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Is Education the Way Out of the Poverty Trap?

Posted: 23/02/2012 08:10

For those born into poverty, every day is a natural disaster. Yet in this case, society often appears to turn a blind eye. The very same people who shed tears watching the aftermath of the Japenese Tsunami are the ones who cross the road to avoid the homeless. Those who ran around the office with a bucket to help the Haitian people in the wake of the earthquake that claimed 220,000 lives, are the same ones who avoid eye contact with those, who really should just go get a job.

It seems that a cause is not a just one unless it is leading the hourly news, or a famous rock star is challenging us all to do our bit.

Living in poverty, as with any natural disaster, hits children the hardest; and all too often we think of poverty as something that is common in other countries than our own.

In 2007, UNICEF's report on Child Poverty in the OECD stated that Australia has a relative child poverty rate of nearly 12 per cent. That is, 12 per cent of children living in a house where the family income is 50 per cent or less of the median wage. Some people argue that the poverty level is higher than this, as relative poverty only looks at those who (for whatever reason) earn very little, and not those who earn nothing at all. More than 500,000 Australian children live without an employed parent in their household. The UK and USA rate far worse coming last and second last respectively in a comparison of Child Wellbeing throughout the OECD.

As a society we must look at ways to break the cycle. There are many factors that need to be considered when addressing poverty, government spending to improve housing and benefit payments as well as pushing for an increase in the minimum wage; and then there is education.

Education is often lauded as the great bright hope; if we can educate the young, they can break free of the poverty trap. Indeed I've hear education described as The Passport Out of Poverty.

But the sad fact is, the poor are being failed by the very thing that was meant to save them. Education for the poor is fundamentally flawed.

Research (Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2007 - The Impact of Poverty on Young Childrens' Experiences of School) has shown that by the age of seven or eight, many boys from low socioeconomic backgrounds have disengaged from their educational experience. Many more follow in the early years of high school.

One of the primary reasons is that too many schools fail to engage the students in a meaningful way. They do not put learning into context. School is seen as something you do to prepare for life.

This fails the students on a number of levels, but in the very worst case scenarios (where violence and gang culture are rife) it fails young males who do not place much importance on the future; for them, it's all about the here and now.

Education must realise and address this.

Add to the fact that in comparison to their middle class peers, children as young as nine-year-olds know their education is inferior; they know their access to extra-curricular activities is diminished; and they know they will get lower paying jobs.

Education first and foremost needs to reframe this knowledge. That means moving away from the relentless push to improve literacy and numeracy above and beyond all else. Clearly these things are important, but Education reform must empower young people to identify their strengths and form a new context in which to live their lives.

This takes a skilled and dedicated teaching body committed to reshaping the educational model but all too often, where the best teachers are needed, few can be found. To counter this, the Western governments have tried offering incentives to go and teach in remote areas, as well as backing the Teach for Australia and Teach for America programs. Noble ideals, but we need to recognise that teaching is a craft; one that needs to be honed and continually adapted to meet the needs of an ever changing society. Just throwing money at the situation, or sending in graduates with little more than six weeks intensive training into the 'thick of it' may have detrimental effects in the long term. In order to work in these schools you need a passion and dedication that the students feed off. You need to dedicate to them in the long term. Leaving after two years, as the majority of Teach for America Corps members do, often leads to more distrust of the educational system in the communities they were meant to engage.

In order to address this we need an attitudinal shift in society. Although we can't give cash every time we are asked, we can reframe our thinking. We can recognise it for what it is; poverty - in our own back yard.

If we do this maybe we will mobilise our efforts in the same way we do when Bono asks us to.

Maybe as a society we won't cross the street, or avoid eye contact so as to deny its very existence.

Maybe governments will better fund outreach education programs; better fund the most needy of schools instead of trying to shame them, and seriously consider the educational needs of the vastly different communities.

Just maybe...

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