The gap years: education and social immobility

Boys - largeDespite having been high on the political agenda for decades, the educational gap between rich and poor children is still stark in Britain in 2011. Research shows that a wide range of influences conspire against poor children gaining a good education.

7 April 2011

"On the education of the people of this country the fate of the country depends." This proclamation from Benjamin Disraeli is still shared by today’s politicians a century and a half later. Ensure access to a proper education for all, and the result is improved well-being, prosperity and social mobility – benefiting both individuals and society in general. Or at least, that has been the ambition.

But although the politicians may be willing, the results are weak – or limited at best. Children growing up in poorer households are still generally underperforming in school. Despite hopes, performance targets and rigorous testing have not propelled ever larger numbers of British children and teenagers up the education ladder.

As research shows, there is no 'silver bullet' to tackle the education challenge. The report Poorer children's educational attainment: how important are attitudes and behaviour, by Alissa Goodman at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Professor Paul Gregg at the ESRC Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO) , uses data from several ESRC-funded longitudinal surveys to analyse influences on children's educational attainment. It reveals that a wide range of factors come into play – including not only material resources, but also aspirations and attitudes both from the child and from their parents.

The report, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, shows that the cracks appear at a very early stage. According to data from the Millennium Cohort Study there are already 'considerable gaps' in cognitive test scores by the age of three between children in the poorest fifth of the population and children from better-off households – and these gaps widen by the age of five. Not only cognitive abilities, but children's social and emotional well-being follow a similar development through childhood years.

One important factor may be the home environment and how much it encourages, or discourages, learning. Results show clear differences between poor and better-off households both in health and well-being, family interactions, home learning environment and parenting styles.

"Children from poorer families enter the school system considerably behind those from affluent families. This is associated with a weaker home learning environment and less sensitive parenting," says Professor Paul Gregg.

Ironically, once children start school the educational gap does not narrow; it widens more quickly. An analysis of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children reveals that the gap grows particularly fast during primary school years. Poorer children who performed badly at Key Stage tests at age seven were less likely to improve their ranking compared with better-off children. And even those poorer children who performed well at this age were more likely to fall behind the better-off by age 11.

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