The only good parent is a wealthy one

Increasingly, just as poverty itself is linked to ignorance or moral failings, poor parenting is associated with being poor.

You could be forgiven for thinking there’s never been a better time to be growing up in poverty. Sure, things might look bad now but you’ll be okay. A crack team of financial and moral superiors have got your back. Whether it’s chips in front of a massive fucking telly or your rubbish teachers at your rubbish school, your betters are out there, fighting the good fight and defeating your foes.

Last week, in response to calls for children’s schooling to start later, Education Minister Elizabeth Truss was out on the frontline, reminding the experts to set aside their lefty bigotry/extensive research and just think of the children. In a piece for the Telegraph she compared disagreement with Conservative policy on early years education to simply not caring about “our poorest children”. The fact is, liberal airy-fairyness might be alright for some, butit’s letting down the most vulnerable amongst us:

“Kids from leafy suburbs might get a steady stream of educational activities in their early years. Or if they don’t, they might be able to cash in their parents’ connections and wealth later in life. Not everyone is so lucky. If education starts later, the children that need it most are the ones that lose out.”

See that, experts? See what you’ve done? Too busy thinking about children to remember that poor children are a special subset. They don’t get the same things rich children do. Without Truss-led intervention, they’re stuffed.

If Truss, Gove et al wish to suggest that education creates opportunity for the most disadvantaged, then I’d agree. I suspect many of those people in schools (formerly known as teachers) would. Nevertheless, there’s something disturbing about the way this is positioned. As the gap between rich and poor widens, it’s not enough to present sharp-elbowed parents in “leafy suburbs” with their “connections and wealth” as the only obstacles  standing in the way of the less well-off.  As long as we have a government which vilifies those without money (now no longer paid too little but simply not working enough) its members cannot claim to have the interests of such people’s offspring at heart.

Intervention to support poor children should not involve the sidelining of their parents. Increasingly, just as poverty itself is linked to ignorance or moral failings, poor parenting is associated with being poor. It becomes a kind of class colonialism. Truss might not literally propose taking disadvantaged children from their lacklustre parents, but the intimation is that only more time in the hands of the state can save them from their bitter destiny. The relationship between “the disadvantaged” and “the lucky” is not examined in any depth: it just is. And yet without a holistic approach to challenging inequality -- one that looks not just at education and nutrition, but at the economic and mental wellbeing of all people at all ages --- a focus on the children is a figleaf.

In discussions of child welfare no agency is accorded to parents who are not middle-class. “Parenting issues” – worrying about school places, homework, bullying, a healthy diet, future career – are seen as luxuries not everyone can afford. The poor, it seems, can’t worry about their children for themselves. They’re too busy being poor, therefore we need millionaire chefs and grammar-obsessed government ministers to take charge. It’s not that the solutions they offer are wrong in themselves, but within a broader context of inequality their overall impact can be anything but helpful.

I am not sure at what age a child becomes morally responsible for his or her privilege or lack of it. It’s not clear when “disadvantage” becomes “fecklessness”. We just know that one day it will. In the meantime, poverty starts to be seen as something impressed upon an individual by his or her carers.

The narrative of liberation through education is seductive, but it’s inadequate. It creates a world in which poor children become self-contained vessels into which politicians pour all of their equality rhetoric. Everyone knows that one day, these little bundles of potential will morph into devalued workers, parents and carers. They’ll have to stand aside for another generation of “potentially not poor” youngsters to take their place because no one with actual privilege is prepared to give an inch.

You cannot help children to thrive if you are simultaneously crushing the adults closest to them. The impact of low pay, benefit cuts, outsourcing and morale-crushing exclusion is not localised. Education should be a right, not a weak corrective for more extensive wrongs.

All parents should be in a position to exert a positive influence over their children’s lives. If poorer parents have been priced out of granting their children opportunities which can only be bought, we surely need to question not the parents, but how opportunity itself is functioning.

George Osborne visits a nursery school. Image: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era