Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this year could be the year the education system finally changes for the better? Let this be the year that all children will have genuinely equal opportunities, their backgrounds having no effect on whether or not they are able to achieve those all-important grades…
The Children’s Commission on Poverty has reported that poorer families are struggling to keep up with state school costs. It cites uniforms, trips, computers, and materials as being the items for which lower income families are struggling to stump up the cash. The testimonies of children who’ve been laughed at when their peers discover they have no internet access at home, or who feel excluded due to lack of funds for a trip are upsetting. No child should have to feel worth less because of their family’s financial situation.
Whilst reading the report, the Katie Hopkins-esque cries of “Yes but I bet they’ve all got big televisions”, or sneery, “Yes but I’ll bet little Chardonnay’s mum doesn’t skimp on her fags”, are almost audible. Such shots are as easy, inevitable, and predictable as they are unhelpful, mean, and cheap. Perhaps those highlighted in the CCP report do have cinema screen sized TVs at home; perhaps some of them do smoke or indulge in other recreational drugs; perhaps some of their children are having unprotected sex despite schools’ SRE provisions; perhaps many of them drink. Perhaps, in fact, they’re indulging in vices just like those who aren’t caught up in the poverty trap because they’re, y’know, human.
The thing is, lives will not miraculously change overnight by not participating in such pastimes …and yet these quick fixes, these morsels of instant gratification, are what offer a reality respite for just a brief while: a momentary reprieve from mundanity. People want to escape. There’s a reason the report doesn’t end “£800 spread out over a year is only £2.19 a day which is about a quarter of a pack of cigarettes so these people should just stop smoking.” Lottery tickets and booze sell better in poorer than more affluent areas because many want to see their lives change but know that escaping the poverty trap is like wading through treacle. Surviving life on a daily basis – living for today rather than waiting to see that tomorrow will just bring more of the same – becomes a realistic coping strategy.
We don’t need more reports being written about poorer families’ lack of ability to pay for children to go on trips or have a crisp, new set of uniform. We already know this situation exists. It always has, it’s just that the things that can’t be afforded change up now and again. Wouldn’t it be brilliant to have someone take charge of this who’s lived that life? Someone who’s been there, someone who can empathise with feeling completely disenfranchised, and knows what might work as an antidote because they’ve seen it from both sides? I’m happy to accept that many who enter politics do so with the aim (initially, at least) of making life better. (This sounds naïve, I know, bear with me.)But, in the same way that a well-intentioned pinnacle-of-fitness athlete who’s never so much as smoked a cigarette but has watched a lot of documentaries about drug addiction would be an utterly useless mentor for a recovering drug addict, it might be worth remembering that most MPs are privately educated millionaires from privileged backgrounds. How can they – regardless of how much data they might pore over –even begin to imagine where to start when it comes to improving state school life for underprivileged kids?
The new Teach First initiative aims to convince us that children such as hypothetical, rhetorical Rachel whom they have created for their advert can become that marine biologist despite coming from a disadvantaged background – she can’t at the moment because she is being failed by the system. They’re going to fix it. Yay! The advert doesn’t show that Rachel can’t perhaps spend as much time studying in the evenings because she’s her parents’ carer, or because she’s so scared of what’s going to happen next time dad knocks at the door as Social Services have just taken them off the At Risk list, or one of a multitude of other issues that teachers see happening in children’s lives every single day. Children aren’t failing because of teacher abandonment, as implied here. That said, if Teach First has a miracle cure for all of the above, I will happily take back every word; I would love to be wrong.
This report’s findings brought to mind Willy Russell’s 1977 play Our Day Out which tackles the issue of vulnerable schoolchildren – those whose poorer backgrounds place them in a much less advantageous situation than their more affluent counterparts. The motherly teacher’s grave speech about “being in a job that’s designed and funded to fail” echoes familiarly. Twenty years later, Russell was still debating the same issues, saying in interview, “Our headlong pursuit of ‘standards’ and the creation of successful, marketplace children, has left a terrible and ever-growing underclass of disaffected youngsters who see no hope and no place for themselves if they don’t have the right grades.” Another twenty years on, and we’re faced with this CCP report – and it’s still saying the same thing.
So come on Education Secretary, don’t allow my far too depressing vision for our kids’ future to be right. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say “Amor nos semper ducat” (your old school motto?) because I’m not convinced that things are showing signs of changing, or that people who’ve never experienced the kinds of lives being highlighted in this report (the same people who will formulate the guidelines and new tick-boxes to try to fix the situation) can possibly have a clue how to help change them.
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