A level playing field or a widening gap?
The start of a new school year should be about expectation, fresh starts and new pencil-cases. But for too many Welsh children the first day of term marks the beginning of another chapter in an ongoing battle with the consequences of poverty.
We know that by the time they are three years old poorer children can already be a year behind their better off peers and that the gap in attainment grows inexorably as they move through the school system. The older they get, the wider it becomes, so that by the age of 15, children living in poverty are two and a half times less likely to succeed in their GCSE’s. These stark educational achievement gaps reinforce and perpetuate existing patterns of poverty and represent a woeful waste of talent.
While over time students in Wales have seen improvements in their educational standards, the fact that the attainment poverty gap has remained stubbornly constant is particularly worrying – if we can tackle other causes of educational underperformance, why do we struggle so much with poverty?
At Save the Children we know young people are worrying about it. Many we speak to view school as a route out of poverty but feel getting a good education when you live in a poor area can be difficult. This week we launch the findings of new research, which provides an insight into children’s anxieties about how poverty affects them and reveals their fears about the future they face.
The last few years have seen energetic debate about education performance inWales. Concerns about how well our schools are doing and comparisons between the successes of our children and those elsewhere are all heavily influenced by the ‘poverty gap’. But while awareness of how serious the situation is for our education system and our children has grown; so far, various strategies and extra funding have barely dented the problem.
So, it is promising that the Welsh Government has made reducing the impact of poverty on attainment one of three national priorities for education inWales. The introduction of significant funding to support this through the Pupil Deprivation and School Effectiveness grants is also very positive. It is this sort of sustained spotlight on the problem that is needed. But they could still do better. Of the three national priorities; the Literacy plan is out and the Numeracy plan is imminent. Schools and Local Authorities urgently need the policy direction provided by a third plan on Poverty if current opportunities to bridge the ‘poverty gap’ are to be fully grasped.
Our ‘Communities, Families and Schools Together’ report published in May this year, underlined the complexity of how and why disadvantaged students struggle in education. It identified that the influence of parents, peer groups communities and schools are all factors, but it found by far the biggest reason is poverty itself. While schools and teachers can and do make an important difference, they can’t do it alone. Solutions lie in implementing holistic and mutually reinforcing approaches that unite schools, parents and communities.
Funding from the PDG committed for the next three years could help to fund these interventions. How the funds are spent is vital, and we shouldn’t underestimate the urgency here; we are fast approaching the second year of funding and the window for getting this right is steadily closing. Funds must be spent strategically on approaches that are proven to work. And the right support, information and incentives need to be put in place so that schools and local authorities can use the grants to maximum effect.
Wales has a once in a lifetime opportunity to wipe the slate clean, to close the ‘poverty gap’ and make that first day back at school a genuine opportunity for change and growth for all Welsh children, regardless of their parent’s income. It feels like the puzzle is taking shape; we just need the final piece to help everything slot into place.
Ruth Mullineux is the Policy and Advocacy Officer for Save the Children
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