Michael Gove’s Herculean efforts to raise school performance are truly remarkable. The Education Secretary has ably gripped the baton passed to him by the previous Labour Government’s Lord (Andrew) Adonis, whose passion as education minister was unprecedented. But our worry is that we are asking schools to carry out an impossible task.
Ask practically any reception class teacher and they are likely to predict accurately where children in their care will end up in life after only their first few days at school.
Research has shown that, probably by the age of three, and, almost certainly by the age of five, the life chances of children have generally been decided. The class-based gaps in attainment, which are so apparent when children enter the school gates for the first time, remain throughout the school years. Schools manage to raise the attainments of all children but they do not close the attainment gap between poorer and richer children.
The evidence would suggest therefore that, spending (and focus) on education is inversely structured with respect to the potential impact it can have: as children grow older so does the respective budget. However, later attainment is predicated on earlier performance.
If the Government is serious about in tackling intergenerational child poverty and raising school performance, it has a narrow window in which to work. Mr Gove would be best placed to transfer some of his focus on ensuring that life’s race is still open by the time children arrive at school for the first time.
The Poverty Review report ‘The Foundation Years: preventing poor children becoming poor adults’ by Frank Field identifies what drives good life chances. He submitted it to the Government in December 201 after he was commissioned to conduct an Independent Review by the Prime Minister.
For more than 100 years poverty has been specifically defined with reference to people’s income. Those in households with an income that is below 60 per cent of equivalised median earnings are considered poor. We have been particularly concerned that poverty is automatically visited on the next generation as the children enter adulthood, blighting generations.
But, increasingly, society has come to view poverty as a much more subtle enemy than purely lack of money. Poor Chinese children, for example, outperform all other children except Chinese children from more affluent homes. So while income is clearly important, (although there may be other residual factors, if it wasn’t there would be no difference in the performance of all Chinese children), the evidence shows that it is not so much who parents are (and how much income they have), but what parents do with their children that decides to a greater extent children’s outcomes in adulthood.
Take Camilla Cavendish’s evidence provided by staff of an East London branch of Tesco when they were asked about poverty among local people. They reported that patterns of stealing had changed. Instead of taking sweets, children were now more likely to steal packets of sandwiches because they were hungry and clean underwear because their parents had not provided a change of clothes. Those two types of theft might be caused by a lack of money but it might also be down to neglect on the part of parents who did have the cash to feed and clothe their offspring but preferred to spend the money elsewhere. It is perhaps most interesting that children themselves were doing the stealing.
Indeed since Frank Field worked with the Child Poverty Action Group in the late 1960s he has witnessed a growing indifference among some parents to the basic needs of their children, particularly the youngest who are least able to fend for themselves.
The encouraging news is that there is evidence that young people want to know how to be good parents. Speaking some while ago to 15 year-olds at a Birkenhead school Frank Field found that among their ambitions for what school might help them attain was learning how to be good parents. These are not “soft” skills, they matter as much as maths and English. This is however an issue to which we will return.
The whole story about poverty however needs to consider the real influences on the wellbeing of children: the type of home in which children are nurtured and raised, and the environments they are subject to.
Having identified what drives life chances (things like cognitive skills, physical abilities and the home learning environment), the Review commissioned academic analysis which indicated that narrowing the attainment gap on these factors predicts virtually all of the difference in all children’s outcomes at age five.
Essentially this tells us that if there is a healthy pregnancy, good quality childcare, encouragement of learning, parental authority, parents themselves will ensure children can enjoy success in life, even if they are poor.
The research thankfully also shows us how to promote these factors for individual children. What, however, we have traditionally not been too good at, is translating this into practicable policy. The Poverty Review attempted to do just that.
And that is why we have established the Foundation Years Trust. Its remit will be to implement the report’s recommendations in one constituency – Birkenhead - although already there has been interest shown in undertaking similar pilots elsewhere. The Trust’s sole ambition is to ensure all children arrive at school with the best possible level of development, so that primary schools can carry the baton on to greater success.
How will this be achieved? The Trust has brought together the local authority, the NHS and voluntary sector organisations in Birkenhead. The aim is to coalesce all Foundation Years’ (between minus nine months and five years) services so as to comprehensively support parents through the very difficult first few years of their children’s lives.
We begin with the idea being that if we work together as an “agency of change” we can be more effective in promoting development than is otherwise the case. The Trust will obviously not force parents to engage with it, but will seek to work with the most vulnerable parents whose children are those who tend to arrive at school in the lower range of ability.
Establishing itself through the Government’s free school model, and because life chances are affected from before day one, the “school” (though it will resemble no other school in existence) will start its work as parents register their pregnancy at around 12 weeks.
The Foundation Years Trust has already commissioned the University of Cambridge to trial a new school readiness measure for five year olds in Birkenhead schools, and is about to begin work on an age three set of development indicators. These measures, backed up with the longitudinal study research, coupled with the school’s work should mean that over time we increasingly see improvements in all children’s development in the pre-school years.
A teacher told us that 10 years ago her main concern was how well a child might read when they first went to school. Today her preoccupation is how many would grunt rather than speak, how many can sit still and even how many are potty trained or use a knife and fork.
Forms of smart intervention, such as our Birkenhead project, is likely to do more to improve social mobility than any other programme the Government could devise. That is not to say that later interventions are not necessary, but children’s school performance is being disadvantaged in the very first years of life. This is not good for society and we are determined to do something about it.
The Tablet, 25 August 2012