The government appears to be committed to eradicating child poverty. However, in real terms, since the start of the recession, the number of children in poverty in the UK has increased. Childhood poverty increases the risk for children to become, among other things, low educational achievers. This in turn increases their risk of unemployment or low paid jobs as adults perpetuating the cycle of deprivation (Lewis, 2010)
For many years research has suggested that education plays a major role in breaking the cycle of deprivation. Research reviewed suggested that low educational achievement was the common denominator for adults now living in poverty and argues that only major investment in the education sector could reduce or break the cycle of deprivation. Fifteen years on from this article and research is still suggesting that there is a high correlation between low educational achievement and adult poverty (Timmins, 1995)
However, the link between low educational achievement and poverty is not a phenomenon of the 21st century. The gap between rich and poor and educational achievement was first highlighted by Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree over 100 years ago in 1901(Joseph Rowntree, 2011).
A government white paper published in 2005 linked poor educational achievement to a child's parent's social and economic background. The white paper also suggested that poverty was also a barrier to social mobility (Blanden and McNally S, 2008). Therefore children were unlikely to climb the social ladder unless they achieved better qualifications than their parents. However, what is not taken into account is the fact that these children may come from deprived areas with little chance of escaping the cycle of deprivation with which they have grown up.
In order to ensure the British economy flourishes it is necessary to provide children with skills and qualifications to enable them to become productive members of society. However, as previously mentioned, the gap of educational achievement between the lowest and highest socio-economic group has changed very little in the last 100 years. However, it could be said that much of the research and data applied to this principle is dated and the most current data is not detailed enough to provide the most accurate results. Research seems to be limited to looking at one or two factors involving poverty, such as those eligible for free school meals or ethnic origin. More in-depth data covering all of the factors related to poverty need to be researched and combined to give a clearer picture of the way in which different forms of human capital e.g.: social, cultural and economic, interact to affect a child's life chances. More detailed research such as this although time consuming must surely be needed in order for the government to make informed choices on the best strategies and policies to use in order to determine how serious a barrier to educational attainment poverty actually is. Blanden and McNally (2008) agree that the most current data in 2008 from the Department of Education and Skills (DfES) did indicate that the gap between poverty and educational achievement had changed very little whilst Labour had been in power. This suggests that initiatives such as Sure Start and New deal had had very little impact on improving the prospects of children and adults alike or of breaking the cycle of deprivation and alleviating poverty.
Blanden and McNally (2008) give various options which they feel would help to lessen the attainment gap. These include; redistribution of wealth, increasing opportunities for disadvantaged children to go to the best schools, directing resources to schools attended by a high proportion of disadvantaged children and encouraging highest quality teaching practices. Some of these options will be discussed later.
There are many factors and indictors associated with low educational achievement. Children eligible for free school meals are most likely to come from low income families. However research and data using this indicator could be considered unreliable as there may be many parents who are unwilling or unable to apply for free school meals (FSM). This may be due to the stigma attached to children who receive FSM. This may be more predominant in secondary school where children may be bullied because they are considered too poor to buy their own food by their peers. Another reason maybe that English is not the first language of the child's parents and therefore they cannot read or fill in the forms. Neighbourhood unemployment rates are another factor associated with low educational achievement. High areas of unemployment are most likely to be occupied by families caught in the cycle of deprivation. There may be more than one generation of the family who has never been gainfully employed. Recent figures supplied by the Office of National Statistics shows that in the North east of England a quarter of household has no working member in the family. Nationwide 3.9 million households contain families where no one has a job. This includes &.3 million children who have no 'working' role model in their lives. These figures reveal that the United Kingdom has the highest number of children living in workless families in the EU (Groves, 2010).
The Labour Government did introduce policies, programs and strategies in an attempt to reduce child poverty and eradicate it by 2020. However, some of the strategies and programs initiated have failed. For example; The National literacy Strategy, although initially successful has now thought to have reached a plateau. Policies were put in place to ensure children with special educational needs and looked after children received an education suitable to their needs. However, these are not always put into practice and therefore fail those it is designed to help. Targets, in particular GCSE league table have an adverse effect on low achievers as the majority of resources are aimed at those most likely to succeed (Cassen and Kingdon, 2007).
The Child Poverty Action Group(2011) argue that despite record levels of per-pupil spending and wide ranging educational reforms the attainment gap widens as children progress through the education system. The CPAG suggest that government policy is focused on the wrong areas. Rather than management structures, discipline and school ownership government policy should focus on the areas which further hinder the education of already disadvantaged children. They suggests areas such as focusing resources on the most disadvantaged, reducing educational inequalities, redistribution of wealth through local authorities, raising family income and more support for families. However, these issues must be balanced against needs of all children in the school and wider society. By focusing the majority of resources on those children deemed to be living in poverty, there is a risk that resources and support will be lessened for those considered to be average or gifted. This in turn could mean that these children will start failing and so a vicious cycle would begin. All children need the resources and support necessary to achieve as best they possible can and therefore equality must also be the focus to ensure the best education possible for all.
However, as the focus of the report by the CPAG is on reducing poverty and improving educational achievement for the most disadvantaged they suggest five changes which the government need to focus on to achieve this. The five changes are;
Ensuring families have enough money to pay for the extra-curricular activities that only the richer families may be able to afford such as school trips and after school clubs. They also argue that poorer children are more likely to go to school more tired and hungry than others which can lead to "disengagement from the educational process".
