Our Kids reveals American class inequality – which has all-too-evident parallels here

Robert D Putnam is that rare creature, a political scientist who has risen above specialism and skilful use of statistics to become the “poet laureate of civil society”. Since the publication in 2000 of Bowling Alone, which charted the weakening of social ties in modern America, he has been courted by civic and religious leaders, including Barack Obama. His latest book, Our Kids, has already inspired passionate essays by Francis Fukuyama, Ed Miliband and Tristram Hunt, each, tellingly, finding in Putnam’s research a subtly different message.

Our Kids is an absorbing sketch of the US in the 21st century, built on hundreds of ­interviews with families around the nation (most of which were conducted by Putnam’s research associate Jennifer M Silva) and employing a hefty range of empirical evidence. The book’s starting point is Putnam’s home town, Port Clinton in Ohio, which in the 1950s was a “passable embodiment of the American Dream”. Putnam is careful to acknowledge the racial and sexual prejudices of that era and to note: “Class differences were not absent . . . [but] those differences were muted.” For all that, Port Clinton was, he believes, a “site of extraordinary upward mobility . . . In the breadth and depth of the community support we enjoyed, we were rich, but we didn’t know it.”

Returning home more than half a century later, he finds the town to be a place of stark contrasts, a “poster child for the changes that have swept across America in the last several decades”. Our Kids charts the new divide, with the poor struggling to survive economically, educationally and emotionally, while the middle classes lead largely stable, prosperous lives.

Putnam touches on some striking features of the new inequality, from the rapid growth of a black and Latino middle class to how the better-off are more likely to be politically involved than their poor counterparts, who have become disengaged and distrusting. Although crime has fallen to near-record lows, there has been an exponential (and expensive) rise in imprisonment, particularly of black men, with catastrophic implications for the families left behind.

There is even a striking new divide in family relations. Among the middle classes, the 1950s model of stay-at-home mother and wage-earner father has given way to two graduate working parents, both highly involved with their children. Middle-class children enjoy every advantage: access to good schools, a broader range of extra-curricular activities, a wide net of parental contacts and even the social benefits of family dinners. (Dining together is a particular obsession of Putnam’s.) Intensive parenting has become the norm. As one middle-class father in Oregon says, “We ask more questions in a week than my parents probably asked in four years through high school.”

At the other end of the economic scale, low wages, unemployment, insecure housing and welfare cuts have fractured poorer families, often held together by a single parent or grandparent trying to keep the household safe in drug- and crime-ridden areas. Early deprivation lays the foundations for a lifetime of health and psychological problems, diminishing the development of important “executive functions” such as concentration and impulse control.

In the US, the decline of public education has had equally troubling effects. Putnam questions the efficacy of the charter school movement (the equivalent of the UK wave of academies and free schools) in bridging the gap. Exhorting “college for all” not only ignores the need for strong vocational education but often channels poorer students into lower-ranking colleges with higher dropout rates (and saddles them with continuing debt). He also states that equality of resourcing is not enough. The US should plough more resources into poorer districts and schools, something that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has been arguing for years.

For UK readers, the parallel with our situation is easy to see, from the sharp decline of manufacturing, suppressed wages and increasingly segregated towns and cities to rising child poverty and the disingenuous insistence by the right on education as the main route out of poverty. We can recognise that the “ominous bass line” of our culture has been “the steady deterioration of the economic circumstances of lower-class families, especially compared to the expanding resources available to upper-class parents”.

Putnam risks conveying too binary a class divide but there is something refreshing in his insistence that society has created a considerably advantaged middle class – far from the gilded 1 per cent but not the tragically overburdened group so pitied by the Daily Mail. His insistence that the relatively well off have lost physical contact and human sympathy with the poor is a crucial insight for the political discussion of our attitudes to welfare, immigration and education.

Profound and unsparing as this book is, Putnam lacks big answers. A kind of deliberate ideological neutrality leaves him strong on description, weak on prescription. One can too easily imagine a David Cameron-type figure using Our Kids to make a daft, “nudge”-like proposal that welfare benefits be contingent on evidence that a claimant’s family eats together nightly.

