Living on the Edge


It is not “aspiration” which is missing for our poorest children and families, but opportunity. Inspired by new book Living on the Edge, Alex Wood discusses the ongoing challenge of tackling disadvantage faced by our education system.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report on the continuing gaps between the educational attainment of our poorest and richest children has emerged at the same time as the Scottish launch of Living on the Edge, John Smyth’s and Terry Wrigley’s critique of poverty, class and schooling (publisher: Peter Lang).

Smyth and Wrigley review education in the neo-liberal world, in Scotland, where Wrigley has worked (until recently at Edinburgh University’s Moray House School of Education) in England, Australia and the US. They challenge the particular venom with which those pauperised by deindustrialisation and austerity politics are blamed for their own suffering.

The work questions the broad generalisations which pose a clear correlation between poverty and limited intellectual ability. It asserts that unemployment, poverty and a reserve pool of low-paid labour are inevitable consequences of an economic system owned by a few and geared primarily to profit. 

In such a system, the reiterated thwarting of attempts to escape poverty lead to a sense that personal improvement is impossible. “Shame” becomes the response of the marginalised to their situation, and hope flees as the futility of effort is reinforced daily.

It is not “aspiration” which is missing, but opportunity. Smyth and Wrigley stress that while most working class, including poor working class, parents have high aspirations for their children, what they often lack is knowledge of how to navigate the educational system on their behalf.

Deindustrialisation has destroyed the hopes and self-respect of cohorts of the young poor and encouraged the adoption of alternative sources of pride, including macho and criminal behaviour, and the rejection of an education system which cannot deliver on its economic promises.

The myth of the failure of one-parent families is also debunked with reference to minimal negative impacts in countries with supportive welfare systems.

Lack of intelligence has of course been long posed, since Burt’s now infamous, faked IQ tests, as the cause of the poor’s poverty and been used, especially in the US, as a justification for racial segregation in education. Smyth and Wrigley make the point that from the outset simple “tests” of intelligence have been overwhelmingly culturally biased. They measure what those who devised them wished them to measure.

The issue of “language deficit” is also addressed. Research indicating the vibrant range of content and style in working class language is contrasted with its stereotyping as restricted and incapable of sustaining abstract thought or critical reasoning. To suggest however that, “rather than a working-class (language) deficit that makes these children difficult to educate, there is a middle-class advantage”, seems almost to be surrendering the point.

Central to Smyth’s and Wrigley’s thesis is that the neo-liberal reforms, the drive to school effectiveness, the pursuit of league tables and improved attainment, all replicate, within the educational system, existing social relations. 

Far from creating a meritocracy, the purpose remains the maintenance of the privileges of the already privileged, the recruitment of the most talented of the poor into the managerial and professional ranks, and the denial of any meaningful, community oriented and respectful learning experience for the children of the poor. 

Teachers and educationalists looking for a critique of the high surveillance, low trust culture in education will find the insights in Living on the Edge hugely helpful. 

The dense sociological jargon at times detracts from accessibility. The omission of any serious consideration of the role of parental choice is regrettable. The clarion call however for teaching based on respectful relationships, on empathetic recognition of the harsh challenges facing children and on support for their communities, can offer teachers and schools an alternative to the neo-liberal agenda.

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.



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