The CPAG believe that "homes fit for learning" should be a priority for the government. They argue that lack of resources in the home, temporary accommodation and constant house moves disrupt a child's ability to learn.
The UK education system is supposed to be free. However, music lessons, revision guides and extra-curricular activities are all paid for by parents. However this puts poorer children at a disadvantage to their richer peers as they often cannot afford them. The CPAG believes that the government needs to ensure that all children have access to a "genuinely free education" so that poorer children are not "stigmatized or excluded from any school based activities". However, the introduction of "genuinely free schools" could lead to schools dropping all extra-curricular activities as the school budget could not afford to pay for every child. This would be disadvantageous to all children as they would no longer be able to attend activities which enrich their curriculum.
Child poverty produces delivers challenges for schools and those who work in them. The government needs to ensure that teachers have the "skills, training and specialist support needed to cope with these challenges.
Finally the CPAG propose "good schools for all". Poor children should not be excluded from 'good' schools and there should be more parental choice. Educational inequality further disadvantages poor children and every school should be accessible to all. However, this could be logistically impossible. Poo children are often living in areas of high unemployment in widespread council estates. The cycle of deprivation may go back for one or even two generations. The schools most local to these areas have difficulty employing and retaining the best teachers and the teachers who do work in these areas may become disengaged from the learning process themselves when they appear to make little or no progress with the children they are teaching.
New Labours commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2010 resulted in the 'Child Poverty Act 2010'. This act included four targets which need to be met by 2020. However the target for halving child poverty by 2010/11 has not been met. The act includes reducing child poverty strategies. The Secretary of State had to consider a series of steps or 'building blocks' when deciding if measures should be taken in any particular area. These steps are:
Parental employment and skills
Financial support for children and parents
Information, advice and assistance to parents and promotion of parenting skills
Physical and mental health, education and social services
Housing, the built and natural environment and the promotion of social inclusion (Kennedy, 2010)
However, Kennedy (2010) suggests that these steps and the child poverty act in general may not be an effective way to hold government to account or if the act would even make a difference to child poverty. This report also contains a statement from the conservatives, who were not in power at the time the act was passed, on the steps that they would take improve child poverty. Their four target areas were to be; family breakdown, addiction with an emphasis on rehabilitation, education and skills including a pupil premium and a work strategy. From recent media reports it appears that the new coalition government has now began to implement these ideas. Iain Duncan Smith has said that New Labours Existing policies had failed and revealed "the need for fundamental radical reform" which the coalition government would waste no time in implementing (Kennedy, 2010). The Coalition are committed to tackling the root causes of poverty and disadvantage. Their poverty reduction strategy will be based around a review of poverty undertaken by Frank Fields and the work of Graham Allen on early intervention. The strategy will focus on fairness and improving opportunities and the chances of social mobility. Pattern which lead to poor children becoming poor adults will also be addressed. This would include working on family breakdown, jobless parents and children's under achievement in education. One of the main provisions to be put in place to tackle this under achievement is the pupil premium. This is to be introduced by the coalition this year (2011) in an attempt to address the problem of children from disadvantaged continuing to be at a disadvantage at school. The pupil premium will ensure extra funding is in place to provide poorer children with the same opportunities as their richer peers. Children will also receive extra support where necessary. It is hoped that the pupil premium will offset the social background of poor children and raise their educational attainment and in doing so help to lessen the gap between rich and poor children (DfE, 2010).
The coalition has also introduced more immediate measures to improve life chances and reduce child poverty. These include the integrated work program to help the long term unemployed, increases in child tax credits and supporting vulnerable families (DfE, 2010b). The independent review by Fields (2010) leans towards the early years ("womb to 5") being the most important time for intervention as "children from poor backgrounds do worse cognitively and behaviourally than those from more affluent backgrounds". The report lists other areas of concern such as family background, parenting skills and parental education and implies that support services will be implemented to address these concerns. However, these services may not be accessible to those who are in most need. If the support centers are not within walking distance there may be a problem with transport costs. Cultural believes may mean that parents are unable to attend, many have English as a second language and therefore may not even know the services exist and those with physical or mental difficulties may also find these services inaccessible.
Field (2010) suggests that hat there is not enough evidence to prove that labour's policies and programs such as sure start, new deal and tax credits worked to alleviate poverty or that they were cost effective. He therefore makes two main recommendations to break the cycle of deprivation. The first is to make equal life outcomes for all children and the second is the emphasis on the foundation years program. Field states that these initiatives will "enable parents to achieve aspirations that they have for their children".
However, this statement and recommendations to not take into account that parents caught in a cycle of deprivation that could have already lasted for two generations, may not have any aspirations for themselves or their children. There are many factors involved which are associated with poverty such as depression, substance abuse which affects people's judgment. The measures do not take into account looked after children and unaccompanied refugees who do not have parents to guide them.
In conclusion, educational achievement is affected by many factors; however, poverty seems to be a major concern.
Blanden, J and McNally, S. (2008) CPAG (Online) CPAG. Available from: http://www.cpag.org.uk/info/Povertyarticles/Poverty123/gap.htm (Accessed 24/11/2010)
Cassen, R and Kingdon, G (2007) Tackling Low Educational Achievement (Online) Available from: www.jrf.org.uk (Accessed on 20/12/2010)
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