Every morning about 7.30 I’m woken up by my radio alarm clock, and some mornings there are things on the news that just stop you going back to sleep — England losing to Australia in Adelaide in 2006, the death of Princess Diana, the discovery of an alien civilization (actually I must have dreamed that one).
This morning, it was the announcement of research findings from the Joseph Rowntree foundation that poor white boys are the worst achievers in English schools. However, what prevented me going back to sleep (this discovery is, after all, hardly dramatic) was the constant references to ‘poverty’.
What is it, I found myself asking, that can’t be afforded for these boys that makes them fail? After all, poverty is about lack of resources, isn’t it? If you are poor, there are things you don’t have, things you can’t afford, resources you can’t access. So what is missing from these boys lives? Is it a lack of books, or equipment such as calculators? Is it a lack of access to computers? Is it the quality of the teachers or the buildings in the areas in which they live and study? Is it that there is nowhere to study at home?
All these problems might by the result of poverty, and all of them would affect a child’s achievement. But are they the real problem?
Put it another way: if I observed these boys for a couple of days, if I were able to interview them and watch their behaviour in and out of school, what would I find? Would I find them frustrated by having too few books? Would they complain to me that they couldn’t get on the internet to complete their homework? Would they fret about the lack of equipment in their science labs?
To take another approach, what would the teachers complain about? Would they observe that these boys couldn’t study because they were getting up early to earn some money and help out the family? Would they point to boys who couldn’t afford musical instruments or PE kit to develop their talent? Would they show me out-of-date text books dilapidated by generations of students?
Does the reader think I am being perverse and cynical? In some parts of the world, this is surely exactly what I would find. What I am asking is whether it is what I would find in the areas of the UK where this study has been carried out.
Maybe I would. What makes me doubt it, though, is the very simplicity of the report’s findings.
The report identifies three ‘variables’ — three things which can change from case to case and which are correlated with poor performance at school: poverty, skin colour and gender. Where we find all three, it seems we find an increased likelihood of academic failure.
However, as any researcher knows, a correlation is not necessarily a cause. During the 1980s it was (allegedly) found that you were more likely to die of AIDS if you owned a Macintosh computer, but nobody ever believed you could contract HIV from a Mac.
Similarly, a correlation between poverty, skin colour and gender on the one hand and academic failure on the other doesn’t, in itself, prove a causal connection of any kind whatsoever.
Take skin colour, for example, or to put it another way, ‘race’. Are researchers arguing that race causes academic failure? When H J Eysenck suggested this in the 1970s he was pilloried by the academic establishment. So there would need to be a compelling reason to reverse this opinion today in the case of white boys (especially since Eysenck suggested it was actually black people who ‘naturally’ did worse educationally).
Whatever the reason for the correlation with skin colour, then, it cannot be simply that academic failure is genetically inherited. In any case, what we have here is a correlation with three variables. There is also, secondly, the matter of gender. Once again we must ask, does the research suggest that academic failure is genetic — are boys less bright than s?
Here, there is some statistical evidence which suggests that some boys will be disadvantaged by their genetic inheritance. Whilst, statistically, there are more very bright boys than s, there are also (if we can put it this way) more not-very-bright boys than s. And yet this wouldn’t seem to be enough to explain the latest findings, nor does it explain the correlation with the third factor: poverty.
But here we have a problem, because it depends what you mean by ‘poverty’. Some people may be surprised by the official definition on the Rowntree Foundation’s own website:
“The poverty line is 60 per cent of median income level – where the median is the level of income after direct taxes and benefits, adjusted for household size, such that half the population is above the level and half below it. This definition is a standard that changes as median income levels change; it is a measure of relative poverty.”
Poverty, notice, is always relative. It is not, in this country, a measure of absolute resources. Therefore it does not matter how much people have, there will always be ‘poverty’. Indeed, the poverty line shifts as the economy improves (see here), so that Jesus’ words become inescapable: the poor you will always have with you, no matter how much better off they become in each generation.
Identifying educational failure as correlating with ‘poverty’ therefore becomes misleading. We are back to our earlier question: poverty in terms of what? But we must also ask what it is about this ‘poverty’ which, in combination with race and gender, leads to academic failure within a system that does not result in the same level of failure amongst people who are equally ‘poor’, but of a different gender and race.
When we pose the question in this way, however, and given what we also know about the official definition of poverty (namely that it is all relative), there is a strong suspicion that actual material deprivation is of little real relevance. What we have here is not the lack of resources but the prevalence of a culture — the culture of white boys from one part of the socio-economic spectrum.
Moreover, my guess is that the quickest way to improve the academic performance of these boys would be not to increase the disposable assets available to themselves and their families but to decrease their contact with others of their own kind.
What’s more, I reckon this suggestion could be proved. I would bet a pound to a penny that white boys from poor backgrounds who are doing well at school are somewhat isolated from their peers, somewhat looked down on, maybe even somewhat bullied.
Not, of course, that in their case social isolation causes their (relative) success. Rather, my guess would be that in order to succeed they have had to isolate themselves. Like Martha’s sister Mary, they have chosen what is better. If I am right, then perhaps if researchers could find some way to capitalise on that phenomenon they could save us all some money and save a future generation from further failure.
Revd John P Richardson
22 June 2007