Disadvantaged children need a break – not a system stacked against them

“It’s like giving some people a head start in a race and it’s your job to catch up,” says 13-year-old Kian in Generation Gifted. This month’s BBC’s series tracking social mobility through the lives of six teenagers  presented an honest, at times painful insight into the barriers facing low-income pupils. The Guardian reports. 

Several had disabled siblings or parents and had to get by on benefits. Some were in temporary accommodation waiting for social housing, and others in cramped bedrooms without enough room to study. In one particularly moving scene, Anne-Marie – who dreams of going to university to become a criminologist – paused as she Googled the cost of tuition fees. Her mum had thought a degree would cost around £500.

As Guardian columnist Dawn Foster wrote this week, the programme’s focus on social mobility for gifted pupils in some ways speaks to a regressive idea – that our energy should be put towards “saving” a chosen few bright children rather than widening opportunities for the poorest across the board. But as even that limited version of social mobility flounders, any grander aim – that poverty must not inhibit any child’s life chances – is surely being run into the ground. 

This month has seen two government policies to this effect – each of them an insight into what is currently being done to working-class young people’s futures. On Monday Theresa May announced plans to overhaul post-18 education funding – while admitting it would likely result in no extra money from the Treasury. The prime minister made nods to addressing disadvantage – that poorer students were “bearing the highest levels of debt” and Russell Group universities are disproportionately made up of private school alumni – yet her idea of lowering fees for some degrees is not only unworkable (discouraging students from taking up expensive subjects such as engineering) but blindly unfair.

Only a few days earlier, with decidedly less fanfare, children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi had announced another policy – the new eligibility rules for free school meals under universal credit. Every child whose parent claims universal credit was due to qualify from April but the government has lowered the threshold so that a family will need to earn less than £7,400 to receive help. The Children’s Society calculates this will mean one million children missing out. This is at a time when a council in Scotland has just extended free school meals outside of term time to avoid “holiday hunger” – children so desperate for a regular meal that school is the only place to get one.

These policies may seem disconnected – indeed, ministers regularly speak as if these areas of government are entirely separate – but they are unmistakably linked. Hungry children can’t concentrate in class; their growing brains can’t develop. The same families who can’t afford a hot meal for tea are the ones expected to find thousands for university living costs.

Education at its best is a solution for disadvantage: the route to skills and learning, well-paid jobs and opportunities. But at its worst the education system merely replicates and perpetuates the class inequality that already exists – pushing advantage to the already wealthy and locking disadvantaged pupils into poverty. Stagnated life chances have long plagued Britain but current policies are pushing progress backwards. For low-income young people, the odds are not simply stacked against them at birth – they are made worse by the very government that is supposed to help reduce that disadvantage.

Read the full article Disadvantaged children need a break – not a system stacked against them

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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  1. Disadvantaged children are those who exist due to poor govt policy in the first place. Stop trying to cure what should have been prevented in the first place. We need morals and marriage and family – not choices and single parents and welfare state.

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