Living on the Edge:
rethinking poverty, class and schooling
John Smyth and Terry Wrigley 2013
New York: Peter Lang
239 pp., £24 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-4331-1685-8
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 2015
Class divisions have always been a powerful force in education in England, but they have been exacerbated in recent years as the twin forces of neoliberalism and globalisation have taken hold and the gap between rich and poor has grown ever wider - a process which looks set to accelerate as the present government pursues ruthless austerity.
Research commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed that in 2012-13 8.1 million people - including almost forty per cent of households with children - were living on less than the minimum income threshold, the level regarded by the public as necessary for participation in society. This was a rise of more than a third from 5.9 million in 2008-09, with single parents the worst affected (The Guardian 19 January 2015).
As Robin Alexander, chair of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust, has written:
what government has given with one hand via the Pupil Premium it has taken away with another through economic and social policies that have made Britain the most unequal OECD country in Europe in terms of income distribution, with 3.5 million of its children living in poverty (with numbers predicted to rise further) and one million people dependent on food banks (CPR Trust 5 May 2015).Why should this be so? What is the relationship between class and poverty? How are children affected? What sort of schools and education policies might begin to repair the damage? These are the questions which John Smyth and Terry Wrigley seek to answer in Living on the Edge. They deal with the issues in an international context but with a focus on developments in the UK, North America and Australia.
We are very much aware of the political context of our writing. Poverty shows no sign of abating in this Age of Austerity, as governments try to make the many pay for the greed and folly of the few. We continue to be encouraged by the energy and courage and resistance of millions around the world who continue to fight for a better future (p. viii).Interestingly, Smyth (based in Australia) and Wrigley (based in the UK) had never met, and their collaboration on Living on the Edge was conducted entirely online. They write that 'The fact that a text as complex as this one could be written against this background is testimony to the power of ideas and the passion with which we hold them' (p. vii).
They acknowledge the support given by Bob Lingard at the University of Queensland, 'and in particular for his timely advice to examine the wider sociology before returning to the world of education' (p. vii). In his Foreword, Lingard says the book contains important lessons 'for all involved in education: politicians, policymakers, principals, teachers, students, parents and communities'. It recommends changes in practice and policy which would provide 'better schooling for all young people, but especially those young people living in poverty for whom schooling is the only way to a better future' (p. xii).
Living on the Edge is in three parts: Part One examines the nature of class and poverty; Part Two looks at how individuals, families and communities are blamed for their own poverty; Part Three considers the role of the school and suggests policies and strategies which could improve opportunities not only for the poor but for all students.
But first, in their Introduction, Smyth and Wrigley give an overview of the subject. They explain that Living on the Edge concerns 'the education of young people whose lives have been made precarious by forces beyond their control' (p. 1), and they note that 'The official policy discourse, while acknowledging poverty (or at least disadvantage), is virtually silent about class' (p. 2).
While neoliberal politics and globalisation have increased class divisions and led to a massive increase in child poverty, they have also had a cultural and ideological impact. This can be seen in the curriculum reforms in England which 'overprivilege the basics of literacy and numeracy' and 'give priority to what are now called the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)' (p. 3). Working-class pupils are encouraged to follow a vocational curriculum, while 'cultural enrichment and intellectual challenge are preserved for pupils from families with higher socioeconomic status, whatever their career ambitions' (p. 4). Thus half the students at Oxford and Cambridge come from the seven per cent of children educated at independent schools where the fees are often more than some families' total income. Historically, mass schooling in England and the US has aimed to keep working-class children in their place: 'intense professional and political struggle has since moderated this, but the legacy has continuing effect' (p. 5).
They draw inspiration from prominent sociologists including Carlo Raffo, Pierre Bourdieu and Erving Goffman; and from educationists such as Paulo Freire and Harold Rosen. They seek to explain how poverty derives from class, arguing that the poor
are not a separate class but workers who for various reasons (racism, disability, single parenthood, location, unemployment) are particularly hard hit. Their poverty is not the result of their own deficiencies but of the wealth and power of a minority of others (p. 9).They note that the fallacious theory of inherited intelligence 'not only blames the victims but makes low achievement seem inevitable' (p. 9), and that linguistic difference is often treated as deficit. They question the assumption that young people growing up in poverty lack ambition.
They argue that much of the research on School Effectiveness and School Improvement results in recommendations which 'not only leave neoliberal economistic aims and government surveillance methods unchallenged, but also treat each school as an autonomous manageable entity in competition with other schools' (p. 10).
In considering the curriculum and pedagogy, they support radical initiatives that seek to engage with the concerns of working-class students but reject a simple appeal to immediate relevance, and they raise serious questions about 'the recourse to vocationalism as an alternative rather than a complement to academic learning' (p. 10). They note that limited kinds of teaching tend to predominate in schools serving areas of poverty.
