Education and Poverty: Lessons For America From the UK

A Policy Exchange report will confirm fears that, by the time they enter school, children from deprived backgrounds are already disadvantaged compared to their wealthier counterparts. Child-care providers in poorer areas are less likely to have received a good OFSTED results; employees in these nurseries typically have lower qualifications. It is nothing new, but the findings reinvigorate an old debate: how can we change a system in which life prospects seem to be pre-determined from birth?

Early discrepancies have far-reaching effects. A study in 2011 found that children offered FSM (free school meals) were four times more likely to be excluded indefinitely, which in turn increased their chances of entering prison custody. It is more probable that the richest children will get good exam results (2011: 75% of the wealthiest versus 21% of the poorest obtained 5 A*-C GCSEs) and go on to university (2011: 96% of UK independent school students against 16% of those entitled to FSM).

During recession, child poverty worsens. From 2008 to 2011, the percentage of children in workless households went up by two percentage points in Wales and Scotland. Projections from the Institute of Fiscal Studies suggest that 400,000 more children in the UK will live in poverty by 2015/16 in comparison to 2010/11. And so the cycle continues: more poor children, less educational success, fewer opportunities for well paid work.

However, imagining student performance to be pre-determined is in itself harmful. In one study (Tizard and Hughes: 1984), teachers used easier terms and questions when talking to girls from the working-class. Another (Gillborn and Youdell: 2000) showed that some schools prioritised staff resources for underachievers, but not for those judged to be "without hope": a group containing a disproportionate number of FSM pupils. Time and again, teachers, mostly unconsciously, were treating students as an extension of their social class rather than as individuals; in the process, they were lowering their expectations.

It is not time to despair. Carrying out research in 1982, Hartley discovered that children generally seen to be "difficult" studied in a much more efficient and focused way when asked to take on the role of “someone clever.” In another investigation (2000), Carol Dweck highlighted how much more motivated students were when they believed they could affect their learning themselves.

Aspiration is vital if young people from deprived backgrounds are to break with the pattern predicted for them. Initiatives such as Teach First reflect how much difference the introduction of inspirational teachers can make. New staff transformed Uxbridge High School, where they increased the proportion of pupils getting 5 A*-C GCSEs to 90% in 2011 (up from 29% in 2003). Indeed, faith in the power of this approach led Teach First’s founder, Brett Wigdotz, to state that eradicating limits on aspiration is the pillar of the organisation’s 2022 educational strategy.

Schools cannot act in isolation. The state can provide help to alleviate the worst effects of living in deprivation. Families can be challenged to look beyond their own experiences. Nonetheless, it is fundamental for poorer students’ success that they believe themselves to be capable of it. For this, teachers and parents must instill young people with a simple yet crucial message: aspire to change.