April 09, 2003 2 min read

Performance Gaps

The United Kingdom, which has the fourth-largest economy in the world, also has one of the largest educational achievement gaps between poor and affluent children among industrialized nations, according to a recent report.

The “socioeconomic attainment gap” shows up in children as young as 22 months, according to the report, “Child Poverty and Education.” The study was produced by the End Child Poverty Coalition, a group of 12 charities in the U.K., and the National Children’s Bureau, a London-based advocacy group for child welfare.

In schools where 8 percent or fewer of the students qualify for free school meals, an indicator of family income, nearly 81 percent of the students are performing at the expected level at “Key Stage 3.”

Generally, students enter that stage, which is roughly equivalent to becoming a freshman in high school, when they are 13 or 14 years old.

By contrast, in schools where at least half the student population qualifies for free school meals, only 39 percent of the students perform at expected levels at key stage 3.

In the poorest areas of the country, scores on national tests given to 11-year-old students rose from 42 percent in 1997 to 63 percent in 2001. The national average in 1997 was 63 percent and was 77 percent in 2001.

“The differential in educational performance for poor children may be starting to narrow for the first time in a generation,” said Paul Ennals, the executive director of the children’s bureau and the author of the report.

“However, if real progress is to be made, the commitment needs to be made more explicit at every level of education,” he said.

Poverty’s effects can be seen in more than just test scores, according to the report. “Poor children can be denied access to school trips; they can face problems in affording a school uniform; they can suffer stigmas from insensitive approaches to free school meals; they can feel excluded,” it says.

The report calls on the British government to increase funding to schools with disadvantaged student populations and to expand “Sure Start,” the national early-childhood initiative.

The Office for Standards in Education, a government agency that inspects and regulates schools, should investigate high-performing schools with large numbers of students at risk for academic failure to see what methods are working, the report says.

It also calls for additional training for teachers starting to work at low-performing schools.

—Michelle Galley