Growing up in poverty seriously damages your education. This is well known, of course, but new research funded by the Joseph Rowntree Trust provides important new findings and shows how New Labour policies are partly to blame.
Three quarters of pupils poor enough to be on free meals have very low achievement at school – a shocking figure after ten years of New Labour initiatives.
Half of pupils who are on free school meals and are doing well at the end of primary school fall behind during secondary.
Unfortunately some newspapers have tried to create a black-white divide, arguing that white pupils are particularly disadvantaged at school.
This is a distortion of Robert Cassen and Geeta Kingdon’s careful research. For example, their report shows that African Caribbean boys have a very high chance of growing up in deprived areas, but face additional problems as well as poverty, especially at secondary school.
It shows that many Asian pupils do better by age 16 than 11, because their English takes time to develop. Bangladeshi pupils, especially girls, do far better than you would expect given poverty and parents’ education, because of strong family support.
None of this shows that white working-class pupils are more disadvantaged than black and Asian pupils. Poverty damages your chance of success whatever your colour.
The researchers also show that boys are doing worse than girls overall, but do not join the chorus of politicians who condemn young people.
The report states, “The anti-education culture may be something boys take refuge in, something that gives them an alternative identity, placing value and self-esteem in things other than those offered at school.
“A key issue could be the lack of forms of education that engage every child – and make them feel good about themselves and the place they are studying in.”
For example, teenagers often say they like doing a course at the nearby college because it feels more adult and they are “shown more respect”.
As well as family poverty, growing up in a neighbourhood where there is widespread unemployment or deprivation is an important factor.
The report also shows that policies of “choice” which concentrate poorer pupils into particular secondary schools are damaging.
It shows that pupils doing less well in primary school are more likely to end up in low-achieving secondary schools.
It argues that league tables and target-setting based on five A-C grades encourage schools to neglect the most disadvantaged. It leads schools to concentrate efforts on those who are just below the A-C level.
Tony Blair has worked to increase the number of “faith schools”, but this report shows that church schools do no better than other comprehensives, once you adjust for family background.
The report shows failings in the system for helping pupils identified with special needs. Often there is a two year delay before extra resources and teaching are agreed.
It argues that poverty exacerbates special needs, because better off families are more able to help their children if the system lets them down.
It also condemns the serious neglect of children in care. A third of children in care attend three or more different secondary schools, and a quarter have six or more different homes during that time.
This report is not just a catalogue of problems. It also points the way to improvement.
Firstly it insists on the need to deal with poverty – extra income and benefits do make a difference. It shows the importance of smaller classes and money for books and resources, especially for the most deprived.
It argues that all pupils who succeed against the odds identify an important adult influence, whether a teacher or family member, so schools should work more closely with families.
The report identifies problems with many government strategies, including the literacy hour. It demands one-to-one tuition for any child who is failing to learn to read.
Poor reading and writing have a long-term effect through secondary school and into adult life. It shows that parents who read to young children make a big difference, whatever the poverty level.
The government could be providing more help, including book and toy libraries and encouraging nursery schools to work with parents.
Terry Wrigley is a lecturer in educational development at Edinburgh University and the author of Another School is Possible, £6.99, available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, phone 020 7637 1848 or go to » www.bookmarks.uk.com