Postman Knocks Twice: How Poverty Affects Children’s Educational Performance.
As September summons in the new academic year, and millions of
children and young adults return to school and university, parents’ biggest fears around the world are whether or not their offspring will be gain the required qualifications to help them secure jobs in an increasingly harsh and ruthless employment market.
Politicians are good at waxing rhetorical as to the necessity for decent educations for the young. But when it comes to implementation of educational policies, most self-proclaimed improvements in standards tend to benefit those pupils perceived to be the most ‘academically gifted’ – the majority of whom (by no small coincidence) often come from the more auspicious middle-class backgrounds, where educational aspiration is encouraged by the parents.
Meanwhile, as has almost always been the case, and in spite of government rhetoric, more socially disadvantaged pupils rarely receive the level of personal attention required in order to meet the challenges of their difficult circumstances and thereby transcend them through academic achievement.
The reality is, social class and academic achievement are inextricably linked.
According to a recent UNICEF report with regards to the International League Table on Education, there is “A strong relationship between educational achievement and the occupation, education and economic status of the children’s parents – whichever country they live in… Children whose parents are high-earning professionals have a 90 per cent chance of progressing to further education – as opposed to a 13 per cent chance for children whose parents are in unskilled manual occupations.”
The main goal of education is to ensure that every student has the opportunity to succeed in school and in life. Children’s success in school impacts on their achievements as adults, as well as the universities –if any– they attend the profession they choose, and how much they get paid.
Poverty remains one of the most critical issues facing educational attainment.
I. The impact of poverty and unemployment on education
The issues of educational fairness and school spending have long been a point of disagreement.
Sadly, low income students face issues likely to affect their performance at school and thus their ability to progress to higher education and secure decent careers.
The effects of social inequality facing children from disadvantaged backgrounds before they even enter school are rarely mentioned.
Under-funded schools with the largest class sizes and lowest paid teachers do not attract qualified teachers. Also, low income schools receive less support from parents and therefore face challenges in addressing pupils’ needs.
After-school activities and summer camps are overwhelmingly attended by middle-class pupils and much less so by children of poorer backgrounds. This puts the more disadvantaged pupils at even further disadvantage, since such extra-classroom components are known to be significant complements to a rounded education.
It has long been established that the higher the income of a pupil’s parents, the higher their academic and occupational prospects and achievements. Poverty and its effects on health and wellbeing are never conducive to easy educational attainment: it is difficult for a child who goes to school on an empty stomach to have sufficient energy or vitamin intake to concentrate on their lessons.
In the UK, over the past four years, punitive government welfare reforms have plunged hundreds of thousands of poorer families into even greater poverty, and, resultantly, tens of thousands of children.
Recent charitable initiatives such as food banks and ‘breakfast clubs’ –though vital interventions– are ultimately only patching over the fundamental problem: governmental neglect of the neediest in society. Tinned food might keep people alive, but it doesn’t provide the necessary vitamins or nutrition intake needed to keep people healthy and fully functioning.
II. Narrowing educational attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.
The quality of school plays a major role in magnifying inequalities. In order to narrow educational attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students, government must go beyond league tables and traditional learning-by-rote regimens. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds need greater one-to-one support and attention in the classroom in order to overcome the material and psychological obstacles to their benefiting from the educational experience.
There is also the problem of limited access to the latest technology in schools attended mostly by pupils from low-income families.
There is strong evidence that child poverty itself may be causally linked to educational outcomes, especially in terms of subjects such as maths, sciences, history and geography. Poor educational attainment almost always leads to poor employment prospects and in many instances long-term unemployment.
Another sad reality is that even after gaining a degree, whatever the grade achieved graduates’ social backgrounds still to some extent affect their career opportunities.
According to a recent survey, nepotism still plays an overwhelming role in terms of corporate recruitment for new employees: candidates educated at top public schools and universities and/or whose parents or
relatives are acquainted with people already working in the companies to which their children are applying are far likelier to be taken up than those who, in spite of having equal – if not sometimes superior – skills and suitability for the position, are perceived as ‘outsiders’ or ‘strangers’ for not having any such social and/or familial connections.
III. Beyond education: redefining the value of school through the approach of Neil Postman
The late American humanist educator Neil Postman (1931 – 2003) believed that many of our most vexing and painful social problems could be improved if we knew how to school our children.
Postman differentiated between ‘schooling’ and education: for him, schooling was/is concerned with helping children learn how to make a life for themselves, while education was/is more focused on how to make a living.
Postman believed that the current crisis in modern education originated in its failure to pass on ethical values to students, like those that inspired earlier generations. Today’s schools promoted what he called ‘“gods” of economic utility, consumerism, or ethnic separatism and resentment’.
For Postman, education without an integrated myth or narrative to guide and motivate the student is education without a purpose. He suggested alternative strategies that could be used to build into children a sense of global citizenship, social duties and obligations, as well as the respect of traditions and diversity.
In fact, for Postman, education should help students to develop and internalise concepts that will enable them to cope and survive in a changing world.
Postman, who was also a media theorist and cultural critic, and who had been associated for more than four decades with New York University, argued that ‘new technology can never substitute for human values’.
From a global point of view, wars, marginalisation and poverty are the main factors that hamper education and career achievement worldwide.
Education may today be considered as a basic human ‘right’, but for millions of the most disadvantaged children worldwide, it remains an inaccessible one.
According to Humanium, an international non-governmental child sponsorship organization dedicated to the prevention of violation of children’s rights worldwide:
“More than 72 million children of primary education age are not in school and 759 million adults are illiterate and do not have the awareness necessary to improve both their living conditions and those of their children”.
In May 2014, in a survey entitled Why Strangers Don’t Get Good Jobs, Lou Adler, CEO of the Lou Alder Group (and author of Hire With Your Head: The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired), touched on the prevalence of occupational nepotism and how it impacts severely on the career opportunities of those candidates without professional-familial ‘contacts’:
“Strangers get a bum deal. They’re assessed on things that don’t predict performance. They have limited negotiating power. They’re treated as interchangeable commodities. And they’re demeaned just because they’re looking for a job. To hire better people, stop hiring strangers. For jobseekers who want better jobs, get acquainted first.”
If familial-social nepotism and occupational recruitment on such bases is still as prevalent as it appears to be, then no matter how much governments improve the educational experience for poorer pupils and students, equal opportunities in the employment market will remain a distant reality as long as what one inherits –by way of parental influence and contacts– takes precedence over what one individually merits.