Mary Bousted: ‘Don’t tell me I have low expectations’

Teachers care passionately about their pupils and strive to close the education achievement gap, but their job becomes more difficult as inequality and poverty levels rise – as they will under Conservative party policies

Speaking last week at a Schools and FE Week Fringe at the Conservative party conference, I was accused by Nick Gibb, the schools minister, of having the soft bigotry of low expectations concerning the potential educational achievement of poor children.

I had earned the minister’s ire by daring to question whether a GCSE English literature diet of Wordsworth, 19th-century novels and Shakespeare would induce a love of reading among most 15 and 16-year-olds.

I do not have a poverty of ambition for poor children. When I was head of English in a large school in north London I had a relentless drive to reduce the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils.

Poor children benefit disproportionately from good teaching

Working with colleagues we crafted a challenging, interesting and highly relevant curriculum with a strong emphasis on the grammar of spoken standard English, and direct study of rhetoric and argument, culminating in each pupil giving a speech that aimed to inform and persuade. (We recognised the truth articulated by Bernard Shaw that: “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”)

Every pupil studied Shakespeare and classic literature, with works by world authors, chosen both for their literary worth and to reflect the heritage of the school’s pupils who spoke 68 languages, other than English, in their homes. GCSE A-C grades in English and English literature rose dramatically.

I co-authored several English textbooks and edited a Cambridge University Press edition of George Eliot’s Silas Marner. It was hard, hard work, but deeply rewarding to see the success of our pupils and to be excited about their future prospects. But I could never ignore, nor deny, that many of the pupils I taught could have achieved more if their lives were not blighted by poverty, and all the insecurity and trauma that poverty leaves in its wake.

So I made a counter-argument to Mr Gibb that Conservative politicians preach a mantra of no excuses for the achievement gap between rich and poor children but want their economic policies, which will result in poor children getting poorer, to be excused and their effects unacknowledged.

The facts are alarming. One in six children in the UK lives in relative poverty. Inequality begins at birth and grows with the child. There are wide developmental gaps of nine months between advantaged and disadvantaged three-year-olds, which double to 18 months for four-year-olds. Children from high-income families are exposed to about 30 million more words than children from low-income families — which was why, in my school, we worked so hard to develop pupils’ spoken English.

The government’s own Child Poverty and Social Mobility Commission concludes that 2010-2020 is set to be the first decade with a rise in absolute poverty since records began in the early 1960s.

The commission’s 2020 challenge to the government is to “prevent Britain becoming a permanently divided society” and it recommends that its welfare reforms and fiscal policies “protect the working poor from the impact of austerity”. But the working poor are not being protected. Despite the commission’s plea that “the tax and benefit system should maximise poverty reduction”, the proposed cuts to working family tax credits will leave Britain’s poorest families £1,300 a year worse off.

I know from my own experience that poor children benefit disproportionately from good teaching – I have no argument with the schools minister on that front.

But I will take no lectures from him about poverty of expectation when his party is pursuing policies that can have no other result than a rise in real, actual child poverty.

Close the poverty gap and invest in teachers’ continuing professional development, and the attainment gap will narrow. Teachers’ high expectations for their pupils will be realised in a fairer, most just society where an accident of birth will do less to determine a child’s future.

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