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.