Thursday, 7 November 2013

Symptoms and causes

When he says that low levels of attainment in education are linked to levels of poverty, I cannot but agree with the Education Minister.  It’s also impossible to deny the evidence that that is truer in Wales than in England, at least insofar as a simplistic definition of poverty in terms of receiving free school meals is accepted.  Nor can I disagree with his assertion that something needs to be done about all of this.
I’m left concerned though at the nature of his response, which is about ‘breaking the link between poverty and attainment’.  At first sight, it seems to be an obvious response, but it ignores the reality of the long-term failure which is staring us in the face.  It is, at best, an attempt to treat the symptoms, not the disease.
There’s nothing new about the link between social background and attainment.  It’s been studied and reported on for at least half a century.  For at least half a century, politicians have been talking about breaking the link.  And for at least half a century, they have singularly failed to do so.  Yet today’s politicians still seem to be supremely confident that they can achieve something which has defeated others for at least five decades.
It is, of course, much easier to talk about breaking the link than it is to talk about addressing the underlying causes.  And given the average life span of a minister, it’s a pretty safe assumption that it will become someone else’s problem in a few years’ time.  None of that stands up as much of an excuse, though.
The first simple fact is that, if social background is one of the main determinants of attainment, then improving attainment depends on reducing those differences in social background.  And the second is that there is no way of doing that without addressing inequality.  There was a time when one might have expected an understanding of that from a Labour politician.

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