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Chris McGovern: Poverty is no excuse for exam failure


One way to explain away the educational underperformance of many children is to blame it on ‘poverty’. This is the line being taken by Dr Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, in an article for The Times Educational Supplement. As a union leader, she is well versed in the dark arts of shifting blame and avoiding some inconvenient truths. She has leapt on the 2015 report of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission to denounce the Cameron government for not addressing social inequality.

Of course, she is justified in highlighting the extent to which pupils from deprived backgrounds perform comparatively poorly at school. However, the almost ritual lamentation over a lack of spending by the educational establishment is beginning wear a bit thin as an excuse for its own failures.

As a country, expenditure on education has increased by 900 per cent  in real terms since the austerity days of the 1950s. Given the Bousted argument, this should have led to a very significant improvement in pupil attainment. It has done no such thing. The 1950s were certainly not a ‘golden age’ but standards of literacy and numeracy were higher than they are today, according to the OECD. In fact, we are the only country in the developed world where grandparents out-perform their grandchildren.

The OECD has stressed, time and again, that that poverty is not an excuse for educational underachievement. And here, of course, we are talking about ‘relative’ poverty. The queues at Calais are testament to the attractions of living at the bottom of the pile in the UK.

I wonder what Dr Bousted makes of the gulf in pupil attainment between England and Vietnam. The latter is a poor country that ranks way above us in the PISA tables of international pupil attainment. Nor do most of the academically high-flying Chinese children have living standards above those we categorise as under-privileged here. Indeed, in social terms, the bottom 10 per cent of Chinese youngsters in Shanghai – the children of cleaners and shelf stackers – are out-performing the pupils of our elite schools in terms of attainment in mathematics.

What’s the secret? Effective teaching, unsurprisingly, backed up by lots of parental support! Too often, we demean the whole-class teaching methods of the Asia-Pacific educational super powers as being old-fashioned and irrelevant. In contrast, they are keen to learn from the good things we do in the classroom – in the arts, for example – and marrying those to the traditional, tried and tested methods we have long since ditched.

In addition, most parents in the Asia-Pacific place a very high value on education. I suspect that few of them will be turning up at school – ‘dropping off’ their child, attending school events or consultations with teachers – still dressed in their pyjamas. This problem has recently hit the headlines here. Nor will they demanding a right to discounted term time holidays.

Dr Bousted is right to express concern about the under-achievement in our schools of children from poor backgrounds. She needs to recognise, however, that poor parenting and inadequate teaching are much greater causes than ‘relative’ poverty.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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