MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Tue 26-Jan-16 17:05:50

Guest post: "To narrow the education attainment gap, we need to rethink 'poverty'"

Children who lack strong values at home are disadvantaged in the classroom, says former head of history Tom Rogers

Tom Rogers

Former head of history

Posted on: Tue 26-Jan-16 17:05:50


Lead photo

"A significant 'poverty' in the UK today is emotional poverty, mindset poverty, aspiration poverty."

The most significant challenge that every school in this country now faces is to bridge the educational attainment gap between the 'haves' and 'the have nots'; to ensure the achievement of 'disadvantaged' students equals or exceeds that of their peers. The government has made this one of their top priorities, throwing a large part of the education budget at it. However, the gap isn't narrowing.

So, have they got it wrong? Not in trying to bridge that gap, but in terms of what poverty actually is today in the UK, and how to deal with its influence on educational outcomes.

As our society has become more materialistic, our definition of poverty has become much narrower in its parameters, focusing solely on financial standing. While the hardships of financial poverty are undeniable, another significant 'poverty' in the UK today is emotional poverty, mindset poverty, aspiration poverty - in essence, 'values poverty'. And this is a form of poverty that finance seems unable to fix.

If you want to visit a more 'value rich' nation, I can suggest Tanzania from personal experience. The people there live with a level of 'poverty' unknown to the vast majority of the UK population. However, dig a little deeper and find out how the young people in that country see the world, experience relationships or spend their time; as a collective, they are infinitely happier than ours, which is pretty astonishing. They are 'values rich'. With that in mind, do we need to widen the definition of poverty in this country to include not only children whose parents are on a low income but also those disadvantaged in other ways?

Do we need to widen the definition of poverty in this country to include not only children whose parents are on a low income but also those disadvantaged in other ways?

Imagine, for a second, that we gave equal standing to 'values poverty' and 'financial poverty'. Child A is above the poverty threshold. However, her parents simply don't 'parent' and even when they do, any kind of emotional intimacy or social connection is limited to a shout up the stairs to stop playing the PlayStation at 1am. She lacks any kind of cornerstone in her life, feels alone, struggles to communicate effectively and is desperate for love and attention. However, she does have an iPhone 6. On the government's measure, she can be placed into the giant chasm of 'ok'.

Meanwhile, half a mile away, Child B has two parents who are both on welfare but offer him the spiritual, emotional and physical love that he needs, and instil in him a strong set of principles. He excels at school and is comfortable in his own skin. Above all, he has the aspiration to do well, to lift himself and his family out of the financial situation they are in. I would argue that both of these children are disadvantaged, but in completely different ways. Child A is 'value poor' whereas Child B is 'value rich'.

Why am I calling for this broadening of the definition of poverty? Because without addressing this so-called 'values poverty', we have no chance of dealing with poverty in its more literal sense.

I believe the solution to values poverty lies, quite simply, in love. What this love requires as a prerequisite is sacrifice, its primary fuel being time. Time to connect and time to share. For parents, in particular, a chance to share their vision of the kind of human being they want their child to be. A chance to model expectations, behaviours and values. A chance to set boundaries and cultivate deeper emotional connections.

The challenges here are obvious: primarily a hectic schedule and the constant buzz of technology and social media. While society pushes the message that we should be always making more, doing more and being more, this values vision asks us to ignore some of that 'noise' and get back to basics.

By embracing this philosophy, perhaps our interpretation of poverty would change. With our children more fulfilled, active and engaged in life, the importance we place on being 'value rich' would outweigh that we place on financial wealth.

In an education context, the knock-on impact on performance in school would be interesting to behold. Would it lead to students being able to concentrate more in lessons? To developing better coping mechanisms in their behavioural responses? To valuing their learning experiences more? Would it increase self-esteem and therefore happiness amongst our young people?

Of course, we may never know, but even some time spent contemplating 'value richness' would be a start in finding out.

Tom Rogers is a former head of history who now runs online tutoring service He writes a weekly column for TES, where a version of this post previously appeared.

Photo credit: bibiphoto /

By Tom Rogers

Twitter: @rogershistory

PirateSmile Tue 26-Jan-16 17:34:38

Absolutely brilliant post which makes the best attempt I've seen to discuss this very nuanced topic.

Sallyhasleftthebuilding Tue 26-Jan-16 17:49:10

Interesting - isn't the issue about behaviour?

Child C may be spoilt rich child who has a entitled attitude - gets help

Child D behaves well works ok is quiet under the radar - no help

Child E high flier - works hard but emotionally struggles with friendships - no help

Child F badly behaved - poor home life - gets help

Schools forever chasing tails

What if the community stepped up and offered help?

HoneyDragon Tue 26-Jan-16 17:58:03

It feels like success at education comes down solely to money and parenting.

Which is great but some children still aren't going to fit nicely in the educational box they are supposed to.

What about the poverty values within the system, the lack of support within the system for teachers who educate as a vocation, the financial poverty that means children who finally get statemented still can't get the help they need because there is no budget.

If we blame home we may as well surrender our children to the establishment at birth.