They acknowledge that education for work is important: 'preparation for a productive and creative engagement with nature and society will always be an important part of education' (p. 11). However, in the current utilitarian climate
we all need to insist on a wider vision - that schools are also a place for growing up, for cooperation, for developing social concern and solidarity, for critical thinking, physical activity, and creative and cultural development (p. 11).They see current forms of accountability as a form of political bullying which 'does nothing to promote greater equality of achievement, let alone engagement or enjoyment', and they hope their book will 'help to keep alive a more fruitful and just understanding of educational change' (p. 12).
Part One: Understanding class and poverty
In Part One Smyth and Wrigley provide the conceptual and sociological foundation underpinning the issues. They seek to clarify some of the complexities and ambiguities of class and poverty 'in terms of economic and social structure, personal experience, and symbolic significance' (p. 13). They argue that the impact of class and poverty on educational engagement and achievement is both economic and cultural.
Chapter 1, Making sense of class, examines class as structure and experience. The authors provide a historical overview, discuss class in economic and cultural terms, explain the traditional terminology (upper, middle, working class etc), and argue that the labelling of the most vulnerable section of the working class as an 'underclass' is 'intensely destructive':
There is a particular venom in the way those who have been pauperized by deindustrialization and austerity politics are blamed for their own suffering. Families struggling to survive in places where no work is to be had are blamed for a lack of aspiration. Though poverty clearly does have cultural manifestations, it only suits the rich to turn the relationship upside down and see culture as cause rather than effect (p. 31).In Chapter 2, Understanding poverty in the twenty-first century, Smyth and Wrigley seek to explain the nature of poverty - a 'misunderstood phenomenon' (p. 39) - and how it derives from class divisions. They argue that 'there are structural causes for poverty in the fundamental inequalities of exploitation and dispossession, exacerbated by the seismic shifts of globalization and neoliberalism' (p. 39-40).
They examine poverty's links with differences of race, gender and disability, its geographical distribution, and its effects in terms of defeat and demoralisation, stigma and marginalisation. They note that 'Children are at greater risk of poverty than the population as a whole' (p. 51), notably in England, the US and Canada, and that this has 'a substantial effect on educational achievement' (p. 51): pupils eligible for free school meals in England are half as likely as other pupils to achieve five A*-C grades including English and Maths at GCSE.
They conclude that
children and families in more affluent countries do not generally face poverty because of personal inadequacies or violent tendencies nor from individual or social peculiarity, individual fecklessness, or a collective culture, but because they are the most vulnerable section of an exploited class that is economically and politically under attack due to the limitless greed of the one percent who control the lives of others (p. 55).Part Two: Blaming individuals, families and communities
Part Two examines the 'long history of seeking to place the blame for academic underachievement outside the school system' (p. 57). Students, parents and neighbourhoods have traditionally been the targets of this culture of blame, but more recently individual schools in areas of poverty have come under attack:
We would not wish to deny that some schools are more successful than others in educating disadvantaged children and young people, but it is simply dishonest ... to exaggerate the possibility of increasing school 'effectiveness' in an intensely unequal and divided society (p. 58).Chapter 3, Material poverty and 'problem' neighbourhoods, looks at the effects of poverty materially (as a lack of essential resources), relationally (because of the standard expectations of the rest of society) and symbolically (in terms of stigmatisation and low social esteem). Smyth and Wrigley note the work of various social geographers in examining the characteristics of poor neighbourhoods and the effects of area-based interventions. They discuss the 'nebulous concept' (p. 70) of social capital and examine the effects on children of growing up in poor areas. They describe a number of positive approaches, including the work of one Australian school which dramatically raised both its pupil numbers and their level of achievement and so 'helped to overcome a sense of fatalism' (p. 77).
In Chapter 4, Blaming individuals and blaming their genes, they confront 'the myths of fixed, singular, and inherited intelligence that have been used to tilt the education system in favour of some young people to the considerable detriment of many others' (p. 81). They note that attempts to measure intellectual ability have often been 'infamous scientific scams', but that 'rigid assumptions about ability continue to inform class-based processes of social stratification in schools' (p. 81). They conclude that 'rethinking what is meant by intelligence is crucial to the way marginalized young people and their families are treated educationally' (p. 81).
