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Poverty, Culture & Education

posted in: Thoughts on Education

Edited February 2020

Eugenics has shown up on my Twitter feed again, this time due to Andrew Sabisky’s appointment as a Downing Street advisor. When I wrote the original blog post, the idea that intelligence and class are related came up in the context of a Guardian article about whether or not ‘talking more to your baby’ will boost the child’s intelligence.

Professor Dorothy Bishop wrote a critical response from her researcher’s perspective which included the possibility that a child’s language difficulty might be genetic rather than environmental. The post was a good reminder to read science and question my gut feelings as a teacher and I don’t disagree that ‘talk more to your children’ is a simplistic answer to a problem that may have various causes.However,

I’m afraid people will take this research as support for their own ‘gut feelings’ about poor children and education.I say confidently – from years and years of observing the British class system from a foreigner’s perspective – there is an ingrained belief that poor children are not as bright as wealthier children. I’ve even heard it said out loud:

We all know that poor children are stupid.

Yes, that was said by a middle aged teacher in my hearing in the late 80s. I don’t believe that attitude has completely disappeared though it may have gone underground.

Teaching parents of any class or educational background how to speak to their babies and pre-schoolers is not about doing our best to mitigate an inborn lack of ability; it’s simply giving skills to people who lack those skills and want their children to have a better chance of succeeding in a very flawed education system. From day one, the education system favours children who arrive at school already able to describe their internal and external life experiences. By giving all children this opportunity, we have a much better chance of seeing which ones have real language deficits rather than deficits of experience.

Read the science and let it make you ask questions of yourself, but don’t dare let anyone use it to back up their ‘gut feeling’ about why people are living in poverty and not succeeding in education. Equally, don’t let anyone assume that every child who is unable to do something at four is somehow disabled.

Finally, I’ve always been fascinated by my own family history in this matter. My father & several of his siblings were very bright with measured high IQs which I assume had some genetic component. However, he came from a long line of unskilled workers, impoverished crofters and illiterate shepherds. The genius in the family wasn’t discovered until the family moved to Canada and into an education system that didn’t make any class-based assumptions about the children’s ability.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a similar but more academic response to the same article by Professor Susan Rvachew. She also talks about her immigrant family’s experience of escaping poverty through education in Canada.

Finally, here’s a cautionary line from Rvachew’s article. Please ponder it alongside the fact that post started with reference to a newly appointed Downing Street advisor with an interest in eugenics:

Public policy makes a difference and public policies are determined by the attitudes and choices of a nation’s people. Leffel and Suskind stress that an important part of their intervention is teaching parents that “intelligence is malleable and therefore can be increased with effort”. The public information campaign that emphasizes the Hart and Risley findings does not reflect ignorance by language researchers about the complexity of the problem. It reflects our knowledge that the public and the policy makers they elect are very often convinced that the poor are not worth the effort.

And that’s it, really. A country’s policies reflect the prejudices of its people and nowhere is that clearer than in the way the British education system operates.

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