AndNowItsSeven Tue 26-Jan-16 18:14:53

"On welfare"? Did you get lost and end up in America?
Interesting you post this when the House of Lords overturned the government legistation which tried to redefine poverty as not being about finances.

HeadJudgeLen Tue 26-Jan-16 18:15:49

How on earth would such a thing be measured?

HeadJudgeLen Tue 26-Jan-16 18:21:47

The implication here seems to be that some parents are so busy with "materialism" and social media that they forget to parent their children. I think that has nothing whatsoever to do with it. I think you can have families that have to work all hours to get food on the table who are maybe too knackered to pay sufficient attention. And of course there are others where the parents don't really see the value of education or who don't have the skills to support their kids properly. I don't think whether you have a new iPhone or not is any kind measure for anything.


harryhausen Tue 26-Jan-16 18:27:28

I was just going to ask how 'values' can be measured too.

I do however agree with the need to redefine 'poverty'. My dd is in Y6 and in her (large) primary I know of plenty of parents who give their children the latest tech, trips to Disneyland and designer clothes but never read with them or ever contemplate engaging in anything 'cultural' like a museum or art gallery for instance. In a recent classroom talk about future ambitions several girls seriously said their goal was to be married to a footballer.
However equally there are children who engage with all the school had to offer, with supportive parents who encourage ambition to achieve anything, that are rather poorly off financially.

I think the key to educational achievement is mostly (not always) parental aspiration for their children. Not seeing the school as the enemy. Being supported with the day to day grind and financial affairs etc.

It is however, impossible to measure.

HoneyDragon Tue 26-Jan-16 18:34:55

Redefining poverty lessons our perception of the reality of poverty. Which fucking blows.

Having no money, no food and no stable home is ALWAYS going to be worse than having a home, a full stomach, security and parent a who don't value education. Always.

Don't redefine it as poverty.

Just say it; you want parents to step up to the mark. Fine.

HoneyDragon Tue 26-Jan-16 18:35:38


OTheHugeManatee Tue 26-Jan-16 18:37:27

Theodore Dalrymple has been writing about this for years, though what you call values poverty he calls moral squalor. He also argues, in my view persuasively, that values poverty is to a significant extent a byproduct of middle-class left-liberal attitudes and the ways in which the welfare state is organised and delivered.

JugglingFromHereToThere Tue 26-Jan-16 18:45:35

Of course there's something in this - poverty and disadvantage is more complicated than simply looking at a family's finances - though these can indeed have a massive impact on well-being and security.

But I don't see this as a very sophisticated analysis of the many factors involved in disadvantage. For a start there was no mention of mental health and emotional well-being. And how about the strength of all of the relationships in the family including the inter-personal and parenting skills of everyone involved in the child's life? If families are struggling to pass on values there will be a variety of underlying reasons for this?

Interesting but feel you've only scratched the surface in looking at wider aspects of disadvantage for children.

Let's really study families and see what factors have a positive effect on well-being and - if you like - on achievement and aspiration

StealthPolarBear Tue 26-Jan-16 19:12:58

Yes to me this basically just replaces "poverty" with "parenting". What about the rest? Are parents the only factor in narrowing the gap?

WhenSheWasBadSheWasHorrid Tue 26-Jan-16 19:55:23

I think it's a good post. Obviously the op isn't going to address every aspect of poverty in a blog post. I think it is important to realise that for some parents throwing more money at them won't actually help the kids.
In some families the issues run deeper than that.

JugglingFromHereToThere Tue 26-Jan-16 19:56:48

I think that's a good summary of it Stealth.

However I think parenting is the most important thing for children's well-being etc.

But what are the under-lying factors affecting the quality of parenting provided? What things make for good parenting?

These are the things which need to be looked at much more deeply and broadly as far as I'm concerned

Zazedonia Tue 26-Jan-16 20:42:25

It is much harder to parent well if you are poor. Have to spend many hours in a badly paid job, or likely more than 1 of them, to make ends meet. Have to walk or get public transport because don't own a car. Have no money to pay for childcare, so leave children alone at home when you are out at work. Any little thing that goes wrong is a major problem - eg boiler breaks down. Being stressed and exhausted and anxious doesn't lead to good parenting. Money makes things a lot easier, and also allows the luxury of introducing the child to a bit of culture, taking them on an educational and memory rich holiday, etc.
Pretending that this doesn't matter is a huge cop-out by a highly cynical government.

Out2pasture Tue 26-Jan-16 20:54:18

I would think improving industrial and manufacturing jobs would help many disadvantaged people realize the importance of a good education.
with poor work opportunities what incentive is there to take on the challenge of schooling.
even though buying products made close to home might cost more in the long run it would help more people within our borders.
in what countries is education valued....those which are manufacturing, I would think this isn't a coincidence.

Sallyhasleftthebuilding Tue 26-Jan-16 20:56:18

I would add in the mix disabilities - either a child who needs full time care or parent that has a sudden illness or accident - death of a parent, drugs or alcohol are major factors - money won't help in these situations

JugglingFromHereToThere Tue 26-Jan-16 21:10:29

Very true Zaze Lots of fundamental issues there

Also I think some extra curricular activities from Brownies to playing an instrument can play a really important part in developing a child's sense of identity and achievement, as well as developing inter-personal skills through time with their peers.

