I went to school with holes in my shoes. When it rained the water squished up between my toes. As a teenager I once went out on a bitterly cold winter's evening in a cotton jacket because the only warm coat I had was my school gaberdine - and I'd rather die of cold than of shame! We only heated one room in the house (with a coal fire) and in the winter there were ice crystals on the inside of the bedroom window. We didn't have an indoor lavatory or bathroom and took a weekly bath in a tin bath, which we kept on a nail in the back yard. I see now that we were poor but we didn't think of ourselves as poor, we thought of ourselves as 'working class'. We were in fact what is now referred to as respectable working class but by all modern measures of poverty we were very poor. We are not poor today; my sister is a university lecturer, my brother runs a small business and I am a psychologist.
How did we get from there to here? Free orange juice, cod liver oil, immunizations, school milk, school dinners, the 11plus, free tuition and a maintenance grant at an elite university all helped, but by far the most important reason was family. They couldn't give us a lot of things but they gave us a lot of time. They talked to us, played with us, gave us strong clear values and supported us at every stage of our education. Stability and security also played a large part. In my whole childhood I never knew a single person who came from a broken family. My parents bickered a lot but it never once crossed my mind that they would separate or divorce. When I set out for school in the morning my head was clear of any family worries and I was able to concentrate on my lessons.
I am reminded of this because of a new report by Frank Field on social exclusion and childhood poverty. He emphasizes what psychologists have known for years that a child’s future path is already determined at five. This is not a matter of material deprivation but of intellectual and emotional deprivation. For a baby’s brain to develop fully, it needs constant positive stimulation and the window of opportunity for such brain development is limited. It's not just that at five some children know more but that they have also acquired ways of learning and exploring. Children with little early years stimulation, not only know less but they also have a passive less responsive attitude to learning new things.
Very few people today are as materially deprived as many were in the 50s. The answer is not throw more money at the problem because it’s not material poverty that causes the problem but poverty of experience and aspiration. If a child’s brain is open and receptive there is hope even if he has a hole in his shoes.