A recent edition of the Pakistan national newspaper Dawn (May 4th 2014) carried a headline “For child labourers, education still a distant dream.” This headline pretty much captures the tenor of the article, describing how children of families trapped in poverty have fewer opportunities to acquire a good education and enhance their life opportunities than those from wealthier communities. This of course, comes as little surprise, as the link between poverty and poor life chances has been recorded for more than a century.
Articles about the devastation wrought by poverty are plentiful, and the arguments about the causes of poverty and the challenges facing its eradication have been well rehearsed. So why was I moved to respond to the headline from Dawn which in itself tells us nothing new? After reading the brief account of the struggles of families in Pakistan and the raw conflicts that plague their lives, when making choices between sending children to school or earning enough money to eat, I was reminded of the words of Jeffrey Sachs the economist and Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University who wrote that
“History is written by the rich, and so the poor get blamed for everything.”
This quotation has been running through my mind over the past two days as I have read several articles by journalists who have all adopted the same stance, in claiming that teachers are using poverty as an excuse for educational failure. Typical of these was the piece published in the English Daily Telegraph by their columnist David Barrett who suggests that “Teachers are failing pupils by blaming poor achievement on poverty and social inequality.” This article is one of several in similar vein to have appeared in the English national press in recent weeks. Often these statements have been made by politicians, or those commissioned and promoted by ministers or government agencies to endorse a particular policy or dogma. They are then reported in the press as if they are factual, when in reality they have little substance and are seldom supported by evidence. Sometimes they are couched in half-truths, such as that contained in a recent poorly constructed and ill-researched report published by the “think tank” Civitas (think tank is usually a title given to an organisation that feels the need to tell you what to think) which states that “The relationship between child poverty and educational failure is a broad correlation, not a mark of certain destiny.”
There is, inevitably an element of truth in this statement. Most teachers can recall instances where children from poor situations have performed and achieved at the highest education standards. Such achievements need to be lauded and used to inspire others from similar circumstances. However, the naivety, or in some cases mischievousness of those who use these examples, is in the way they convey their message, whilst ignoring the fact that in order to achieve, these children must first be provided with opportunities. It is indeed true that afforded the chance to gain an education there is no reason why any child should not succeed. The question that needs to be addressed is how do we create such opportunities?
A recent report from the State of Alabama, one of the poorest in the USA recognised that:-
“Poverty disrupts education and most students who live in highly stressed environments, without a secure place to sleep or enough good food to eat, will not be ready to learn at a high level.”
Herein lies an important factor that many who choose to blame teachers for the “under performance” of children tend to ignore. When a child arrives in school undernourished and possibly from a home where there are tensions caused by unemployment and financial hardship this is not a situation conducive to effective learning. This is an issue that has been debated at some length in several American States over recent months, as reported in the Morning Sentinel (April 28th), a newspaper from Maine which makes the observation that
“We can address the underlying causes of low-performing schools, or we can identify scapegoats, pat the wealthy communities on the back and accept another generation of poverty.”
The article recognises that “low-income families need more support so their kids come to class ready to learn” and that apportioning blame to schools is little more than a means of appeasing the failures of politicians of all parties and persuasion.
Sadly politicians from all parts of the political spectrum have adopted a solipsistic approach from their elevated positions of comfort and security. When systems are failing we all look to find someone to blame and in the poor and those in schools who are trying their hardest to support them, the politicians and media have found an easy target. So it is that the words of Jeffrey Sachs that I quoted above have been ringing in my ears.
I opened this piece by referring to an article in Dawn, and I am of course, aware that the levels of poverty in Pakistan are far greater than anything I have seen here in the UK. Yet the words of a father reported in the Dawn article provide us with an indication of why, because history is written by the rich, we need to listen to the voices of the poor.
“I have no other choice except sending my child to work. We are poor and cannot afford education which is for the rich people. We have to work daily to earn the bread.”
Increasingly in many societies, and I fear this is beginning to apply to my own country, educational opportunity comes readily to those who have the wealth to acquire it, whilst many others are left to struggle in order to gain a foothold on a ladder that may lead to greater advantage. In my experience those who live in our poorest communities see teachers as being amongst the few who appear willing to offer practical support. If only we could find politicians who could equally command such respect.