How far have we progressed?
There is a painting in The Louvre in Paris entitled ‘The Clubfoot’ (also known as ‘The Club-footed Boy’) by Jose de Ribera who is renowned for his depictions of the human condition. It is a portrait of a vulnerable youth and conveys stark observations on both hardship and physical disability. There are differing interpretations concerning this magnificent and moving painting. These range from the view that it expresses dignity and defiance under duress to the opinion that it is a bitter comment on the degeneration of dutifulness and care. For my part, I think that both of these positions are credible and can be reconciled. Neediness gives rise to people displaying distinct features of perseverance and personal worth but also of melancholy and desolation.
Although De Ribera’s painting dates from over 300 years ago, to a large extent it reflects issues and conundrums relating to prevailing attitudes on destitution and misfortune among the underprivileged. It might be felt that we have advanced far as a society and that such adversities are now under control. While it is true that there have been many changes for the better, it would be foolish not to acknowledge that numerous challenges remain. Is it right to feel annoyed at the present state of educational provision for children who are deprived? How can we respond to and build on the capabilities and resilience of juveniles with significant needs?
Addressing poverty and marginalisation
A common misunderstanding is to equate communal affliction simply with financial deficiencies. Deprivation has many guises. It is a complex and intractable phenomenon which also covers affairs dealing with health and welfare, parenting, housing, infrastructure, urban and rural dysfunction, inadequate schooling and unemployment. Ironically, policymakers are generally aware of what should be undertaken to rectify recognised concerns. Mere tokenism occurring in officialdom ought to be treated as unacceptable.
All learners, regardless of age, require to: be well nourished; live in reasonably healthy and safe environments; be able to obtain essential services without major inconveniences; and be actively engaged in educational or training programmes which are aimed at enriching individual circumstances. Breakdowns pertaining to any these factors can result in distress coupled with a sense of hopelessness and, on occasions, of annoyance and anger. Education is a critical route in the direction of amending matters. The burden of responsibility also reaches across a wider spectrum of local and national administrative services.
Recent research and media outlets frequently refer to ‘hard to reach’ families and suggestions are offered on ways in which helpful dialogue can be initiated on their behalf. Though the term ‘hard to reach’ is usually well intended, it can sound rather patronising or even act as a label. If professionals are to use it, then the converse must be conceded: that they themselves also can be difficult to contact as far as needy people living in stressful situations are concerned. It is a two-way problem. One does not have to look too far to find a deep-seated lack of trust regarding specialist practices within disadvantaged groups. Care has to be taken to avoid inadvertently creating or reinforcing a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Empathic responsiveness is imperative in ensuring that interventions are not perceived as holier-than-thou interferences.
Actions speak louder than words
It is too easy for the ‘haves’ to reproach the ‘have-nots’ as being lazy and short-sighted. The tendency of some is to assume that the fault exclusively lies with those who are suffering from impoverishment. For those in a privileged position, it is plain sailing to worry less as to the present and to be able to concentrate on long-term planning, for example, in saving for fees to cover the cost of their children’s future education. In contrast, when tackling the ubiquity of poverty, zealous educationalists aim to fix attention on social solidarity and the transformation of ill-fated, lived experiences. They take relevant account of contextual factors and never ignore the tribulations created by environmental tensions. They are fully aware of why their students are distracted by the makeshift and changeable conditions which they have to endure.
So, how can a rich and plentiful – but divided – society accurately take cognisance of and operationally counteract the impact of penury on educational opportunities and achievements? To initiate steps forward, there has to be a sincere political judgement of the hurdles being encountered. Approaches to overcoming barriers in pragmatic and realistic ways require to be both gimmick-free and, as far as possible, evidence-based. Some leaders in education have been going on about ‘closing the gap’ for a considerable time now, sometimes merely with the purpose of aiming ridicule at their opponents. Rather than empty words, no matter how heartfelt they are meant to sound, we need positive and efficient action.