I was really pleased when my DNiece's school started offering some free after school clubs so that hopefully some of these things can be more accessible to all.
I agree that holidays with family or school, or residential trips with youth groups also add a lot to a young person's experience of life. Family holidays in particular seem massively under-valued in the current system.

All these things can help a lot in developing values and a personal life philosophy.
But also they can be the first things to go when a family is under financial pressure.

HermioneWeasley Tue 26-Jan-16 21:18:48

spiritual, emotional and physical love that he needs

I'm an atheist. My kids get no spiritual love from me at all. Are they living in poverty?

BaconAndAvocado Tue 26-Jan-16 21:32:53

I think the key to educational achievement is mostly (not always) parental aspiration

Completely agree with this. In my capacity as a teacher, I've seen families who are in dire straits financially but the parents still fully support their child's education.

From personal experience, my parents had very little money but me and my brother were both reading before we went to school and were always encouraged to fulfil our potential.

bojorojo Tue 26-Jan-16 21:40:23

I am a school governor and I monitor pupil premium children. These children are receiving free school meals, are looked after children or forces children and schools get extra money to help "narrow the gap" in their educational attainment. In my school, the majority of these children are doing extremely well and they are not behind their peers. A few are very behind and it is no co-incidence that these children have had very damaged and disrupred lives. We have known for years that fsm is a very blunt instrument when being used to distinguish which children need extra help and cash. In many cases their parents do everything necessary to ensure their children do well at school. The most vulnerable group are the looked after children.

Regarding the OP's assertion that non parenting by richer parents is an issue - I would agree but it is not just rich parents who cannot be bothered! It can be a whole range of parents and it makes little difference if they work in manufacturing or have a white collar job. It is more about making an effort with your children and that can be done by most families in most situations. There are clearly some poorer families who do make every effort and richer ones who make very little and expect the school to do everything. Some parents struggle to read and write themselves. Other, very intelligent ones, are time poor. It takes all sorts and, as yet, we do not have a system that gives parenting information to schools do they can make "judgements" on who else should be targeted for extra money in a school budget. This would be very difficult to do and very likely to cause offence. The blogger may not like how parents bring up their children, but doing something about it is an altogether harder problem. A good school, by the way, will be trying to "narrow the gap" for all their under-achieving children, not just PP ones!

ABetaDad1 Tue 26-Jan-16 22:09:28

My children go to a private school and no pupil lives in financial poverty - even the ones on bursaries.

Some pupils clearly though are failing at school because their parents pay little attention to them and they live in 'values poverty'.

The problem is how do you tackle it. In essence it would require the state intervening in the home and the state cannot do that except in the most extreme circumstances.

Unfortunately, some parents are bad parents and that is all there is to it. You cant make people be good parents by passing a law or handing out money.

eXistenZ Tue 26-Jan-16 22:19:12

The whole rich/poor divide, which the media loves to talk about, is in fact a complete red herring.

As far as rich/poor goes, the only question that matters is 'are you better off than your parents'?

After all, what anyone really wants is to at least be able to live the life that they have grown accustomed to.

People in developing countries may be poor in absolute terms but a majority of them are better off than their parents were.

Unfortunately, a large % of people today are worse off than their parents and one of the biggest reasons for this is the cost of housing in/around the area they grew up in.

Now there are number of reasons for this - very restrictive planning laws and a large increase in population (both local and foreign born) relative to the stock of housing are the two big things that come to mind. The other big reason is the cost of the State but I'm starting to digress smile.

In reality, some parents will always be more involved with the upbringing of their children than others. This isn't a rich/poor issue either. This is a values issue. Certain communities, Indians for example, value education considerably more than others and hence these parents play a more active role in ensuring their kids perform well in school.

If you're rich, you can hire tutors but there are plenty of poor or middle-class parents who sacrifice their time to ensure that their children perform well academically. End of the day, it all starts at home and if the parents don't play an active role in supporting their own children, no amount of government spending is going to make any difference.

Lurkedforever1 Tue 26-Jan-16 22:45:18

I think where financial poverty causes problems with education/ achievement people are missing the huge herd of elephants in the room. The best state secondaries in the country have very few poor children. The bad ones have plenty. It's offered based on house price/ area. Pp isn't going to touch that. (And I don't mean good/ bad as defined by gcse grades at c or above or ofsted).

Whereas the emotionally neglected middle class child rarely ends up at a sink school.

I'd also love to see the raw data for pp and attainment. Because I bet the average attainment for pp commonly used is misrepresentative. Instead I'd guess there are a large group way below that level, and a few up at the top end, dragging that average up to a false impression that the group isn't doing as bad as it is. And as we usually then dump them all mostly in the same school, there's too large a group at the bottom to offer the support needed to each. And the able ones at the top are ignored because everyones too focused on the huge bottom group.

Hence my belief pp won't ever really solve anything until we sort out the whopping great unfairness of state provision.

Join the discussion

To comment on this thread you need to create a Mumsnet account.

Join Mumsnet

Already have a Mumsnet account? Log in