Attainment gap : Wealthy children significantly outperform poorer children

The attainment gap between children from poorer families and their better off peers begins before they reach school age and continues to widen throughout their education, a new report has highlighted.

Children from richer backgrounds “significantly outperform” those from more deprived backgrounds between the ages of three and five, while by the age of five, poorer children are around 12 months behind in problem solving and vocabulary.

The gap continues to widen throughout primary school and into secondary education, the report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) found.

In early secondary school, 28% of children from poorer families are performing well in numeracy, compared to 56% of those from advantaged backgrounds. Children from poorer families are also more likely to leave school early and without a qualification, according to the research.

The impact of the attainment gap continues into working life, with poorer children three times as likely to be unemployed after leaving school, twice as likely to work only part-time hours, and if they do find work they will earn only around half as much as children from richer backgrounds.

The report, written by the University of Strathclyde, looked at how well Scotland’s education system is serving those from low income families.

It suggests the Scottish Government should raise awareness and provide “clear guidance” on how schools can close the gap.

The report also calls for education body E ducation Scotland and local councils to ensure every school has the data to tell them what their attainment gap is, and what impact their actions are having for different groups of children.

Such data should be used by headteachers and teachers to design a curriculum “that meets the needs of the community the schools serves”, the report said.

Jim McCormick, Scotland adviser at JRF, said: “Scottish education serves many children well, but too many poor children risk becoming poor adults unless we close the attainment gap.

“This limits their life chances and prospects, which not only has a knock-on effect for them through unfulfilled potential, but for Scotland’s economic performance.

“At all ages and stages in a child’s school career, there are interventions which can be made to break the cycle of low attainment. Closing the attainment gap must be a higher priority for everyone concerned with education in Scotland.”

Sue Ellis, co-author of the report at the University of Strathclyde, said: “Schools need to pay greater attention to closing the attainment gap but they need help in the form of clear, evidence-informed and helpful advice from Government, national agencies, local authorities and universities.”

Education Secretary Michael Russell said: “We wholeheartedly agree with JRF’s report that there is still work to be done, but only with the full powers of independence will we truly be able to do everything we can to reduce poverty and close the attainment gap.

“We and our partners are strongly committed to achieving that and the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment figures indicate that we are beginning to make progress.

“The reasons for this gap are complex, including – as JRF notes – factors in a child’s home background, and require partnership working over a range of policy areas to make progress in this vital area for the country’s economic and social well-being.

“We are working to ensure that teachers and school leaders have the right skills and experience to deliver improved outcomes for all children and young people, including those who are most disadvantaged. This range of integrated policies and programmes will help realise our ambition of making Scotland the best place to grow up.”

Commenting on the report, Jackie Brock, chief executive of charity Children in Scotland, said: “What is really welcome about this work is that it identifies the agenda for a whole range of pre-school and education leaders and organisations on the action required and, based on evidence, about what could work to eradicate the attainment gap which bedevils Scottish education.”

Neil Mathers, head of Scotland at Save the Children, said: “The attainment gap between children living in poverty and their peers, is unacceptable and the consequences can be lifelong. It often means opportunity is out of reach and can lock children into a cycle of poverty.

“Save the Children has long called for this issue to be addressed and for better understanding of the causes of the attainment gap in Scotland to be made a priority.

“Closing this gap is the greatest challenge to our education system so we welcome the focus being put on this issue and that it is now part of the wider plan to tackle child poverty in Scotland.”