The narrative of the ‘poor bright child’.

The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life. Jane Addams.

Earlier this month the government announced a £23m ‘future talent fund’ targeted at ‘bright’ students from poorer backgrounds. New investment in education can only be welcome and the new fund may do some good. However, without wishing to reject any gift horses, in the context of under-investment overall it seems to be taking a highly selective approach to which young people are worth investing in, based as it is on the narrative of the ‘poor bright child’.

Much of the thinking behind the rhetoric of social mobility is based on implied hierarchies. The assumption seems to be that social inequalities are inevitable and that in order to make society fairer we need to ensure that those who ‘deserve’ to move up the hierarchy get a chance. Their merit is generally established through some kind of educational proxy; ‘potential’, ‘talent’, ‘intelligence’ etc. Once we have the measure and the label, we simply need to search for those who fit the bill and help them up rather than questioning the root causes of the prior inequality.

The preferred subject of such policies is therefore the ‘poor, bright child’ as the best symbol of the possibility of meritocratic upward social mobility. They need to be identified, sought out and lifted up in a particular way as their needs are clearly different from those of the irredeemably poor and ‘not bright’. This approach acknowledges that being economically disadvantaged does have a negative impact on likely educational success. By adding the adjective ‘bright’, advocates are distinguishing between children based on some ill-defined innate property of bring ‘bright’ or intelligent, something not accessible to all and with a limited distribution. Being ‘bright’ equates to being worthy of particular interventions to overcome the obstacle of socio-economic disadvantage.

The measures used to categorise children as ‘bright’ or otherwise are very limited and very limiting. Age-related achievement in standardised tests or exams are used to categorise children from an early age and we should not be surprised when success in early assessments is the strongest predictor in continuing success with increasingly wider gaps opening up between children at different levels.

But what of the ‘not bright’ poor? If being ‘bright’ equates to being worthy, then ‘less bright’ must be less worthy. But if there are social determinants to educational achievement surely these must affect all poor children, not just ‘bright’ ones. If we can acknowledge that money and social capital can buy educational advantage for the ‘not bright’ rich, is there not a possibility that the ‘not bright’ poor could also benefit from such investment?

Educational achievement is not perfectly linear or age-defined. Inclusive, comprehensive post-16 colleges have many students who were written off as academic ‘no-hopers’ at 16 based on their GCSE results and have gone on to achieve well in conventional terms and to progress on to Higher Education. In our sixth form college in Newham for instance, around 200 of our 661 university progressors this year had worked their way up from lower level programmes, having come to us at 16 with mostly D or E grades or below at GCSE (grade 3 or below) – hardly meeting the threshold for being described as ‘bright’. Their journey may be against the expectations but on this scale it shouldn’t be seen as unlikely or against the odds.

The problem is that not everyone who advocates greater social mobility actually wants a more equal society. It is quite possible to be in favour of giving poor, ‘bright’ children a step up while also being wedded to a very unequal society with a high gradient between the poorest and the richest and all the negative implications that has for social cohesion and wellbeing.

This is why the social mobility agenda is essentially regressive and inegalitarian. It conceals its commitment to reproducing existing social inequalities and injustices in a rhetorical cloak of aspiration and fairness. By defining who is deserving of a particular focus, it sets limits on the aspirations of the majority and reinforces a structural, systemic unfairness.

The truth is that such categories as ‘bright’ or ‘not bright’ are far too crude a basis for making educational judgements. We need to understand the complex factors which contribute to educational achievement while keeping faith with the idea that all people are capable of achieving much more than they already have and that all people are worthy of the best education we can offer.

Based on our experience so far, we have some idea of the potential of education, which has already enhanced human capacities beyond anything that was thought possible just a few generations ago. We have barely started to develop the potential of what humans can achieve, individually and collectively. To limit our ambition by using categories such as ‘bright’ is to deny this potential and to reinforce the structural inequalities which hold us all back.

Let’s hope that the new Future Talent Fund can go beyond the narrative of the poor ‘bright’ child and dig more deeply into the causes of social and educational inequality across society.

See also:

The East End’s ‘engine of progression’ (November 2017)

NewVIc class of 2017 progress to university (October 2017)

Overlooked and left behind? (April 2016)

The limits of social mobility (March 2016)

Reducing London’s disadvantage gap (January 2016)

Is social mobility enough? (April 2015)

How can we reduce educational inequality? (September 2014)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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3 Responses to The narrative of the ‘poor bright child’.

  1. Philip Draper says:

    An excellent article Eddie,
    I totally concur with the arguments you have posited.
    The concept of social mobility as being actioned by this Tory govt. is regressive.
    Like you, I see education as giving all our citizens the opportunity to improve their lives, their communities and our society.

    Best wishes to you, your family, students and staff.
    Let’s hope for a better 2018 for education: ‘for the many and not just the few’
    Philip Draper
    SEA, Sedgefield CLP.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ros Lucas says:

    This serves to demonstrate just how out of touch any government and many MPs are with the ailing education system that does not address anything in such a way to show support for all children, especially those who whether summer born, poor early starters, struggling with two or three languages might just require more time to show what they are made of!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David Hughes says:

    Thanks for this blog on a really important topic. I agree wholeheartedly with your concerns – a scheme like this will not change anything important for our society, even if it does help a small number of young people to make better progress. As well as your analysis that this is about ‘bright’ students, it reminds me of politicians who think about the ‘deserving’ and the undeserving’ poor – I once found myself in a conversation with a minister who asked me whether adult education could be directed at ‘disabled people who are the deserving’, in the sense that some people are disabled through their ‘own fault’. Quite chilling and scary, but similar in some ways to this categorisation of ‘bright’.

    I prefer to talk about social justice in education (and in life) which allows for a system which supports everyone to make progress, to use their potential, to develop their capacities and capabilities. This needs a system in which people can access opportunities to learn at many stages and ages of life, in many different guises and for all sorts of reasons/motivations. We are a long way indeed from a system like that – lifelong learning needs to be out culture and it is not. We could look to public health to see how their narrative is about how every single citizen can improve their health and their life expectancy and life quality by changing behaviours – that’s what education should strive for, because all of us need to continue to learn throughout life, for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways – for many of the privileged (including you and me) we do that routinely, but for millions of people they have neither the resources nor the opportunities to benefit from learning. That needs to change and will not be helped in any way by this scheme.

    Lifelong learning should be the goal.

    Liked by 1 person

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