Staff in teaching jobs have a key role to play in improving the life chances of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, a new government-commissioned report has argued.
The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has called on schools to direct more resources and attention towards reducing the attainment gap between poorer and better off pupils.Child poverty and the attainment gap
Latest official figures show 29 per cent of UK children lived in absolute poverty after housing cost in 2011-12, which was two percentage points higher than in 2010-11.
This has implications for educational performance, with 38.5 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) achieving at least C grades in five GCSEs including English and maths last year, compared to 65.7 per cent of all other children.
According to a report published earlier this year by Ofsted, while cities like London have made substantial progress in improving schooling for disadvantaged children, poorer pupils often fare worse in schools in relatively affluent rural and coastal areas.
The coalition government sought to reduce discrepancy in educational performance with the introduction in 2011-12 of the 'pupil premium' - additional funding allocations made to schools for FSM children, which have risen to £900 per pupil this academic year.
Last year, it also set up the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission - chaired by Labour MP and former government minister Alan Milburn - which over the past nine months has been assessing evidence on living standards and life chances in Britain.Commission highlights challenges facing schools
The commission has now published its 'State of the Nation 2013' report, in which it welcomes the government's dedication to eradicating child poverty and improving social mobility, but warns it needs to do far more in order to make genuine progress.
The report highlights the greater link between family background and educational performance in the UK than in many comparable countries and outlines several issues that could impair the government's efforts to change this.
One of these is variation in the calibre of teaching, with the share of schools with teaching rated less than good substantially larger in deprived areas, while schools also do not deploy their leading teachers to low attaining and disadvantaged pupils.
The commission is also concerned at the wider gap between poorer and better off pupils at higher attainment levels, lack of school choice for poor children, and a dearth of support for children from low-to-medium income backgrounds who have poor attainment levels but are ineligible for the pupil premium.
Mr Milburn commented: "We see considerable effort and a raft of initiatives underway [to reduce child poverty and increase social mobility].
"The question is whether the scale and depth of activity is enough to combat the headwinds that Britain faces if we are to move forward to become a low poverty, high mobility society. The conclusion we reach is that it is currently not."Recommendations for schools policy
While the commission does not advocate "a major reshaping" of schools policy, it has made some recommendations as to how schooling can be enhanced to improve pupils' life chances.
It believes raising standards and closing the attainment gaps should be the twin objectives of all England's schools and the government should reflect this in the standards it sets, as well as in its inspection regime, league tables and reward mechanisms.
The commission has also said the "geographical lottery in school performance" should be redressed through initiatives such as area-based approaches and greater incentives for the best teachers to teach disadvantaged students in poorly performing districts.
Furthermore, the commission believes low attainment should be recognised as a threat to all children's life chances and pupil premium funding should therefore also be directed at children who, though not necessarily poor, are at risk of failing on core benchmarks at school.Report is 'wake-up call'
Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust educational charity, backed the commission's emphasis on continuing child poverty and the risk pupils from middle income backgrounds face lower living standards than their parents.
He described the report as "a wake-up call to politicians and policymakers" as to the need for concerns over social mobility and child poverty to be translated into action.
Meanwhile, Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, remarked that education staff are increasingly worried about poorer children coming into school hungry, detrimentally affecting their ability to learn.
Posted by Tim Colman