In Chapter 5, Speaking the wrong language, they suggest that language deficit theories - focusing on class in the UK and race in the US - have often replaced the discredited theory of inherited intelligence. They note that the dominant tradition of early intervention for poorer families was based on removing children from parents for a large part of the day and compensating for poor parenting. They conclude that:
It is time to rethink this in favor of more participatory models that involve parents for at least part of the time in order to facilitate the sharing of ideas and practices between parents with respectful encouragement and modeling from professionals and including resources like libraries of toys and books for children to take home (p. 117).In Chapter 6, Aspirations and 'cultures of poverty', they examine 'another ideology of blame, the failure to aspire' (p. 119). They reject the notion that children from working-class families are unambitious and argue that 'we need to show them real possibilities and provide genuine pathways and opportunities' (p. 120). They report on research in the US and the UK and conclude that what is needed is
a different kind of discursive and pedagogic work in order to give any coherence to aspiring and producing beneficial outcomes, including more assertive and oppositional challenges to hegemonic assumptions. All of this ultimately depends on economics rather than attitude (p. 128).Part Three: The role of the school
In Part Three, Smyth and Wrigley note that, particularly in the past two decades, politicians have used the argument that some schools appear less effective than others as 'yet another excuse for not facing up to the massive economic divisions in society: the implication is that it is not poverty but poor teaching that is damaging young people' (p.129).
They argue that much School Effectiveness research is flawed, but they also recognise that 'politicians have proved adept at making selective use of its findings to support their own interests' (p. 130). They bemoan the hypocrisy of politicians, government agencies and the media, who 'seem not to notice the contradiction between stigmatizing the most marginalized sections of society and castigating those whose job it is to educate them' (p.130).
In Chapter 7, Neoliberal school reform: blaming teachers, blaming schools, they examine 'a new ideology of blame'. They note that the privatisation of education, begun in the UK by Thatcher, was intended to drive up standards by increasing competition. In fact, 'Rather than driving up standards, the quasi-market proved to be a mechanism for promoting social segregation' (p. 143). They note Diane Ravitch's damning indictment of this process in the US - 'all the more telling because she is a veteran scholar of unimpeachable conservative values' (p. 143).
In chapter 8, Improving schools or transforming them: the politics of social justice, they highlight the inadequacies of dominant models of School Improvement, a key characteristic of which is 'a focus on process to the neglect of context and purpose; students' lives and learning are barely considered' (p. 154). They examine issues of school culture, including ethos, discipline and respect; and structure, including patterns of differentiation involving segregation and hierarchy. They note that 'Social class is a significant predictor of set placement' (p. 160) and that 'Research aiming to quantify whether streaming raises or lowers attainment can be useful, but it only scratches the surface' (p. 160):
The most important issue is the symbolic effect on pupils, how they understand it, and its impact on learner identities. This is a prime example of the importance of understanding phenomena in symbolic interactionist terms (p. 160).They warn that labelling children becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: 'The characteristics of a C stream child come into being through the existence of C streams' (p. 162). They offer some alternatives, noting that 'In Scandinavian countries, grouping by ability is rigorously avoided, at least until the upper secondary stage' (p. 165).
They conclude that
school improvement, while a progressive sounding term, has actually been hijacked by those whose real agenda is managerialist and economistic - that is to say, making schools more easily controlled and compliant and harnessing them to national imperatives of economic competitiveness (p. 167).In chapter 9, Poor kids need rich teaching, Smyth and Wrigley offer some key principles for socially just curricula and pedagogies which could 'help break the cycle whereby poverty and low class position are reproduced through the school process' (p. 130). They 'vigorously reject the idea that a curriculum can be based predominantly on "basic skills" taught outside an engaging context' (p. 175) and argue that education should be seen as liberation, not control.
They bemoan the fact that poor children are often subjected to a 'pedagogy of poverty' in which 'we see the self-fulfilling prophecy of low ability at work when some teachers decide to limit what they teach because the children do not know much' (p.178).
They warn of the danger of alienation and argue for authentic learning, which 'requires a connectedness to the wider world' (p. 182), and for authentic forms of assessment which support rather than negate authentic learning. They stress the importance of linking cognition with experience, and argue for 'real literacy' (p. 188), liberating voice, agency and identity: 'Versions of literacy that squeeze out interpretation and self-expression in favour of the technical features of reading and writing simply dumb down human development' (p. 189).
They argue that 'some of the most interesting debates concerning the curriculum have suffered from an entrenchment into one or other pole of a crudely defined binary: teacher-centered or child-centered, formal or informal, subject-based or interdisciplinary' (p. 190); and that more recently, within the neoliberal policy environment, 'the binary divide around relevance to working-class students has repeatedly been articulated in terms of a contrast between academic and vocational' (p. 191).
They note that
The neoliberal era has increasingly sought to control schools through tests of basic literacy and numeracy, resulting in a neglect of critical and creative activity and of many other curriculum areas. In England particularly, this has been reinforced by the publication of league tables of test results, by an intimidatory inspection regime, and by performance-related pay for teachers (p. 194).And they conclude that, while schools can make a difference, 'they cannot overcome the damage of exploitation and poverty by themselves' (p. 194). Those struggling to provide a good education in difficult circumstances often combine the development of new methods with a political commitment that opposes unjust social structures. 'It is no accident that curricular and social activism so often go together' (p. 194).
