Poverty levels in parts of Britain mirror “the times of Dickens”, leaving schools struggling to cope with increasing numbers of children lacking the most basic personal skills, according to a teachers’ leader.
Some pupils from the poorest areas arrive at school unable to dress themselves or use a knife and fork, with some even unable to use a toilet properly, she said.
Lesley Ward, president of the 160,000-strong Association of Teachers and Lecturers, warned that many children were also being relied upon to raise younger brothers and sisters and lacked stable father figures in the home.
In a speech last night, Mrs Ward, a primary school teacher from Doncaster, said Labour had “tried hard on this issue” but had failed to fill the vacuum left by the death of the mining and manufacturing industries in many working-class communities.
She said it meant a “small, significant and growing minority” of children were being raised in families with low expectations and a level of poverty “mirroring the times of Dickens”.
It was “next to impossible”, she added, for schools to counter the effect of serious deprivation, family breakdown and a lack of parenting skills in many communities.
Her comments follow the publication of figures showing nearly three million children still live below the poverty line in Britain. Ministers have admitted there is little chance of hitting their target to half child poverty by 2011.
It also comes amid fears that children’s education chances are still too strongly linked to family background.
Private schools extended their lead over the state sector in GCSE and A-levels this summer. And figures published this week by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development showed the UK had more teenagers out of work and without a college place than almost any other developed nation.
In her speech, Mrs Ward said: “I am talking about perfectly healthy children who enter school not yet toilet-trained.
“Children who cannot dress themselves, children who only know how to eat with a spoon and fingers, and have never sat around a table to enjoy a home-cooked family meal. Children who think that the word ‘no’ means if you throw a wobbly it will miraculously turn into yes.
“Children who get themselves, and sometimes their younger siblings, up in the morning. Children who bring themselves to school at very young ages. Children who sometimes don’t know who will be at home when they get home – if anyone. Children who don’t know exactly who the father figure is in the home from month to month.”
She added: “I know of a pupil who actually saw, from the classroom window during a lesson, his house door being kicked in and his dad being led out of the door in handcuffs – this was during Sats week. He did not achieve the level he should have. Are we surprised?”
Doncaster has already been at the centre of a series of child protection controversies. The local council was criticised in a damning report recently following the deaths of five children known to the authority. And last week police and social services came under fire for failing to stop two brothers in the nearby former pit village of Edlington terrorising the local community, culminating in a savage attack on two boys.
Mrs Ward, who has just been appointed president of the ATL, the third biggest teaching union, said low expectations had been created among parents following the decline of heavy industry. Typically male-dominated jobs have been replaced in many areas by part-time, low-paid service jobs filled by women, she said.
Speaking in central London on Wednesday, she said: “Teachers all over the country are working in areas like this. Areas where often more than half the children receive free school meals, where one in ten of the school population is on the at risk register, where 10 per cent, or more, of the children in each class have some form of special need.
“These children come from some of our poorest communities, starting school with the huge weight of deprivation on their shoulders, and it can be next to impossible to counteract the effects of such deprivation. I would like to stress I am not talking about the whole of our school population, but a small, significant and growing minority.”
The comments come as a survey published today found more than a third of parents believed Labour had failed to live up to its election pledges on education.
Almost nine in 10 said all political parties hyped up their promises to secure votes, according to the study by the charity Edge, although most parents did not believe the Conservatives would fulfil their pledges to make schooling a priority.
A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: “There has been an enormous programme of social reform over the past 10 years that has lifted 500,000 children out of poverty and in June the Government enshrined in legislation it’s commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020.
“Most three and four year-olds now access free childcare, thanks to £3 billion of annual funding by Government, which helps many parents get back to work. We have also committed to spending around £2 billion more by 2010 on public services aimed at breaking cycles of deprivation – key to meeting our 2020 target. These focus on childcare, raising attainment, improving schools, reducing health inequalities and improving school transport.”
Nick Gibb, the Tory shadow schools minister, said: “It’s impossible for teachers to get on with the job of teaching if children in the class have not mastered some of the basic life skills.
“There are pockets of the country that have been written off over the past few years with a culture of low expectations, low levels of educational achievement and high numbers of people not working. We’re determined to address these problems and not leave any sections of society behind, so that all children have the opportunity to succeed.”
By Graeme Paton
Published: 10:51PM BST 09 Sep 2009
Source: The Telegraph