Children from poor families are being blamed for their own poverty and treated as "feckless and idle", the head of one of Britain's leading teaching unions has said.
Andy Ballard, the new president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said young people who failed to achieve at school were often trapped in a cycle of poverty stretching back several generations and beyond their control.
In a stinging attack on the record of successive governments to close the poverty gap, he told a reception in London that many children in modern Britain continued to live in near-Third World conditions, short of basics such as food, clothing and proper housing.
And he warned that young people in rural areas are in even greater danger of falling behind, with patchy public transport, the closure of local services and high property prices leaving many increasingly cut off.
He told the gathering: "Poverty is the scourge of our society. It is unacceptable to me that children from poor families are treated as if they were feckless and idle, as if their poverty was their fault."
In a high profile intervention into the debate about youth crime and low achievement he insisted: "These children must become our collective responsibility. Schools and their teachers can only achieve so much."
He told how during his 30 years teaching in rural Somerset he had seen the grandchildren of earlier pupils pass through the same schools, trapped in the same levels of poverty.
"There still remain children living in systemically poor families, and I mean really poor, not just a bit short of the readies: under nourished, poorly housed, poorly clothed, culturally isolated and deprived," he said.
"In rural communities, the lack of aspiration and opportunity is more acute.
"The lack of affordable housing and lack of well-paid work forces young people and families to find homes and jobs away from rural areas, ultimately leading to the closure of playgroups, schools and youth services."
In a wide-ranging address marking the start of his year in charge of the union, whose members are drawn from colleges and independent schools, Mr Ballard also attacked the Government for its "excessive focus on targets", and warned that the teaching profession could face a new recruitment crisis because of below-inflation pay rises.
Despite the recent chaos over the marking of national secondary school tests, he warned that new, less pressurised, assessments being trialled as a possible replacement to the so-called "Sats" could create even greater difficulties.
"The involvement of the private sector, which we are always being told will bring greater efficiency, has been an embarrassing disaster," he said.
"Clearly the Government needs a way out and the real question is whether or not we will be jumping from the frying pan into the fire with the new single level assessments currently being piloted."
In a swipe at Gordon Brown, he also argued that the Government was now split over the merits of its controversial city academies with the "blinkered" ambitions of education minister Andrew Adonis at odds with the aims of the education secretary Ed Balls and the wishes of Downing Street "which thinks it will win the support of the electorate if it keeps banging on about so called failing schools."
Amid repeated calls from Mr Brown for public sector pay restraint to help curb rising inflation Mr Ballard said: "I warn the Government that if teachers and support staff fall behind in real pay terms it will lead to increasing unrest, greater disaffection and a potential recruitment crisis." (By John Bingham and Graeme Paton --Last Updated: 12:35AM BST 04 Sep 2008)