How effective can Gove's school reforms be if the government fails to tackle child poverty?

Allan Beavis's picture
There has been much fighting talk from Education Secretary Michael Gove in recent weeks, perhaps to quash increasing criticism of his education policies and to give some much needed spin to the ideologies that he is convinced will raise standards in our schools. According to him, anyone who opposes his reforms are happy with failure and this attitude is typical of the disease poisoning the schools reform debate as it immediately invites polarisation – if you are not with me, you are against me.

This need for reassurance and reinforcement may betray a flash of impatience towards his critics but it also hints at some discomfort that the efficacy of his policies are being more robustly questioned and a harsh light is being shone on them, exposing the flaws in his ideology.

The campaign in Tottenham resisting Michael Gove’s enforced academisation of Downhills Primary School has found itself on the front line of resistance to the government’s policy of centralised decision making, mandatory obedience and creeping privatisation of state funded schools. Haringey also has harrowingly high levels of social deprivation but both Labour and the coalition’s response to the overwhelming challenges Haringey have faced is to play the blame game, inflict punishment and turn way from tackling the underlying problems.

All authoritative reports on schools and education systems, whether national or global, are clear that children from the poorest families start school far behind their wealthier peers and that this inequality will continue into adulthood. This is why politicians and educationalists sell schools policies with promise to help the poor get a better start in life. In Finland, in the 80s, this is exactly what they did, by first tackling and eradicating socio-economic inequalities. Britain, however, like its counterpart America, has not tackled poverty so it is unlikely that the rhetoric of transforming schools, school choice, Academies, Free Schools, tougher Ofsted inspections, league tables, endless tests, teaching to the test and so on is going to help raise aspiration amongst those caught in the spiral of low aspiration and deprivation.

Buried amongst the Christmas cheer was some depressing news which betrayed the mendacity lurking behind the government’s bombast. In October, David Cameron told the Commons that the government was “protecting” the schools budget and per-pupil funding as well as boosting schools funds with the pupil premium. A year before that, Michael Gove vowed to “protect the frontline” but the frontline is already being hit and it is the most vulnerable children and young people who are taking the brunt of the cuts.

There is no money for essential repairs for schools that are no longer fit for the purpose of modern education. In one school in Coventry, £3.8m is needed for urgent repairs. They were given just £9,000 to tackle premises besieged by damp, cold, a leaking roof and flooding toilets, all affecting the health and safety of the children. This is not a one-off but is a fact of life and teaching in many schools up and down the country.

Schools are being forced to drastically cut budgets for new books, resources, staff development, debating clubs, theatre trips, nurseries, play schemes, after-school clubs, sport, art and music. Schools are ending or cutting funds for one-to-one tuition for pupils falling behind in reading, writing and maths.

In the current economic climate and at a time of record unemployment, with a lost generation of over 1 million young people between 16 and 24 (that’s 1 in 5) out of work and with little prospect of finding employment, teenagers need more careers help than ever, but cuts mean that careers advice services in schools is becoming virtually non-existent.

None of the cuts will affect the tiny minority still able to send their children to private schools. The wealthier middle classes in the state school system may feel the pinch and make some cuts here and there but cash can be still found for theatre trips, book buying, tutoring costs, violin lessons but the poor have been abandoned and their plight held in contempt by the mendacity of Cameron, Gove and Osborne.

In June 2010, Osborne delivered his “emergency” budget, declaring that despite the drastic austerity measures to tackle the deficit, he would keep up the battle against child poverty. In November this year, he abandoned that promise by dipping into the pockets of some of Britain’s poorest families by reneging on his pledge to increase the child element of the working tax credit by £110 above inflation thus saving the government £1bn a year and allocating it towards paying for a rash of public building projects and a fuel duty freeze. Analysis by the Resolution Foundation shows that the burden of these changes will fall overwhelmingly on the bottom end of the earning distribution, with the poorest 30% bearing as much as half of the cost.

By the time Labour left office, it was off track to hit the totemic target of eliminating child poverty by 2020. Osborne’s response to a deficit cause by the irresponsible greed of the financial services industry deregulated under Margaret Thatcher has actually increased child poverty, by the Treasury’s own admission, by 100,000. That figure can be added to the 300,000 that the Institute of Fiscal Studies had already expected to join the numbers of poor children from Osborne’s previous cuts. In the latest report by the IFS, relative child poverty is set to increase between 2010–11 and 2015–16 by around 400,000, and absolute child poverty (as defined in the Child Poverty Act (2010)) will increase between 2010–11 and 2015–16 by around 500,000.

Meanwhile, not one penny was taken from the top 10% of earners. 12,000 tax collectors are losing their jobs while some £25bn is evaded and £70bn avoided. At a time of national emergency, not a word of rebuke from Osborne about the responsibility of the rich not to dodge taxes, little to curb the excesses of banking bonuses but plenty of vitriol from Gove attacking the very schools challenged with teaching the children that his government has further impoverished.

