Two years ago, standing in the middle of a classroom in South London, I woke up. A little girl clung to me, tears streaming down her face. The unspeakable story that she had been brave enough to tell me wasn’t the first of its kind that I’d heard that week. Among the upset and turmoil in my mind, one thought rang loud and clear.
This has to stop.
The UK is failing poor families. Parents buckle under the pressure of poverty, and children bear the consequences. Policy after policy highlights the need for intervention before the age of five. Countless research shows that poverty is a deciding factor in future success. And yet, councils are anything but united. Confusion abounds, with no common definition of disadvantage, and no shared goal. Disconnected strategies with unclear aims have allowed disillusion to seep into the veins of the most passionate campaigners.
It is so easy to ignore this problem. Disadvantaged families live in disadvantaged areas. They attend disadvantaged schools and play with other disadvantaged children. The rest of us are vaguely aware of the inequality. We see it when we accelerate through the ‘rough’ areas in our new cars. We see it in the bad kids that hang on the corner. We see it everywhere, and we choose to look away. After all, the media tells us that it’s their fault. After all, shouldn’t they just work harder like the rest of us?
If only we knew. If only we knew that most families below the poverty line have at least one working parent. If only we knew that there are school-aged children acting as carers for parents suffering from mental illness. If only we knew that by the time children start school at five years of age, it’s too late to change the fact that they will not succeed. No matter how hard they work for praise from the teacher. No matter how many awards they receive. No matter how well they do in the tests. Still, they will not succeed.
This has to stop.
I left teaching because I felt powerless. I knew that in every class I taught, there would be children that I’d fail. We all need to take responsibility for disadvantage in our society; if we don’t, the suffering continues. How would you solve the problem of disadvantage?