Beware of the myths which surround the new paternalism of ‘up-levelling’. For a start, legislators cannot accomplish any substantial progress without the backing of low-income families, communities, schools and voluntary agencies. Available channels towards obtaining the most suitable kinds of resources and assistance are very limited in times of austerity resulting in a lack of sustainable livelihoods and cut-backs to public services. What is more, there is no single pathway which can overcome all the complications posed by societal ordeals. Without taking proper evaluation of, and responding positively to, the variations across the characteristics of young persons and their circumstances, schedules for improvements will falter.
Key strategies for development and implementation
The cost of carrying out policies and projects is always an important factor. Additionally, their operation must focus on how to establish and maintain a high standard. Otherwise, devolved finances can be wasted on a valid idea which has been poorly executed. Nonetheless, various options are promising with the following eight proposals being offered for deliberation. Space only permits a very general outline of their content and functions.
1. Early identification and support. When experiencing restrictiveness due to existing in a state of paucity, it is little wonder that parents and guardians have much to deal with – for starters, managing to pay for food, rent and energy bills. As a result, infants can unwittingly receive insufficient attention or even suffer from neglect. All phases of human development are important and, given appropriate intervention, the previous negative effects of privation can be overcome. Inclusion, engagement and enjoyment are pertinent driving forces on the road to success. A nation’s focus must always be on the right of every individual to have the best possible start in life.
The ‘flexible’ mind is sustained by life-affirming opportunities to grow, develop and flourish. In particular, the pre-school years have been highlighted as a key period to help those from underprivileged backgrounds. It is a stage when both free play and organised activities can evoke interest and provide motivation to acquire autonomy, emotional suppleness, creativity and competences. It is also a time when fathers and mothers (a caution: the role of ‘fathering’ must not be side-lined) regularly need updates and are willing to discover more on positive nurturing skills. For many of their children, encouragement in ‘learning how to learn’ will be decidedly gainful while in pre-school provision and beyond.
2. Promoting resilience within family units and communities. The impact of want and malnutrition varies among youths and the influences of parental upbringing are complex. Collaborating with and empowering all residing in impoverished districts are essential. The bolstering of beneficial features – shelter, safeguarding, and compassionate care – can do much to strengthen youngsters in surmounting daily obstacles. Involvement in well-suited programmes should aim at breaking intergenerational cycles in respect of marginalisation, low expectations and academic failure.
Partnerships will be welcomed in connection with the overall enhancement of domestic life and in suggesting out-of-school pursuits, for example, adults and adolescents together profiting from advice on financial management covering topics on budgeting, welfare payments and the avoidance of debt. Unlocking concealed talents and indicating routes out of the entrapment of destitution must remain unwavering aims among all civic commitments.
3. Extending additional educational support. Schools under pressure warrant the means to ensure that they are not receptacles for passive acceptance of failures or shortcomings caused by administrative systems. If anything, it is fitting that they are sustained in a position of having even higher than normal expectations on behalf of their pupils. In the media, there are often tactless references to ‘failing schools’ and, over and over again, these appear to be serving poorer catchment areas. Educational establishments which have to meet with the demands posed by harsh economic conditions merit extra funds and should not be evaluated by the same academic criteria as others situated in more well-to-do locations. They have a claim on planned compensation as regards the allocation of teaching specialists to aid anyone encountering substantial difficulties and designated assistants to promote inclusive practices. The expansion of trained staff for literacy, mathematics and personal, social and health education in primary schools – and also in selected subjects in the secondary sector – should always be kept under review. Above all, it is valuable for the power of education be let loose to counteract misfortune by enabling learners to identify their troubles and, in time, to overcome them through gaining the knowledge and skills necessary to augment their wellbeing. The young have dreams and aspirations which deserve to be recognised and fully endorsed.
4. Developing communal integration and participation. There is a strong case for establishing more efficient and coherent services across health, education, social work departments and voluntary groups. Interventions aimed at alleviating disadvantage are obliged to be dynamic and multi-faceted in providing solutions across an extensive range of predicaments. Unfortunately, collaboration among agencies to develop and enrich distressed zones can be fragmented and time-limited. If information and directives are not competently distributed and understood in neighbourhoods, many may fail to know how best to become meaningfully involved. Perseverance, openness and transparency are indispensable ingredients for the implementation of constructive methods when engaging households in the process of improving the quality of everyday lives.