In December, the OECD announced that income inequality among working-age persons has risen faster in the United Kingdom than in any other OECD country since 1975. It recommended that:

“Employment is the most promising way of tackling inequality. The biggest challenge is creating more and better jobs that offer good career prospects and a real chance to people to escape poverty”

“Investing in human capital is key. This must begin from early childhood and be sustained through compulsory education” and

“The provision of freely accessible and high-quality public services, such as education, health, and family care, is important.”

The Tory-led coalition is doing none of these things whilst encouraging a two tiered education system in which the most able and advantaged will have access to better education at the same time as lining the pockets or ambitions of profit making companies, sponsors and philanthropists. Meanwhile, the less able and poor will be abandoned to an even bleaker future where the few jobs that are available are going to those that Gove’s education system has favoured from the outset.

The release a few weeks ago of 1981 cabinet papers revealed a Tory plot under Thatcher to manage the decline of Liverpool. It is tempting to see that what we are witnessing now is the managed decline of state education as we know it. The Tories’ relentless attacks on the public sector, on unions, on the poor, on education are as reminiscent of the Thatcher years as is their restoration of class privilege and social division. In fact, Cameron, Gove and Osborne are presiding over deeper cuts, more far-reaching privatisation of public services, rampant inequality and social breakdown than even the Iron Lady herself managed.

Immediately after the summer riots, Cameron went on the attack, blaming gang culture. Inconveniently for him, careful research afterwards showed that most of those arrested were from deprived backgrounds, had been excluded from schools, had special educational needs. The cuts affect this community most and will cut them further adrift into hopelessness and crime. Just as Thatcher did, the current crop of Tories is destroying communities, creating mass unemployment, redistributing from poor to rich and selecting and segregating children from primary school onwards. Thatcher imposed a neoliberal model now seen to have failed across the world but so long as the City, individual greed and the ruling elite are protected it doesn’t seem as if they much care.
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Janet Lallysmith's picture
Wed, 18/01/2012 - 20:48

No, they don't care and they don't even care how obvious it is.

Regarding education, there is a very, very high correlation between educational attainment (as measured by SATs and GCSEs) and FSM in Performance Table position. But still they berate teachers and bemoan the 'failure' of UK schools.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 19/01/2012 - 08:39

There is a strong correlation between disadvantaged background and attainment, so says evidence from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Globally, all pupils, whether disadvantaged or advantaged, tend to do worse in a school with a large number of disadvantaged pupils. At the same time, all pupils, whether disadvantaged or advantaged, tend to do better in a school with a majority of advantaged students.

This was confirmed in a report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies which found that a school's results are influenced by its intake. Similarly, research by the Education Endowment Fund found that all students tend to perform worse when in a school with a large number of pupils eligible for free school meals.

Research finds repeatedly that socio-economic background influences attainment - but there are things that can be done to help disadvantaged children. The OECD (the organisation responsible for PISA) finds that the best-performing school systems tend to be those that are most equitable - they do not segregate children according to ability or neighbourhoods. This would suggest that a fully-comprehensive system such as operates in Finland, the top-performing European country in PISA, would be one way to improve results. The OECD suggested strategies for raising the attainment of disadvantaged children including lengthening the amount of time that students spend learning a particular subject; encouraging adult immigrants, particularly mothers, to learn the language of the host country and speak it at home; stressing the importance of reading; having high aspirations; targeting resources where they are most needed, and investing in pre-school education.

There is a further strategy: lifting families out of poverty.

A TES article highlighted research which showed a correlation between unemployment and truancy. If parents have no job and stay at home all day this makes it more likely that a child will truant.

References and further reading: (page 455)

"Reforming the English Education System" in OECD Economic Survey of the UK 2011. Not available freely on-line but details of how to obtain a copy are here:,3746,en_2649_34569_47283558_1_1_1_1,00...

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 19/01/2012 - 14:08

Even minor differences between children’s home lives can have a significant impact on pre-school development, says a report from the Resolution Foundation which featured in TES (13 Jan 2012).

The analysts rated households by their before-tax household income* as follows: low (£10,900), low to middle (£21,800) and high (£52,600). They found that the vocabulary age of a five year old varied with children with a high household income having a vocabulary age of 5.7, low to middle income 5.2 years, and low income 4.6 years.

Although family income was a large factor, two slightly larger factors were parental education and home learning environment. However, as higher-paid jobs tend to go to those with a high level of education this is not surprising. And the higher the level of education, the more likely is the parent to offer a home environment conducive to learning. The analysts found that 75% of the children in the high income group were read to daily at age three, compared with 62% of the low to middle income group. The article did not give the percentage of children being read to in the low income group.

The researchers concluded that when parents are “squeezed for resources of both time and money” then their children will develop intellectually at a slower rate than more advantaged children. This results in their already being behind when they start school. (article only, graphs not included)

*equivalised for household size

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