Our Kids



A visit to Rome’s colosseum this summer reminded me that we can be quick to judge the moral failings of other societies, while ignoring those of our own. The tourist route around the colosseum exposes the divisions of Ancient Rome.  The plebs occupied benches at the back, the patricians enjoyed prime views below them, while the senators enjoyed the comfort of a separate podium which afforded unbroken views of the spectacle unfolding before them. This spectacle involved animals and slaves being hoisted up from underground dungeons to fight for their lives in front of paying customers.

While marvelling at the architectural splendour it’s easy for tourists to chide the moral failings of Roman society, captured in these ancient ruins.

It was on this Italian trip that I read Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.  I bought the book after listening to a podcast interview with the author in which he says:

When a kid from an affluent home does a dumb thing, like getting involved with drugs, airbags instantly inflate to protect the kid form the bad consequences of that dumb decision. So if one of my grandchildren got involved in drugs the first thing I would do is find the best lawyer in town and the second thing I would do is find the best rehab facility in town… and I’m not apologising for that.  That’s what parents and grandparents do, they try to help kids get around the results of bad decisions.  But if one of the poor kids in our book does exactly the thing that I’ve just described: no airbags – and that encapsulates the degree to which we’ve shunted these kids from the rest of society.

The passage above captures the dilemma that Putnam explores throughout the book: how to ensure social justice for all our kids when they are born into such different circumstances.

Putnam makes a strong case that the social bonds that previously ameliorated inequality have eroded.  Going back to his own childhood in 1950s Port Clinton, Ohio, he argues that even poor kids back then tended to have two parents with stable jobs who owned their own home.  While the grip of race and gender has loosened since the 50s, the grip of social inequality has tightened, with poor kids today now suffering from the twin evils of low absolute mobility (wealth in western society as a whole has stagnated) and low relative mobility (less movement up and down the social ladder).

Putnam provides powerful case studies of the different experiences of rich kids and poor kids when it comes to parents, schools and neighbourhoods. Rich kids receive from their parents more hugs, more emotional support, more family dinners, more conversation, less physical punishment.  Their daily family experience cultivates the view that the world is theirs to enjoy – they are encouraged to be adventurous, confident, ambitious.

These differences play out beyond the home:  ‘If you live in an affluent neighbourhood you are much more likely to know and trust your neighbours’.  Affluent parents have a broad and deep network of contacts to draw on in times of need.  Putnam compares these support networks and social safety nets to the poor social cohesion he sees in deprived neighbourhoods. This might not be so bad if it wasn’t for the growing trend of poor kids living in exclusively poor neighbourhoods and rich kids living in exclusively rich neighbourhoods.

Not surprisingly, it was the chapter on schools that interested me the most.

Putnam describes schools as being ‘sites’ of a growing divide, as residential sorting means that rich kids and poor kids tend to go to very different types of schools:

The American public school today is a kind of echo chamber in which the advantages or disadvantages that children bring with them to school have effects on other kids. [M]iddle-class kids like Isabella hear mostly encouraging and beneficial echoes at school, whereas lower-class kids like Lola and Sofia hear mostly discouraging and harmful echoes.

The ‘encouraging echoes’ include parental support, funding for extra-curricular activities, and motivated peers.  The ‘harmful echoes’ include low aspirations from peers and parents and exposure to violence and drugs. In a trend mirrored on our side of the Atlantic (e.g. this Datalab evidence) schools in challenging areas struggle to recruit and retain teachers.

Perhaps more alarmingly, learning is disrupted more frequently in schools with poorer kids: ‘high-poverty classrooms have four times the concentrations of academic, attention, and behaviour problems as low-poverty classrooms’ and these kids are less likely to follow an academic curriculum: ‘parents in upscale communities also demand a more academically rigorous curriculum, which in turn helps produce more learning, fewer dropouts, and more college entrants.’

These differences are exacerbated as richer families are better placed to identify better schools and then move closer to them.

Even when things do go wrong in school for rich kids, Putnam provides examples of those airbags that immediately inflate to limit the damage.  He describes rich parents moving their kids to another school; paying for therapy; setting up a study at home; volunteering in the school to keep an eye on things; advocating for their kid in front of their teacher when their rich son was accused of cheating in a test.  In one example, parents bought a horse and stables to provide a productive outlet for a teenage daughter having a bit of a wobble.

If this all sounds pretty bleak, there’s hope in Putnam’s prose.

Even if schools haven’t caused the social divide, ‘they might well be a prime place to fix it’ he argues, in a line I wish I had thought of years ago when first confronted with that dismal argument that schools can’t compensate for society (I usually just point out that plenty of schools do, and in any case, we must surely try, much as doctors fight against the spread of illness, knowing that they won’t always be successful).

Putnam advocates spending more on early years rather than college years.  The massive economic cost of wasting the talents of millions of kids justifies significant expenditure, he says, even if it’s costly, and even if we can’t be sure that our intervention will pay off. Putnam suggests that such initiatives might include cash transfers to poor families with young kids, tax credits, reducing incarceration, improving rehabilitation, expanding mentor schemes and even relocating poor families to richer communities.  In our schools he suggests better funding for schools in challenging areas, a longer school day and better vocational provision.

I’m not sure that we need to take such a scattergun approach in order to transform our schools from echo chambers of social division to launchpads of social mobility.  We have enough successful schools in the system, such as THESE 7 schools with the highest progress 8 figures, to know that our poorer kids need great teachers, a decent curriculum, a culture of high expectations and lessons free from disruption.  The fact that several of these schools are in London is thanks in part to the huge pool of ambitious teachers that London headteachers can draw on.  We must redouble our efforts to entice teachers to rural, coastal and isolated schools, even if that means throwing money at the problem.  Once recruited, Putnam urges us to put these teachers ‘under conditions in which they can actually teach and not just keep order’.  This means eliminating disruption from our classrooms once and for all.

In the final line of the book Putnam calls for all of us to take responsibility for all kids – ‘for America’s poor kids do belong to us and we to them. They are our kids.’

The moral superiority I felt towards the citizens of Ancient Rome was shattered by Putnam’s depiction of our fragmented society.  At least those of us who work in schools are in a privileged position to do something about it.

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