5. Effective use of public assets. The affluent and well-informed do make first-rate use of accessible municipal assets to supplement their children’s overall educational erudition. However, it would be expedient if there were more openings for everyone living in rundown localities to have better contact with these amenities and to benefit from them in genuinely purposeful ways. In general, insufficient use is made of the nation’s stock of regional resources to advance their chances for stimulating out-of-school learning. Museums, art galleries, libraries having computer-based facilities to counter ‘digital poverty’, historic monuments, science centres, sports programmes, apprenticeship courses, coaching schemes and the like can all be put to good use in reinforcing the drive and enthusiasm to succeed.
6. Utilising the expertise of altruistic volunteers. Another initiative aimed at narrowing the gaps in enterprise and scholarship is the deployment of unpaid helpers, including retired professionals, as mentors or advisers to interact constructively with young people. Thoughtful scrutiny is necessary to recruit from a wide variety of current or previous occupations and to select those who have the proficiencies which can inspire and transform lives. There are many conceivable inputs which committed citizens could contribute: tutoring to upgrade accomplishments in literacy, numeracy and technology; revising lessons during evening sessions; offering guidance on job interviews, employability skills and careers; preparing students for formal examinations in specific subjects; assisting with applications for tertiary education and the world of work; and so forth.
7. Increasing admissions to tertiary forms of education and training. The inhabitants of economically deprived surroundings require greater admittance into tertiary forms of education across colleges, universities, formal vocational courses, and industrial placements. For instance, it is well documented that places in universities for school leavers from the poorest districts remain stubbornly low despite much hullabaloo about this scandalous issue. More radical measures for estimating aptitude and academic ability are urgently needed. These could include better use of holistic assessment processes organised by universities and the commercial sector to gauge hidden flair and talents. Instead of allowing a slide towards any lowering of standards – a topic which has been raised by some businesses – valid, alternative procedures for determining authentic potential in identifiable areas of instruction and study should be instigated. Of particular disquiet is the danger of teenagers not embarking on the most appropriate courses for entry into future, gainful livelihoods.
8. Evaluation and accountability in the application of policies. As implied earlier, policy decisions and initiatives ought to have built into them a formal outline of data and predictions concerning the ‘socio-economic duty’ of the official bodies which hold the purse strings. These should include clearly stated targets and measures of what will be achieved with reference to the promotion of collective equality and the enhancement of occupational prospects. As plans are put into operation, they will entail impartial appraisal to ascertain how effectual they are in relation to what they set out to complete. Transparency and the addressing of unpalatable facts are fundamental in bringing forward essential improvements. Everybody has the right to be kept up-to-date on whether undertakings have matched expectations or fallen short of declared objectives.
Concluding remarks – or will we be fooled again? Further action research to identify the most proficient means of delivering and supplementing evidence-based methods would be advantageous. It is crucial to determine what combinations operate best and in what circumstances. It could be argued that all, or almost all, of the eight discussed strategies have been around for some time in one form or another with various levels of realisation. What have been missing are comprehensive, integrated and enduring forms of engagement which effectively eliminate the prerequisites of deprivation in different settings. We owe it to today’s pupils to ensure that promised solutions are fully executed and that they are not misled as were the generations which have gone before them.
How would the youth in Jose de Ribera’s portrait feel about the progress which has been made since his days as a street urchin? While, in general, being pleased with societal and educational developments, he may wonder why they have not been more successful. He may think that as long as there are dog-eat-dog economies – whether capitalist or communist – the poor and dispossessed will always be present. Nevertheless, I am sure that he would call for educational programmes and reforms which place a stronger emphasis on everyone’s worth, efficacy and dignity. He also might wish to highlight the prospective benefits in terms of wellbeing, happiness and economic advancement within a more unified and contented world.
Footnote: Other relevant articles in this series cover: quality in the curriculum; inspirational teachers; the promotion of authentic learning; potential, attainments and achievements; and diversity, equity and inclusion. For some links, please see below at “Related”.
(Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)