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Monday, February 15, 2010

Do Poor Children Fall Behind?

The blog, School Gate has an interesting article on income and education. Click here for the link.

Yes, poorer children do fall behind, but parenting is key.


It's the parenting, stupid! As visitors to this blog will know, the influence of parents matters hugely in education. Research paper after research paper emphasises what a difference parents can make to their child's development. And this isn't only in an academic sense, but an emotional sense too. We parents can do such a lot, something which is often missed in the stress over school places and how much a child is actually learning in a school environment.

Today, many will be shocked by the Sutton Trust's latest report, showing that children growing up in the poorest families are already almost a year behind their richer peers by the time they are five. Others, although saddened by this information, will not be at all surprised. It's an issue which comes up over and over again.

Last week Ed Balls came into the office to answer questions about education. There were so many of them (over 300) that they couldn't all be published. Some of these were on the importance of parents when it comes to education. I mentioned this to the Secretary of State afterwards and he agreed that it was a problem. But it seems to be one that no one is quite sure how to address. It's seems very "nanny-state" to tell parents what to do with their own children, and although it often happens, it rarely seems to be targeted. Even though this is so clearly needed.

The new research reveals things which I didn't find very surprising (although that's not to say that I am not saddened by them). The poorest children tended to have younger mothers, for example. These mothers tended to have more children than their richer counterparts. Just under two thirds of the poorest children didn't live with both biological parents by the age of 5, over a third had parents who didn't have a single A-C grade GCSE, and only 23 percent of the poorest mothers were employed when their children were five, compared with 73 percent of the richest mothers.

But when it comes to education - and we are talking about five year olds here, so we are right at the beginning of "real" education - parenting style and the home environment came out as the most important factors explaining the cognitive differences. For example, the research showed that a child who is read to every day at age 3 has a vocabulary at age 5 that is 1.92 months more advanced than a child with what the Trust calls "exactly the same observable characteristics (including income group)", but who is not read to every day at age 3. Similarly, a child taken to the library on a monthly basis from ages 3 to 5 is predicted to score 2.53 months ahead of an observationally equivalent child who did not visit the library so frequently. However, just under half (45%) of children from the poorest fifth of families were read to daily at age 3, compared with 8 in 10 (78%) of children from the richest fifth of families. Rules about bedtimes were also less likely to be enforced in poorer families.

What a problem for modern society - and something so hard to deal with. Children should have opportunities, but how is it best to help them?

Figure 1. Mean developmental ages for 62-month old children on the BAS Naming Vocabulary test, by income quintile


Note: Quintiles are arranged in terms of mean before-tax annual income, ranging from £10,300 for quintile 1, to £20,200, £30,200, £42,900, and £79,500 for subsequent quintiles

When people try to get involved and change the likely outcomes for particular types of children, it's a minefield. You don't want to patronise, be accused of vilifying young mothers or told off for suggesting that it's better for children to have two parents, whether married or not.

Added to this is that those parents who seem to be doing all the right things - reading to their children, taking them to museums and libraries, trying to make sure they get enough sleep and feeding them a healthy diet - feel patronised when told what they think is obvious. We found a "snack swapper dial" in our son's book bag recently. It told us, for example, that instead of giving children sweets, we should try fruit, because it's better for them. Duh.

Class and money, those typically British issues, of course, rear their heads here. Middle class parents have got used to being criticised for taking their children to after-school classes and fussing over their schooling. But the so-called "pushy" parent is needed across the spectrum.

This government has very much tried to make a difference. There will be 3,500 Sure Start centres across the country by the end of the year - and helping families from the very beginning of their children's lives can really make a difference. But more, and different help is needed.

The Sutton Trust research out today says that parenting programmes are vital, and of course these need to be targeted. It also argues that the plans to allocate free nursery education to all 3 and 4 year olds should be "redirected" to 25 hours for 2-4 year olds from the most disadvantaged families. I think this is an excellent idea.

So, let's hope things can be changed, and that the issues can be looked at rationally, without accusations of class prejudice getting in the way. If we want a society where every child has an opportunity to succeed, we have to look at what may be holding them back. Parenting can really be key.

PS Everyone sees things in their own particular way. When I looked at this research, I was surprised to see that the achievement gap was so completely tied up with money. As you can see from the graph above, it's there right the way through. There's a huge gap between the richest and poorest, but also a considerable gap (at age 5!) between children whose family have middling incomes and those on high incomes. I can't see why this would be the case - unless you simply accept (and I don't) that the richest people are innately the cleverest....

1 comment:

vamoe said...

This is why it is wrong to allow Charter schools to take extra money from the state and the district and then require parents to sign participation agreements. We cannot require it in the regular public schools and some parents will never do it. Charter schools are inherently elitist and unfair.

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