Sensationalist stories of neglectful parents make for good headlines but they have little to do with the reality of closing the education attainment gap, warns Helen Barnard.
By age 16 only 35% of children receiving free school meals gain 5 A*-C grades at GCSE, compared to 62% of children not on free school meals. This attainment gap appears long before school age. It has narrowed slightly in recent years but remains stubbornly large.
In 2010 the JRF published a major study showing that by the age of three there are already big differences in cognitive, social and emotional development between children from richer and poorer backgrounds. By five years old children in poverty are around eight months behind their peers.
- The aspirations, attitudes and behaviour of parents and children potentially play an important part in explaining why poor children typically do worse at school.
- Children from poorer backgrounds are much less likely to experience a rich home learning environment than children from better-off backgrounds. At age three, reading to the child and the wider home learning environment are very important for children’s educational development.
- The gap between children from richer and poorer backgrounds widens especially quickly during primary school. Some of the factors that appear to explain this are:
– parental aspirations for higher education;
– how far parents and children believe their own actions can affect their lives; and
– children’s behavioural problems.
- It becomes harder to reverse patterns of under-achievement by the teenage years, but disadvantage and poor school results continue to be linked, including through:
– teenagers’ and parents’ expectations for higher education;
– material resources such as access to a computer and the internet at home;
– engagement in anti-social behaviour; and
– young people’s belief in their own ability at school.
- The research found that cognitive skills are passed from parents to children across the generations. This also helps explain why children from poorer backgrounds underperform in school.
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