In September the Department of Education presented the results of phonics reading tests taken by 5-to-6 year olds in summer 2014. Around three-quarters of pupils reached the required standards – that is, to decode at least 32 of 40 unknown words by using the phonics reading method. That a quarter of children tested did not meet the standard was a much-trumpeted improvement on last year, when more like a third failed the tests. Teachers and commentators continue to argue about whether – as the government claims – these tests truly show more children are now on track to become proficient readers, or, that the tests merely reflect performance in phonics, and have little to do with reading for understanding, context, or meaning. Only time will tell, as these children progress through the system and can be tested on reading skills when they are older.
What emerges from the tests, as from many other academic milestones, is the effect that poverty has on educational attainment. Only 61 per cent of poor children – those eligible for free meals – hit the expected standard in phonics compared with 77 per cent of other pupils (although the gap narrowed by one percentage point on last year). The worst-performing group were poor white British boys from working-class families, who lagged far behind their peers from Indian, Pakistani, black Caribbean, black African and Chinese families.
The link between poverty and poor attainment has often been made. Studies reported to the US Society of Neuroscience in 2012, for instance, demonstrated that adversity in early childhood had measurable changes in the function of the brain and body. Growing up in a low socio-economic background can impair the adult working memory and literally affect the size of development in different parts of the brain.
Poverty affects children’s ability to perform. For example, an ATL teaching union survey of 600 teachers in 2011 found that 85% of these teachers believed that poverty had a negative impact on the wellbeing of pupils, with children coming to school tired and under-fed. Staff said many such children lacked a quiet place to study at home, were unable to concentrate and had higher rates of absence. Teachers reported that pupils living in poverty lacked confidence, and they missed out on activities outside school such as music or sports.
A father’s level of education is the strongest factor determining a child’s future success at school, creating a self-reinforcing cycle of poverty and lack of achievement passed down from parents to children in Britain, according to a report from the Office for National Statistics. This study compared the UK with other EU countries, leading Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, to comment: “Growing up in a workless household has a much more significant impact on a child’s future earnings in the UK than in almost any other state in the rest of Europe”.
Why? Education policy has tried repeatedly to address this problem, and failed. There are many ways in which schools and wider policy could help: expanding free school meals across all ages, opening schools for longer hours and providing time, encouragement and tutoring to help pupils to do their homework, better supporting poor families in the community, and at a macro level, decreasing unemployment to drag families out of the poverty trap. But all this costs money, which no current or future government has at its fingertips at present. It may also be about our national culture, which tends to knock down high achievers as soon as it can, instead of celebrating achievement and thus encouraging young people to want to achieve. It will take some clever policy-makers to improve the situation and lift some of the burden that schools face in helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds.