Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The power of the anecdote

David Aaronovitch understands well the power of the anecdote. He wonders why it was that even by the age of three, children from middle-class families had a much higher level of educational attainment than children from disadvantaged families. Then he heard about a mother whose son was in his daughter's class say that her son couldn't concentrate on reading in the evenings, when really it was because she let him drink Coke in the morning. All became clear, lack of educational attainment is the fault of the parents.

"Babies need to be talked to, toddlers need to be read to, children need to be considered. Kids need to be fed decent food. Except in instances of dire poverty, money itself is rarely the explanation as to why these things don’t happen...There are too many families who don’t have books in the house, who don’t limit TV watching, who don’t set boundaries, who don't set their children an example. There are too many families who don’t or can’t care that much about their very young children. Maybe they don’t care because they weren’t cared about. Perhaps such cultural poverty is as much a cause of actual poverty as a consequence," he writes.

Being grateful for small mercies, at least he didn't go on to castigate unmarried mothers who only have children so they could get a council house. For all that it sounds so understanding ("maybe they don't care because they weren't cared about"), it is an argument of pure prejudice, as so many arguments built on anecdotes are. To say that lack of money isn't the problem just shows that he has never tried shopping for 'decent food' for children while on benefit, or tried to find enough time to spend with the children while working long hours in low paid employment.

The last paragraph mentions how this 'illustrates the case for early intervention'. He threatens that this requires another column of its own. But early intervention can mean very different things. At its most effective, it is about offering more opportunities and support to parents - the chance to talk about how it's going looking after a small baby with someone who understands and can offer practical tips and advice or the chance to have a break sometimes and know that their kids are somewhere safe and having fun. This support is ones which new parents who have disposable income and a supportive network of friends and family often rely on, but which parents with no money and few if any friends or relatives have to manage without. Every parent can benefit from support from the state at some points, and some will need more support than others, just like the NHS or any other high quality, universal public service.

But the other side of early intervention is about identifying parents who are 'bad', and children who are supposedly likely to turn to crime or fail at school, and targeting and punishing them. The government, aided and abetted by the media, can rarely resist spinning new initiatives in this way - from parenting classes to 'baby ASBOs'. The reality never lives up to the hype, and the language alienates the people who might benefit from using the services.

Aaronovitch calls opinion from experts about the causes of educational inequality 'speculation' because it mentions the link to poverty and inequality (there even a joke about how in the old days it would presumably have been explained as a result of genetics). He asks, rhetorically, "If we were to take £10,000 a year from the wealthy and simply give it to the families of the most “backward” of these children, would we expect a dramatic change in their vocabularies at 3?" (If he's interested, the answer is probably yes, and it sounds like an excellent research project).

If you believe that educational attainment is just the result of good and bad parenting, then there are all sorts of policy implications. Redistribution of wealth from rich to poor families is a lower priority than spending on narrowly targeted services, there should be more sanctions against symptoms of bad parenting such as letting children eat junk food, and the responsibility lies primarily with the parents for the choices that they make.

In contrast, if this inequality can't reasonably be explained by the idea that rich parents care more about their children, and is instead caused by the inequalities of wealth and power in our society, then giving children an equal chance to develop their knowledge and abilities requires a very different set of policies. It requires a much more equal distribution of wealth and income. It means understanding the pressures on parents, making it cheaper and easier to eat healthily, possible to spend more time with the children (without having to worry about sanctions from government and employers as at present). It requires redesigning public services to fit the needs of all children and their families, and introducing new services to help with the problems that parents identify.

There are parents who are well off and do all they can to ensure that their child flourishes academically, just as there are parents who are not well off and do the same. There are parents, rich and poor, who don't value educational attainment and pass that on to their children. But few parents do as much to increase the gap between those who succeed and those who don't as the ones who say that it's all the fault of the parents.


At 11:46 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said.
Steve Brown

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