The government’s reasons for wanting to get children back to school have nothing to do with reducing inequality. David Gammon describes how our current education system entrenches inequality, and what teachers, parents and others can do to change it.
There is a myth being perpetuated by the government: the idea that they care about ‘disadvantaged children.’ This phrase has been trotted out by Prime Ministers, Ministers, Children Commissioner’s Ofsted heads and other Tory appointees to try and put pressure on teaching unions to accept an unsafe, economically-driven, wider opening of schools. It is a lie that is useful for the Tories and fits in well with the false idea that they ‘are in it for the little guy’: the mantra that they believe delivered them Brexit and the December 2019 election.
But it is a lie. The term itself is the first lie: we’re not talking about children who face some unspecific hurdle; we are talking about kids from poor families. Families where unemployment, precarious employment, low pay and high rent costs suck up most of their parents’ efforts on a daily basis. These are the children who don’t have the same access to literature or experience when they are at their youngest. Often parents and carers in these situations have to choose – all the time – between days out and food; or books and a holiday; or time with their children and earning enough to keep the lights. Thousands of small, hard choices that add up to a huge difference in experience between poorer households and richer ones.
The effect of these choices on children are huge. There have been a number of studies that show that the vocabulary gap that exists at five years old is closely correlated to socio-economic background. The landmark American study by Hart and Risley showed that the poorest children hear thousands less words than the children of professionals:
Simply in words heard, the average child on welfare was having half as much experience per hour (616 words per hour) as the average working-class child (1,251 words per hour) and less than one-third that of the average child in a professional family (2,153 words per hour).
The discussions around the Early Years ‘word gap’ tend to focus on parent shaming – your family doesn’t read enough, you spend too long watching cartoons, you don’t talk to your kids. It is the old Tory idea of deserving and undeserving poor. Typical responses focus on diversity of experience and parental engagement:
Day in and day out, conversations about eating breakfast or getting dressed may present little diversity in the words directed to the child while a new event, such as a trip to a zoo or museum, may provide an influx of new words. Indeed, research studying how parents talk in different contexts supports this conclusion and as young children often show gains in vocabulary immediately following novel experiences such as trips to zoos.
There is nothing here to disagree with but what is missing is the next logical step: why don’t poor children get to go to the zoo? It’s exactly this question that the Tory narrative is trying to obscure: the reality of choices that parents and carers face everyday, just to keep families going. Add into this mix the cuts that austerity has imposed on Early Years, closing Sure Start centres, and the extortionate cost of childcare and it becomes obvious that this inequality of experience and learning is built into the system from the very same Tories that now want to use it to attack education workers.
The school system and inequality
So children start school with a huge gap already built in; a gap that is the result of their domestic class position. But schools are supposed to overcome that gap, right? Unfortunately not. It is true that many teachers I know see this as one of their key motivators, helping children have the best start in life. They work hard, encouraging word acquisition, curiosity, critical thinking, reading and abstract thinking. At the same time, they might be lucky enough to get their hands on some of the extra funding that sloshed into the system as part of the Tory Coalition deal with the Lib Dems. Where this isn’t used to plug the huge funding gaps in school budgets; it can be used to give children extra experiences that can help support their development. This ‘Pupil Premium’ funding is tiny in comparison to the loss of funding for schools over the last ten years. It also narrowly focussed, recognising only those children who have been or are on free school meals (a result of a parent or carer being on Employment Support Allowance). It completely ignores the huge issue of underpaid and working poor people.
But all of these good things take place in an educational environment that seeks to classify children all the time as high achievers, coasters or low ability, essentially locking that inequality in place, ignoring the organic and uneven nature of learning and perpetuating inequality. The use of statistics and the explosion of testing at Primary level all helps to stream kids very early and it pressures teachers into making sure that that ‘high achiever’ continues to stay ahead and that ‘low ability’ child hits their minimum ‘targets.’
By the time that children get to Secondary school, their education worth and their ‘ability’ have already been decided. At 11, we know what GCSEs they are aiming for. In a few years’ time, if the Government Baseline Tests for four year olds are allowed to happen, we will know a child’s educational targets at 16 based on how they did on an unproven test at four years old. The entire system locks educational disadvantage in, even as it uses it as a stick to beat individual teachers and schools over their achievement gap.
This then follows a child into adulthood and later life. There is a perception amongst older people that GCSEs don’t really matter (the ‘I failed my GCSEs and did alright’ argument). However, this ignores the reality of 21st century Britain: social mobility is much lower than in the 20th century and inequality is much higher. This means that the effects of educational outcomes for young people have a much bigger effect on their choices in later life. GCSE results aren’t the end of the world but they can shut doors for people when they are only sixteen. Now imagine you have a set of GCSE expectations that mean that you will ‘fail’ your GCSEs if you perform as expected. What makes that child motivated to learn, other than a teacher who cares?
This then is the true crime of our education system and it is something that every teacher participates in everyday, even as they try their hardest to subvert it and do the best for their children.
So what can we do about it?
Unlike the Tories, we actually do care about the life and educational experiences of children. That is why teachers are leading calls to tackle holiday hunger and to ensure that the free school meals at home programme, started under Covid-19, runs throughout the summer holidays. The fact that the Tories quietly dropped this programme over the May half term, while publicly crowing about teachers not caring about vulnerable children, demonstrates their hypocrisy. The same is true of the removal of free school travel in London.
Rather than reducing them to statistics and progress measures, we need an education system that focusses on enriching experiences for children, that allows them to learn together, at their own pace. This will need a change in the curriculum, one that puts the emphasis back on children experiencing the world critically – not simply seeing them as ‘empty vessels’ that need to be filled. It will need a curriculum that responds to the world; that can teach children about things like the Empire, Black Lives Matter and racism today.
We also need to recognise that social inequalities are the result of a capitalist system built on division and exploitation: it is not result of feckless parenting or stupid people. If we really want to challenge educational inequality, we need to build a more equal society where parents and carers don’t have to pick between an extra shift to pay rent or that trip to the zoo.
The National Education Union has released a ten point plan for education recovery. This plan covers many of these areas. But it is up to us to ensure that it is not just a campaign and propaganda document: this needs to be something that our newly confident layer of teachers and education workers, fresh from inflicting a defeat on the Government over wider reopening, take up and turn into a reality in their schools, communities and workplaces.
If you are an education worker, join the National Education Union to help develop a vision of education: www.neu.org.uk
If you are a parent, sign up for the More Than A Score campaign: www.morethanascore.org.uk
If you want to build a more equal society, join www.rs21.org.uk/join/
 B. Hart and T. Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (Baltimore, MD: P.H. Brookes, 1995).
 J. L. Montag et al., ‘Quantity and diversity: stimulating early word learning environments’, Cognitive Science (May 2018): 42, Suppl. 2:375-412.