POORER CHILDREN A YEAR BEHIND AT START OF SCHOOL
Sutton Trust report stresses importance of good parenting and early interventions
The Sutton Trust aims to improve educational opportunities for pupils from disadvantaged communities, improving their access to the best schools and universities. They and others have established the main origins of the great educational divide between the haves and have- nots emerges early in the lives of children – in the schools they attended, and in the homes where they were first brought up. Analysis of national cohort surveys show how highly able children from lower social class backgrounds at age 2 are, by around the age of 7, over-taken by less able middle class peers in cognitive tests – tests that are powerful predictors of later educational outcomes. Research in the US meanwhile has found that half of the attainment gap for US children is present by the start of school. The findings of the Trusts latest report ‘Cognitive gaps in the early years’ are a timely reminder of the extent of early educational gaps that remain before school has even begun for children growing up today. But it is not all gloom.
There are undoubtedly some pessimists who believe that socio-economic context determines whether or not a child succeeds at school and is socially mobile. This research though offers a very positive message: good parenting – reading with children regularly for example – can benefit children, poor or rich.
The report found that Children growing up today in the poorest fifth of families are already nearly a year (11.1 months) behind those children from middle income families in vocabulary tests by the time they are five. Good parenting and a supportive home environment emerge as the most important determinants of better test scores at age 5, accounting for half of the explained gap between low-income and middle-income children.
The Sutton Trust claims this research is the most comprehensive study so far on the factors behind the educational inequalities during the early years in the UK – based on 12,500 British five-year-olds in 2006 and 2007 in the Millennium Cohort Survey. It was carried out by Jane Waldfogel, professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University and visiting professor at London School of Economics, and Elizabeth Washbrook, research associate at the Centre for Market and Public Organization at Bristol University. It found that 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 and that nearly half (47%) of children from the poorest fifth of families were born to mothers aged under 25; just under two-thirds (65%) do not live with both biological parents by the time they are five. But the study also finds that parenting style (for example sensitivity of parent-child interactions and rules about bedtimes) and the home environment (factors like parental reading and trips to museums and galleries) contribute up to half of the explained cognitive gap between the lowest and middle income families. A child taken to the library, for example, on a monthly basis from ages 3 to 5, is two and a half months ahead of an equivalent child at age 5 who did not visit the library so frequently. Regular bedtimes at 3 and 5 are associated with gains of two and a half months at age 5. The Sutton Trust has identified five priorities for a future Government that would help to reduce this gap:
- Children’s centres should offer effective parenting programmes which have been evaluated and proven to work by robust research, and which engage parents/carers and empower them to be their child’s first educator.
- Sure Start early learning practitioners should work in partnership with health professionals to support families, including home visits for the hardest to reach children.
- Specialised outreach projects should be established as part of the wider Sure Start children’s centre provision to improve contact with vulnerable families.
- New funding the Government plans to allocate to extend free nursery education entitlement to 3 and 4 year olds should be redirected to provide 25 hours of nursery education a week to 2-4 year olds from the 15% most disadvantaged families.
- Access to these extra nursery places should be complemented by automatic access to a proven parenting programme.
The report reinforces what is already known-the importance of early interventions, which informs, for example, the Sure Start initiative. But it is the quality of such early interventions and the precise targeting that really matters and there is some evidence that many of those benefiting most from Sure Start, certainly in the first few years, were not from the priority target group -the most disadvantaged. The Sutton Trusts recommendation for specialized outreach projects to improve contacts with vulnerable families suggests that Sure Start still hasn’t got it right (its been running since 1998) There needs to be better monitoring of the local delivery systems to ensure value for money and effectiveness. http://www.suttontrust.com/reports/Early_years_gaps_summary.pdf