poverty. As Classroom Truths argues, great education should not let society ‘off the hook’ when it comes to inequality; schools cannot and should not take on the whole burden of the fight for social justice. Yet some schools contribute to the fight more than others and now is not the time to stop pushing all of them to do everything possible to help.