Young children see poverty holding them back at school

07 September 2007

Children in poverty face greatly reduced educational prospects and future life chances. This is the conclusion not just of social policy experts and government statisticians, but of young children themselves. Emerging research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) shows that children are aware of such outcomes from an early age and that their own stereotyping reinforces these differences.

Eight reports looking into the experiences and attitudes of children from different backgrounds represent the first phase of a major new JRF programme on education and poverty.

Social background influences the way children feel about school from an early age. At primary school, children in poverty are more likely to have negative experiences and feel "got at" by teachers. Donald Hirsch, author of the Round-up summary of the work, said, "This doesn't necessarily mean teachers are prejudiced, but that low-income children find themselves in schools where the pressures are greater, and this reinforces prior disadvantages."

While children from all backgrounds see the advantages of school, deprived children are more likely to feel anxious and unconfident about school. Out-of-school activities can help build self-confidence by improving learning relationships, and children from advantaged backgrounds greatly benefit from the access they have to more structured and supervised activities beyond school.

A crucial difference highlighted by the research is in experiences of homework. Children from poorer families are less likely to have space in which to do their homework, or to get as much help from parents as children with higher socio-economic status. Poorer parents may be under greater pressure. They may also lack the confidence in their own abilities and have bad memories of school.

"Poorer children do less well not just because their parents read to them less, but because of the rest of their life experience. If we are serious about improving the life chances of the poorest children, we have to do much more than worry about the curriculum," added Hirsch.

The research also found that many children and young people who become disaffected with school develop strong resentments about mistreatment (including perceptions of racial discrimination) and these issues need to be taken into account when working with such children. Work with disaffected young people is most effective where it creates a new environment and new relationships, where children feel more involved in their own futures.

Only a quarter of students receiving free school meals gain five good GCSEs or equivalent, compared to over half the overall population in England. The gap between the outcomes of children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from advantaged backgrounds is wider in the UK than in most other similar countries. Hirsch concluded, "We're not talking about just a small group of children in 'extreme circumstances'. The issues highlighted in this research affect one in four of our children."

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