Poor children 'lag a year behind'

15 February 2010

A report published on 1 February, which makes use of detailed data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), reports that children from the poorest homes are almost a year behind middle class pupils by the time they start school.

A report published on 1 February, which makes use of detailed data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), reports that children from the poorest homes are almost a year behind middle class pupils by the time they start school. However, good parenting, such as reading to children and having fixed bed times, can significantly reduce this gap, the study for the Sutton Trust says (Washbrook and Waldfogel 2010).

The study analysed the results of a series of vocabulary tests carried out by 12,500 British children at the age of five as part of the MCS. It found those from the poorest homes were nearly a year behind in their results.

It also looked at the factors common to poorer children that might influence their development. It found that just under half of those from the poorest fifth of families were born to younger mothers under 25 and that just under two-thirds did not live with both biological parents.

It also isolated some factors that boosted children's development in both the poorest and the richest homes. These included ‘sensitive parental behaviour’, such as ensuring regular bedtimes and reading daily to the child. Regular bed times between the ages of three and five led to development gains of two-and-a-half months, researchers found.

Daily reading at the age of three increased vocabulary development by nearly two months and children whose parents arranged monthly library visits were two-and-a-half months ahead of an equivalent child at the age of five who had not made similar trips.

According to the study, better parenting could reduce the achievement gap between middle-income and poor families by up to nine months. However, it was noted that just under half of children from the poorest homes were read to every day at the age of three, compared to 78% of children from the richest fifth of home.

Sir Peter Lampl, who is Chairman of the Sutton Trust, an educational charity, said the findings were both shocking and encouraging. Although they reveal the blatant educational disadvantage experienced by children from poorer homes before they reached school, they also showed the potential for good parenting to overcome some of the negative impacts that poverty could have on children's early development.

The authors, Elizabeth Washbrook and Jane Waldfogel, noted that the UK had invested 4.3% of GDP on early years education in 2006. However, they called for a more effective early years strategy that would prevent greater numbers of children from disadvantaged backgrounds ‘falling behind their more fortunate peers before school has even begun’.

The report also called for more support for families from health professionals and early learning experts and special outreach projects to improve contact with vulnerable families. Expansion of free nursery education should be focused on the 15% most disadvantaged families, it added.

Full version of the report: www.suttontrust.com/reports/Sutton_Trust_Cognitive_Report.pdf

Summary version of the report: www.suttontrust.com/reports/Early_years_gaps_summary.pdf
Washbrook, E. and Waldfogel, J. (2010) Low income and early cognitive
development in the UK. London: The Sutton Trust.