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Stop blaming poverty for educational failure

  • Time for an end to the culture of low expectations in state schools
  • Return to direct instruction, strict discipline and knowledge-based learning

Teachers must stop blaming poverty and social inequality for the educational failure of their pupils, a new Civitas study warns today.

Robert Peal, who has himself taught in a tough inner-city comprehensive as part of the Teach First programme, criticises the culture of excuses that has taken hold in schools and the wider education establishment.

Peal, described by Michael Gove as “one of the brightest young voices in the education debate”, says schools must change their approach and return to direct instruction, strict discipline and knowledge-based learning.

The study details how the “soft bigotry of low expectations” has led to an assumption in schools that children’s attainment is pre-determined by their home background.

“Over the past forty years, it has become an accepted truism in education debates that the overriding determinant of a child’s success will be their socio-economic background,” Peal writes.

“So dominant is the effect of a pupil’s home background, argue many, that schools only ever have a marginal impact on the life chances of their charges.

“Such an outlook – we might call it ‘the sociological view’ – has created a mindset whereby pupil underachievement is seen as an unfortunate but predictable result of their socially determined life trajectory.”

This view remains pervasive in the teaching establishment. In response to the 2012 PISA figures, for example, NUT general secretary Christine Blower said it was “a plain fact that child poverty is the biggest factor limiting children’s potential”.

In Progressively Worse: The burden of bad ideas in British schools, Peal demonstrates why it is wrong to suggest high levels of child poverty are responsible for poor standards of schooling:

  • PISA rankings show that Britain has an enviably low proportion of “disadvantaged” children. Only 6% in the UK compared with 15% across OECD nations. Only five countries have a better record – Canada, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland.
  • Canada, Poland and Japan all score worse than Britain for relative child poverty in UNICEF’s annual index and yet all rank higher than Britain in the PISA tables.
  • Social inequality is higher in South Korea, China, Singapore and Hong Kong, but all comprehensively beat Britain in the PISA rankings.
  • Britain is the eighth highest education spending nation in the world. Of the 25 nations with higher PISA mathematics results than Britain, 21 spend less on their schools.
  • Britain is the eighth highest education spending nation in the world, relative to purchasing power. Of the 25 nations with higher PISA mathematics results than Britain, 21 spend less on their schools.

Britain does have one of the highest levels of social inequality among developed nations and the second highest in Europe (behind only Bulgaria), according to the Gini coefficient measure.

“There are many, including myself, who see this as a grave national problem. However, it would be intellectually dishonest to claim that if it were solved, that other national problem of educational failure would also disappear,” Peal writes.

“Underfunded schools, uniquely high levels of child poverty, and social inequality are not valid explanations for the relatively poor performance of British schoolchildren. If our education system is to catch up with the best in the developed world, it is the schools themselves that will have to change.”

Peal singles out for criticism the “progressive” education philosophy which has had a devastating effect on British education since the 1960s.

“Progressive education has given us decades of chaotic schools, disenchanted teachers and pupil failure,” he writes.

“Today, its legacy in Britain is an estimated seven million illiterate adults spanning across the generations. The consequences for the economy, British society, and our national culture are devastating.

“All involved in education need to realise that this is a national embarrassment for which poverty and inequality should never be used as an excuse. If schools are given the freedom to innovate they may yet stand the chance of correcting these past mistakes.”

In a sober and detailed analysis of British schooling since the 1960s, Peal sets out how “progressive” nostrums like child-centred learning, content-free lessons and soft discipline have become the norm in state education.

Successive governments – both Labour and Conservative – since the late 1970s have sought to turn the tables on the progressive consensus but to no avail. This is the context for the current Education Secretary Michael Gove’s battles with “The Blob”.

“Hard work is not a fashionable concept in today’s schools. The expectation is that all learning can be made fun and easy, but this only leads to dumbed down lessons and pupil underachievement,” he writes.

“Such an idea may be at odds with the sympathies of many Western liberals, but children require the guidance, the structure and even the coercion of an authoritative teacher.”


Robert Peal is a history teacher and education research fellow at the think-tank Civitas. He taught for two years at an inner-city secondary school in Birmingham through Teach First and will be returning to the classroom in September 2014 to teach at a free school. He is a regular contributor to Standpoint magazine and keeps a blog on education. Until recently, he wrote under the pseudonym Matthew Hunter, described by Michael Gove as ‘one of the brightest young voices in the education debate’.

Robert graduated in 2010 with a starred first in history from Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and gained a Thouron Scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. He lived in West Philadelphia for a year, before moving to the West Midlands. He now lives in London.

Progressively Worse: The burden of bad ideas in British schools is published today by Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society.


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