Thursday, 30 September 2010

Narrowing the gap - imagine a journey

Imagine a hundred people are setting off on a journey, a long day's walking. You see them all ready to depart, bunched together. An hour later, and the group has started to spread out. Your eye is drawn to a cluster of eager walkers pulling ahead of most of the others, striding along purposefully. But just a short time later you notice something surprising. After making such a promising start, the group you have been watching starts to falter and lots of other walkers pass them by. You wonder what has gone wrong. What happened to all that early energy and pace?

According to research undertaken by Leon Feinstein at the London School of Economics, this is pretty much what happens to a group of children who seem to be developing very well at two, and who are living in relatively poor families. By four years old, this group of children has started to lag behind children with the same good level of development, and whose families are better off.  That is clearly not fair. But there is worse news to come.

If you look at a third group of children, whose development is not so strong at two years old, but who come from better-off families, you will see them rapidly catching up with those children from poorer families who were originally well ahead. By the end of Key Stage One, the better-off children have overtaken them - even though they started so far behind.

It is fair at this point to voice some objections. Measurements of child development at two with a score will have problems with reliability. Perhaps most significantly, this data comes from well before the recent period of intense focus, and heavy investment, in the early years. Things might have got better. For example, where I work in the east end of London, children's overall attainment by the end of their primary school education is higher than the national average. On some measures, GCSE results are also above the national average. This is despite Tower Hamlets having the highest levels of child poverty in London. And despite all that, there is a great deal more work to do to give children in the east end of London a fairer start in life.

In England, when it comes to child development, it is your family's wealth which matters most, not your early potential. I think we should feel, if not ashamed, then at least deeply uneasy by the way that poverty can crush the early potential of so many children.