Fresh research highlights old problem

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26 February 2010: Major new reports from the National Equality Panel and the Sutton Trust emphasize the importance of a child’s social background on their academic attainment, exam results and college prospects and stress the need “to improve the educational attainment of poor children.”

Sutton Trust square logo resizedResearch from The Sutton Trust*, which draws on work conducted by the Millennium Cohort Study, shows that, by the age of five, children from low-income families are significantly less advanced in their educational development.

In particular, the vocabulary of five year old children growing up in the poorest fifth of families is already almost one year (11.1 months) behind that of children from middle income families and more than 16 months behind those from the most affluent families.

Much of this gap is a result of differing parenting styles, specifically regular bedtimes, parental reading and trips to libraries, galleries and museums. Even allowing for these differences, however, children from low-income families start school three months behind middle class children, largely because of poorer health and ‘material deprivation’ (e.g. lack of internet access at home).

To help bridge this vocabulary gap, SHINE has recently awarded funding to A Chance to Talk, which is piloting new models for teaching communication skills to 4-7 year olds. SHINE also funds Every Child a Reader, which has proved hugely successful in helping thousands of young children every year achieve significant improvements in this most basic of skills.

The National Equality Panel

Reinforcing the Sutton Trust’s conclusions is the report of the National Equality Panel**, set up by the government in 2008. According to the study, Britain is more unequal than it was a generation ago; one measure of inequality it examines suggests that, by 2007-8, Britain had the same level of income inequality as existed in the post-war years.

Described by the Prime Minister as “sobering”, the report states that “it matters more in Britain who your parents are than in many other countries” and describes the importance of “the long arm of people’s origins in shaping their life chances… literally from cradle to grave.” Among the areas covered in the report is education up to, and beyond, GCSEs. In particular:

  • There is a large difference in ‘school readiness’ and vocabulary scores between three year old children from the poorest 20% of families and those from the richest.
  • This vocabulary gap is even wider by the time children are five.
  • There is a strong link between living in a disadvantaged area and having special educational needs, learning disabilities and/or social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.
  • The attainment gap between children receiving free school meals and those who do not continues to widen until they reach 14 (before narrowing very slightly up to GCSEs).
  • Eligibility for free school meals is the single biggest factor hindering a student’s performance at GCSE.***
  • Even disadvantaged students that do perform well are less likely to go onto higher education at all, let alone to a Russell Group university.
  • Once at university, they are less likely to achieve a first or 2:1.
  • Consequently, more work is needed “to improve the educational attainment of poor children in general, and substantially to improve the staying on rates after 16 of low-income children in particular.”

These findings support the picture provided over the past decade by other studies, official reviews and government statistics. These all consistently demonstrate how economic disadvantage seriously compromises educational opportunity and academic attainment.

Providing opportunities, encouraging attainment

To address disadvantage, provide opportunities and encourage attainment, SHINE funds and develops educational programmes that offer dedicated time, individual attention and expert support to disadvantaged children of all abilities. Our Saturday programmes, for example, provide students from low-income families with creative learning at weekends, carefully designed to complement the national curriculum and thereby increase attainment.

At secondary school, SHINE funds a number of projects designed to help disadvantaged teenagers of all abilities to maximise their performance at GCSE and continue their education. For example, Brunel Urban Scholars targets bright students from poor backgrounds, while the Lyric Theatre’s START project helps students at risk of serious underperformance to raise their game and achieve the skills and grades they need to prosper in adult life.

How you can help

Although the National Equality Panel report makes for grim reading, it also shows that the educational underperformance of disadvantaged children is slightly smaller now than 10 years ago. Proper intervention, carefully targeted, can and does work. If you would like to help SHINE level the educational playing field, please click here to make a donation.

*Low income and early cognitive development in the U.K., The Sutton Trust, 2010. Click here to download a PDF copy of this report.

**An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK: Report of the National Equality Panel, 2010. You can download a PDF of the executive summary, the 56 page summary and the full report (476 pages).  

***Excluding the effects of coming from Gypsy and Traveller families.