In their Conclusion, Schools for social justice: theories of good practice, Smyth and Wrigley bring together 'the basic principles of an alternative framework - one that we do not believe is in any way utopian, but that is very much alive in the culture and practice of some existing schools' (p. 196). They argue for 'a different way of doing education - one in which the structure and culture of schools and what goes on in them are radically reconstructed' (p. 200).
There is no reason, they argue, why England, Australia and the US should have education systems based on inequality:
Things need not be this way, and the fact that these powerful English-speaking countries manifest shamefully high levels of inequality yet appear deaf to any alternatives says much about the ideologically driven nature of this particular reform paradigm. The lessons from Finland could not be more stark, and while impossible to transplant or copy, they stand as demonstrable evidence that a commitment to equitable school provision and more democratic systems of quality control pays off handsomely in high levels of achievement and without any of the social disfigurement experienced in countries where schooling is blighted by the neoliberal project (p. 202).They offer some principles for renewal in terms of ethos and community, curriculum and pedagogy, meaningful collaboration and purposeful leadership. They conclude that we must acknowledge the difficulties faced by schools in areas of poverty and 'find respectful ways of challenging faulty expectations, norms, and pedagogies that help to reproduce poverty and marginalization' (p. 208). We need to rise to the challenge posed by poverty and reassert a sense of possibility and hope.
Living on the Edge is a profoundly important book, and given that the policies of the present UK government are likely to make the situation worse, a timely one for British readers. I hope it will be widely read.
I have one minor gripe. The book was published in the US and therefore uses American spellings. One has to accept that, even if it does mean occasionally stumbling over some strange-looking words such as 'reemergence' (p. 92). But it is slightly irritating to find that titles of British publications and - in a few cases - quotations from British books have been Americanised. For example, the Social Exclusion Unit's 2001 publication is rendered as A New Commitment to Neighborhood Renewal: A National Strategy Action Plan (p. 173).
More seriously, I have to say I found Part One (on the theoretical underpinnings of class and poverty) heavy going. It reads like a textbook for a degree course in sociology and I had to re-read some of the jargon-filled paragraphs several times to try to grasp their meaning. While it is unfair to pick examples out of context, the following (from p. 35) gives a flavour of some of the language:
The failure to hold on to this wider structural dynamic has serious consequences for educational theory, influenced by a more general Weberian sociology. Bisseret (1979) argues, for example, that Bernstein, despite frequent allusions to power relations, "thinks of his society as a diversified, stratified reality without class conflicts" and sees social relations predominantly in terms of intersubjective relations (pp. 104-5).Now I readily acknowledge that the fault here is probably mine. It is many years since I did my MA and I am out of practice when it comes to reading academic material. I would urge readers not to be put off: either persevere (as I did) or skip to Part Two.
The contrast between the dry theoretical language of Part One and the commitment and vigour of Parts Two and Three is stark. For it is here that the 'the power of ideas and the passion with which we hold them' (p. vii) become clear. Smyth and Wrigley have written a damning critique of the damage wrought by a neoliberal economic system in which the few have much and the many have little, an education system which mirrors and so prolongs these divisions, and a culture which blames the victim.
They offer a humane and compassionate manifesto for decency and fairness for all children, but especially for the many whose lives are blighted by the effects of poverty. Moreover, they provide practical suggestions as to how this could be achieved at both national and local level. They suggest, for example, that schools should actively recognise difference by
And they challenge all of us who care about the education of our children and about the nature of our society to fight for a better future:
Since social justice cannot be achieved by schools alone, this will involve new combinations of action within schools and in the wider society. We have to exert collective power to bring about serious change in schools and struggle alongside marginalized young people for their right to life beyond the edge (p. 208).
On the morning I finished writing this review two news items caught my attention. In The Guardian, economics editor Larry Elliott reported that 'Even the IMF recognises the vicious circle in which inequality breeds instability, which causes recession and spending cuts that make inequality worse'. The IMF's study of inequality, he wrote, 'contained a helpful chart showing that the Nordic countries tend to have the highest levels of equality and social mobility, while the US and the UK have the lowest. There is no trade off between the two' (The Guardian 22 June 2015).
And on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, government apologist Dr Samantha Callan was asked about the proposed draconian cuts in welfare. In a classic example of the culture of blame, she claimed that child poverty was about more than income. 'We have to tackle the root causes of poverty', she said, and she listed 'poor education, serious personal debt, very importantly, family breakdown, drug and alcohol addiction, poor mental health and welfare dependency' (BBC Radio 4 Today 22 June 2015).
A shorter version of this review was published in Forum 57(3) Autumn 2015 425-429.