Is poverty just an excuse?


We must never accept lower expectations for poorer pupils, but we must be under no illusion about the affects that poverty has on a child's education and life, argues Dr Hilary Emery.

Progressive educators and teachers must stop blaming poor pupil attainment on poverty and admit the failure of their ideology. This was the key idea expressed in a highly readable report from teacher and education researcher Robert Peal (with support from think-tank Civitas).

Progressively Worse: The burden of bad ideas in education argues that progressive teaching methods, characterised by child-centred learning, a focus on skills over education, and the belief that strict discipline is oppressive, have given us “decades of chaotic schools, disenchanted teachers and pupil failure”.

Rather than accept the failings of the progressive approach, he says teachers and policy-makers have used poverty and inequality as an “excuse” for the poor attainment of pupils. Peal cites data that contradicts this truism, showing that countries such as Japan, Canada and Poland have worse poverty than the UK, yet out-perform us in PISA data on student achievement.

Of course we shouldn’t have lower expectations for poorer pupils. Whether they be the classroom high-fliers, those who struggle in some subjects, those who have SEN, or the oft-neglected “invisible middle” of students, teachers should be challenging all pupils to aspire and attain highly.

But, let us be under no illusion: poverty lessens children’s chance of doing well, and schools have their part to play in levelling the playing field. This was aptly illustrated by our own Greater Expectations research last year which found that a child from a disadvantaged background is far less likely to achieve a good level of development at age 4, to achieve well at school age 11, and do well in their GCSEs at 16 compared to a child from the most well-off backgrounds. These findings are not “excuses” for poor attainment, they are fact.

All children should be able to engage equally in education, but poverty means many cannot. We know that poor children are more likely to be inadequately nourished which means that higher level functioning is less likely. Children from poorer families are more likely to live in sub-standard housing, making home study difficult, and these children often have their own responsibilities as carers. 

Many schools are addressing these issues through extended services (breakfast clubs, study groups before and after school), healthy school meals and well-trained school staff supporting students to overcome the challenges they face, but the realities of these children’s lives mean that without additional support they will do less well than their better off peers, who do not have to surmount these challenges.

While acknowledging these challenges, what can be done to raise attainment for all? Much can be learned from the London Challenge and the subsequent London Leadership Strategy, which have sought to share best practice between schools in London – enabling them to use their performance data to compare themselves with one another and enabling schools facing problems to work with others who have overcome those very same challenges.

At the heart of our aspirations for all young people is the individual teacher, who must combine a strong knowledge of their specialist subjects with a flair for effective teaching and learning methods. To support these teachers, initiatives such as the London Leadership Strategy can allow educators who have found practical solutions to raising attainment, maintaining engagement, and making school fulfilling for pupils and staff to mentor in schools still struggling with these issues.

By sharing what is proven to work in leading schools more widely, we can create a model of teaching and learning which is more sustainable, supportive, challenging and effective than one based on coercion and direction.

  • Dr Hilary Emery is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit


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