Closing the educational attainment gap

Research has helped shape new initiatives aimed at closing the educational attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.

Research conducted at the Graduate School of Education developed new techniques for analysing large amounts of data to find the reasons behind why disadvantaged children tend to have lower educational attainment than their peers. Their findings informed new targeted Government interventions that support parents and improve the life chances of the children.

Over recent years, the UK government has introduced a variety of measures aimed at helping improve the life chances of disadvantaged children. The decision to introduce these initiatives, such as free childcare places for disadvantaged two-year-olds and an increased number of health visitors, was informed by work done by Dr Liz Washbrook and colleagues at the Graduate School of Education.

Dr Washbrook and her colleagues wanted to provide quantitative evidence of the dramatic differences in the skills and abilities of children from different socioeconomic groups at the time of entry to school, and to place the patterns among British children in an international context.

They not only found that the high levels of inequality that exist in the US are also found in the UK, they also found that children from disadvantaged backgrounds were not able to catch up with their more advantaged peers between the ages of 3 and 16, highlighting the importance of the early gaps for later life outcomes.

“We used data on the early experiences of 19,000 children born in Britain around 2000-2001,” said Washbrook. “This made our research up-to-date and relevant to British policymakers.”

Dr Washbrook and her colleagues conducted a series of studies on the magnitude, determinants and consequences of socioeconomic inequality in early childhood.

During this work they developed a statistical method to break down the raw gaps in an outcome between groups into components associated with different environmental factors, such as parental health and well-being, the home learning environment, material hardship and child care experiences.

The method has now been applied to numerous datasets and has proved particularly useful for policymakers and practitioners as it provides a way of exploiting exceptionally rich birth cohort data and summarizing a multitude of complicated relationships in an intuitive and accessible way.

“We demonstrated that the majority of the raw outcome gaps in early childhood can be explained by a set of indicators commonly measured in surveys of young families,” said Washbrook. “Such indicators, if collected systematically, can be used to monitor societal progress in equality of opportunity in the first years of life. It has also provided evidence on which of the myriad factors associated with childhood poverty are most consequential for children’s cognitive and emotional development, and so which are potentially the targets of the most successful interventions.”

In general the research found that the pathways linking low parental income to poorer child development are many and diffuse – there is no single “magic bullet” that if targeted can be expected to dramatically reduce early inequality. However, a key finding is that parenting behaviours such as engagement in reading and learning activities with the child, and style of discipline, consistently emerge as important factors associated with the developmental gains of higher-income children.

The research was a key influence on the Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances commissioned by the Prime Minister and conducted by Frank Field MP in 2010. The impact of this work is illustrated by the fact the Review team approached Washbrook in autumn 2010 in order to commission further analyses specifically to inform and support the recommendations of the Review.

“We tested the extent to which the key drivers identified from previous work explained the gap in children’s outcomes between those from low income households and the average at age five,” said Washbrook. “We also modelled the extent to which varying the key drivers narrowed these gaps. The results showed that each of the factors had a small but cumulative role in explaining the gap, and that in total they could account for virtually all the gaps between low-income children and average children.”

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