Years ago, when I was a teacher in the UK, the “problem” areas where there seemed to be huge issues in achievement were the inner-city schools, where these issues were blamed on high levels of ESL students who underperformed on the tests. I did my teaching practice at an inner city school in Leeds and it was a bit of a shock to the system, even growing up as I did in East London. However recent reports that I’ve been reading have shown that inner-city schools are doing much better in the UK now, and it’s the schools in “poor white areas” that are facing problems. This is not an issue with language: in fact children from poor Indian, Pakistani, African and Caribbean families do much better than white British children in similar areas of disadvantage. I was interested to find out that in central London, fewer than 1 in 5 primary school children is now categorised as “white British”, and of those I’m guessing the working class is an even smaller number. The “problem areas” have therefore shifted.
During the week I was reading a BBC report about league tables and how these are unfair to schools in white working-class areas. It states that white working-class boys have the lowest rates of university entry of any group in the UK. Some time ago I was reading in the Guardian about Jaywick, a coastal town in Essex, being the most deprived English neighbourhood, and incidentally the first place in the UK to elect a UKIP MP (I’m sure there’s a connection). The deprived areas of the UK are no longer inner-cities – they are the rural and coastal areas.
As students move from primary to secondary, the impact of deprivation grows. Less well-educated parents are less able to help with homework, and many are not supportive of schools, having had a negative experience with schools themselves. Gaps in vocabulary are also more obvious at a secondary level, and families are less interested in looking into options for university. The situation may get worse when Ofsted intervenes, school leaders lose their jobs and it becomes even harder to recruit teachers to these schools.
Now clearly, living in India, there is no comparison at all between levels of poverty in our inner-city slums and white working-class areas of the UK. But talking to some of our NGOs who work in these slum schools, perhaps there is something that can be learned. For example, there is no inevitable link between poverty and low achievement in school. It’s much more to do with low aspirations and negative attitudes towards education. Perhaps in India there are actually more aspirations – there are a huge number of service jobs here and Indians themselves are very industrious, with people setting up small businesses on every pavement that serve their local community (shoe repair, sewing, tea making, snacks etc). Perhaps that’s the secret – the community. As mentioned in a previous post I lived and worked in a mining community in Yorkshire for 6 years – and it really was a community in my first years there. There was a Working Men’s Club where people could go to socialise, evening classes at the local school, a church that arranged social events, and so on. The local pit, where most of the men worked, was a community in its own right. In many parts of the “industrial heartland” of the UK this can no longer be said. Today many working-class families are living on low wages and with uncertain employment. They are suffering from debt and insecurity. Families are under pressure and the children have little hope of a better life. Even at the height of the miners’ strike, you could feel the sense of community and purpose. My hunch is that sense is no longer there in these areas.
Obviously there is no quick fix – but there does need to be a solution if these areas are not to become even further deprived. The inner-cities have done it. What would it take to turn the rural and coastal areas around now? All I can think of is that education, and in particular giving students the skills they will need for their future, are vital if we are to move forward and give all children the ability to pursue their dreams.