The book points to the positive effects of public investment and social programmes of earlier decades (including a publicly funded school system) and even to the benefits of channelling cash directly to the poor. Yet Putnam’s final chapter shies away from suggesting any substantive or redistributive measures. Instead, he offers sensible, incremental reforms, from improving the availability of contraception and reducing prison sentences for non-violent crime to increasing investment in early education. Those who are after bolder solutions will need to look elsewhere.

Melissa Benn is the co-author of “The Truth About Our Schools” (Routledge)

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D Putnam is published by Simon & Schuster (400pp, £18.99)

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman.

This piece originally appeared in the New Statesman on Feb 24th 2016

Hold the front page! Tory peer offers ‘ringing endorsement’ of Tory school policies.

Some of you may have been a little puzzled by headlines yesterday, including in the Guardian, proclaiming ‘Soaring state schools threaten private sector.’ It is not often that a Guardian lead story risks sounding like a Tory press release or a Toby Young blog but, as I argue in a post on today’s Local Schools Network, this is certainly one report that begs rather more questions than it answers:
Who or what was the source of this lead story?
The chief source is the much quoted Ralph Lucas, owner of The Good Schools Guide ( available on subscription), the education bible of the upper-middle classes.
While many newspapers and the BBC report that Lucas is an Eton educated hereditary peer, fewer mention that he is a Conservative and that according to the UK Parliament website he is listed as a member of the Tory group in the Lords – a rather crucial omission given the underlying politics of the story. Henry Stewart of the Local Schools Network has written previously about the political leanings of the 12th Baron.
Which schools is Lucas talking about?
Safe to say that Lucas is not referring to schools in the AET chain, many of which have been recently criticised by Ofsted, nor indeed to some of the excellent comprehensives in impoverished areas around the country.
Media discussion of the new, improved state sector concentrates on those in wealthy, urban locations, such as my old school Holland Park or Toby Young’s West London Free School ( which has yet to produce a single set of GCSE results), schools which operate in highly favourable circumstances in relation to everything from admissions to resources to government support and, of course, media publicity.
Are private schools really on the run?
Soaring fees, in a time of austerity, have produced a lot of grumbling about the burden on parents who choose the private sector.
But this is nothing new. Exactly the same stories were run in 2009 but without the pro-government gloss.
Then as now, those private schools most affected are small and medium sized establishments outside London, forced or welcomed (take your pick) into the state sector under the free schools and academy programme.
Soaring fees have clearly not affected the sector as a whole, particularly at the elite end.
According to William Richardson, general secretary of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents leading independent schools, ‘pupil numbers are currently at record levels in private schools.’
Last May, the Independent Schools Council said 517,113 pupils were at UK independent schools, the highest level since records began 40 years ago.
Can the government really claim ‘soaring’ success for its schools policy?
Ralph Lucas is widely quoted as saying that he had been ‘put off sending his own children to the state sector in the 1980s after seeing pupils using drugs and fighting at state schools in west London.’
Leaving aside the fact that dinner- party-style anecdotes have no place in a front page news story, this was at the height of the Thatcher period, when resources and government support for state education was at an all time low, and most Tories wrote off comprehensive education asa form of impossibilist idealism, producing only mediocrity.
Historically speaking, the Tory Party is a truly shockingly late arrival to the idea that non-selective schools can succeed and the party currently risks returning us to the grim old days of widespread selection with its foolish plans to expand grammar school education.
Lucas does at least acknowledge that the belief in the potential of all children is the work of several generations. He also mentions the work of some genuinely innovative and inclusive local schools, such as Highbury Grove, led by Tom Sherrington.
Not surprisingly, the DFE has gleefully jumped on the Tory peer’s comments, claiming in yesterday’s paper that they are a ‘ringing endorsement’ of its policies.
In truth, they are a pure propaganda gift to government at a time when most agree that state education is facing a perfect storm in the face of a growing crisis of teacher retention, recruitment and demoralisation, impending funding cuts and widespread alienation as a result of a new, far narrower curriculum.