In a modern and affluent society such as ours, why do kids from poorer or ‘financially disadvantaged’ families struggle to achieve the same level of educational performance as their peers from more affluent families? This blog post looks at the size of the gap and what the Government is trying to do to address it.

There is a direct connection between child poverty and attainment. A recent report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlights the attainment gap between the rich and poor in Scotland, though the findings are relevant to all children for whom poverty is an obstacle to academic achievement.

A 2007, an OECD study revealed that the socio-economic background of parents is more influential in terms of a child’s attainment than the school they attend. The UK Government, meanwhile, notes that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are far less likely to obtain good GCSE results.

As if any more evidence was needed, in 2013, almost 38% of students who qualified for free meals achieved 5 GCSEs (including English and maths) at A* to C, compared to 64% cent of children whose didn’t qualify. Shocking isn’t it?

The Joseph Rowntree report, published in May, 2014, makes the following key points

  • By the age of 18 months, the attainment gap is already present. By the age of five, the attainment gap between children from low- and high-income households lies at 10 months in problem-solving development and 13 months in vocabulary. By age 12 to 14, those from more affluent areas are more than two times more likely to achieve success at numeracy than those from poorer areas. By 16, attainment levels rise all-round, but there continues to be an important gap between the two groups.
  • Children from poorer households tend to leave school at an earlier age, leading to less desirable employment outcomes.

A similar report was published in May, 2013, by the Cardiff Council. Key findings of this report included:

  • Poverty does not simply comprise a lack of financial resources; to quote the authors, “it can also mean a lack of material, cultural and social resources which affect the aspirations, experiences and life opportunities of individuals.”
  • Some of the barriers created poverty include a low income, inadequate housing and health care and a lack of opportunity for sports, cultural pursuits and learning.
  • Poor children face three different types of barriers: material, social and personal. Material barriers include a lack of books and Internet access at home; social barriers include low levels of parental education and inadeqaute support for the learning process at home; personal barriers include problems with self-esteem and social/emotional immaturity.
  • The effects of poverty are different for each child. For instance, those with inadequate access to health care may become ill, fall behind at school, find that they cannot catch up with their classmates when they return to school, become bored, refuse to return to school, etc.

The fact that more needs to be done to tackle the child poverty attainment gap is unquestionable, though it is a complex task which requires both evidence-based solutions and a multi-pronged approach.

Schools benefit from the Pupil Premium which adds £900 per year to school budgets for student’s entitled to free school meals. There are justified concerns that the definition of a ‘disadvantaged pupil’ is too narrow. The school meals measure often excludes new arrivals into the country and those need to take on English as an additional language. There are also pupils who regularly change school, and miss the continuity that they need. Some of this money finds its way to tutoring and classroom assistants, but this in itself is insufficient. 

So what more is being done? Well, some approaches being considered by relevant bodies include:

  • Increasing communication between schools and parents; supporting parents in areas where parents may not necessarily speak English by employing staff from a similar ethnic background or enlisting the help of multilingual students.
  • Encouraging parents to take an active role in fostering the value of education at home.
  • Free school meals are crucial to attainment, since evidence shows that when children obtain better nutrition, they do better academically. Yet many families entitled to free school meals are not availing of this opportunity. There are two reasons for this: first, many parents have not completed the paperwork they need to obtain the entitlement for their children and secondly, children who use vouchers instead of money to pay for their meals can feel socially stigmatised in front of their peers. Efforts should be made to aid parents fill out forms they may be having difficulty with. At school, meanwhile, there should be a card system so that those obtaining free meals do not stand out from their classmates.
  • Teachers should attempt to raise children’s self-confidence on an individual basis through emotional support, since insecurity can cause a child to ‘act up’ and give up on academic life. Support should not just be centred on students in primary school; as they transition into secondary school, their needs should once again be assessed. Having a head teacher who is extremely committed to helping disadvantaged children can be highly beneficial. In September, 2011, the Deputy Prime Minister announced the commencement of summer schools programme, which supports disadvantaged pupils in their transition from primary to secondary school. The programme was launched on February 4, 2014.
  • Schools which receive extra allocations for deprived pupils need to monitor the effect of their spending plan on attainment, to ensure that extra funds are making a measurable difference.
  • Schools should share successful programmes and strategies.
  • Specific programmes encouraging early learning of literacy and numeracy skills should be offered to children in the most deprived areas of the UK.
  • More library services should be targeted to children, who should see libraries as safe, entertaining places where they can discover new books and audio-visual material. There should be enough staff to fulfil this requirement.

It’s a complex problem, requiring a series of solutions. But the link between poverty and attainment has to be broken; a defeatist attitude should not be accepted at schools or encouraged among children. We would value your opinions on the problem, and what you think needs to be done to address it. Please feel free to tell us what you think via the comments section below.




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