Routes out of poverty: education and social mobility

This was first published for Challenge Poverty Week 2014 and then for the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships.

Education and social mobility can alleviate child poverty, but not in the way the government supposes, i.e. by improving future educational outcomes of poor children in order that they do not become poor adults. Rather, child poverty in the here and now can be alleviated if we allow low-income parents free access to further and higher education.

The UK Child Poverty Strategy 2014-2017, released for consultation by the Coalition Government last February, is focused on ‘breaking the cycle of disadvantage’ and on ensuring that ‘where you start in life should not determine where you end up’. Two of its three routes to achieving this are: Supporting families into work and increasing their earnings; and preventing poor children becoming poor adults through raising their educational attainment[1].

To address the first route their principal means of supporting families into work and increasing their earnings is through the Work Programme and other employment-related activities such as raising the minimum wage and the personal tax allowance. A secondary means is through ‘improving qualifications’. Further investigation reveals that this translates into improving basic literacy and numeracy.

To address the second route, their principle means of preventing poor children becoming poor adults through raising their educational attainment, is to focus on compulsory schooling with the responsibility and accountability for this lying with schools, teachers and parents. As the government notes, they want to ‘ensure that the parents of tomorrow will have better qualifications’[2] -presumably better than the parents of today.

Now, this raises many areas of concern, from the lack of consideration for the lives of children as lived in childhood[3], to the ability of employment to lift families out of poverty[4], given the fact that there are more poor children in households with a wage-earner than without; however, I would like to focus on an issue that I have come across with my current research with the Child Poverty Action Group, and that is the further and higher education of parents living in poverty as a route into work and, hopefully, out of poverty.

In my longitudinal, qualitative study of twenty families living in poverty, ten in England and ten in Scotland, four of my Scottish ten were able to access further or higher education during the course of the research. None in England were. Two of this four completed further education and obtained their first job since becoming a parent: one is the mother of three boys aged 6, 10 and 13 and the other the mother of two boys aged 10 and 12. The remaining two went on to study degree programmes: these two mothers have one son each. The antecedent to accessing education for these women was gaining confidence and skills through volunteering.

These women gained in wellbeing, confidence, skills and self-esteem. They made friends and widened their social networks. The lives of their children demonstrably improved. Of her new job, Jennifer says: ‘I totally love it. I’m really, really happy. So, last year was a great year for me. I passed my driving test, got my wee car, which I saved up and paid for myself, and I took my kids on holiday. I love it, totally love it’.

Jennifer says that the knowledge that she has completed a college course and succeeded in getting a job she loves has had a positive impact on her children, particularly her eldest son (aged 13), who has told her that he is proud of her. She says: ‘my oldest one, he’s often saying to me: “It’s good the way you are now, you’re really happy now. Remember when it was like this?” So he feels a positive change. So that’s really good’.

This is only a brief glimpse into this research but I want to highlight that in Scotland, education is a viable route into employment and out of poverty for parents who are unemployed, due to the system of no fees in Scotland (this is not entirely straightforward as becoming a student when you’re a parent can raise issues with the benefits system, and I will write about those another time). In England, there has been a 40% decline in applications to universities from part-time students, amounting to 105,000 fewer applicants, 9/10 of whom are mature[5]. For full-time students, there has been a 14% reduction from 2010 to 2013, amounting to 18,500 fewer applicants[6]. Among this potential mature student community will be parents and lone parents. By increasing the fees in other parts of the UK to £9,000 per year, the government has effectively removed access to further and higher education for many poorer parents and prevented a route out of poverty for them and their children.

[1] The UK Child Poverty Strategy 2014-2017, pg 11.
[2] The UK Child Poverty Strategy 2014-2017, pg 25.
[3] Ridge, Tess (2002) Childhood poverty and social exclusion: from a child’s perspective, Bristol: Policy Press.
[4] Shildrick, Tracy, MacDonald, Robert, Webster, Colin and Garthwaite, Kayleigh (2012) Poverty and Insecurity: Life in Low-Pay, No-Pay Britain, Bristol: Policy Press.
[5]http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/highereducation/Documents/2013/PowerOfPartTime.pdf
[6] http://www.suttontrust.com/newsarchive/18000-fewer-mature-students-apply-university-since-fees-increase/

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