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[Susan notes: Excellent letters that speak specifically to poverty.]

Published in The Independent (UK)

To the editor

Letters to the editor published in the Independent (UK), Dec 14 in reaction to Britain's low scores on the PISA.

The first blames the "truculent laziness" of underclass children. The second (mine) blames poverty. The third says the Chinese do well on tests but are not creative. The fourth says we need better teachers and smaller classes and repeats the mantra that young people these days are illiterate and can't do simple math.

As usual, I included research citations with my letter. I assume the others didn't, and that the editor thought their arguments were reasonable enough for publication.

The overall heading for all four letters is unfortunate: "Children who defy teaching," implicitly agreeing with the author of the first letter.

Children who defy teaching

It is worrying that Britain's performance in education is falling relative to that of other countries, ("British schools slump in global league table", 8 December).

Look at those countries that come highest in the table. In their schools, lessons are more formal and regimented but discipline is excellent. In Britain, we are reluctant to talk about an "underclass" but we have a stratum of society in which income (wage or benefit) is low and the upbringing of children chaotic. These children are doomed from the moment they walk into school if not, indeed, from the moment that they are born.

The report suggests that the level of achievement in English and maths of the bottom 20 per cent is sufficiently low as to limit their chances of gaining employment. This is not strictly true. I have taught many pupils of very limited ability who have good personal qualities, have drawn fulsome praise whilst on work experience and have gone on to find employment. When, however, limited ability is allied with a truculent laziness and aggressive "yobbishness", then their employment prospects are bleak.

The Government has little doubt where the fault for educational failure lies. Ofsted inspections are based on the principle that any child, no matter how wild, will respond with enthusiasm if only the quality of the teaching is good enough. We need to end this fiction and tackle the problem of the "underclass" in a determined manner. If we can succeed in this then improved educational performance will be just one of the benefits that society will reap.

Stephen Shaw, Nottingham

American scores on an international test of reading (the PISA) show exactly the same thing that UK scores show: children of poverty don't read very well. American students in schools with few children of poverty scored near the top of the world, those in schools with mostly high-poverty children scored near the bottom of all countries tested.

Similar to the UK results, our research also shows that middle-class English language learners often do better on reading tests than children of poverty who speak English as a first language.

The research tells us why: studies done world-wide show that high poverty means less access to books at home, in school and in the community. This results in less reading, and less reading means lower performance on reading tests.

A necessary part of the solution: more support for libraries and librarians in high-poverty areas.

Stephen Krashen, Los Angeles

Stephen Krashen and Stephen Shaw

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