Education news

Child poverty, the elephant in the classroom

Effective early intervention is crucial, says Jim Curran
By Jim Curran

CHILD poverty is on the rise in Northern Ireland.

The End Child Poverty campaign, which is a coalition of almost 100 organisations across civic society has published figures which show that more than a quarter of children are living in poverty.

Peter Bryson, Northern Ireland spokesman for End Child Poverty said: "Due to the extent of child poverty, children across Northern Ireland are being denied the happy childhoods and the good start in life other children take for granted."

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies things are set to get much worse, with the level of child poverty likely to increase to more than 30 per cent by 2020.

These toxic levels are having hugely adverse effects on the educational attainment of children.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation there are more people with no qualifications and fewer with higher level qualifications than the rest of the UK.

Vast numbers of studies have now demonstrated the cognitive damage that living in poverty does to children.

A recent study in the US, which used MRI scanners to scan children's brains between the ages of five months and four years, found that children in lower income families had lower volumes of grey matter which is essential for cognition, information processing and regulating behaviour.

Although there were no differences at five months, by four years the volume of grey matter was around 10 per cent lower among children from less well off families compared to the most well off group.

Differences between the income groups emerged and widened as children grew up and were exposed to their very different home environments for longer. Other studies have shown that the harmful effects of poverty on children's cognitive development become more severe when the families remain in poverty for longer periods.

When parents' ability to provide a nurturing and stimulating environment for development is compromised by poverty, then children miss out on some of the essential building blocks for development and later educational attainment.

There are ways however to mitigate the worst effects of poverty and for education to provide disadvantaged children with a way out of poverty as happens in countries like Finland, Canada, Japan and South Korea. If we are serious about wanting to make this happen, effective early intervention is crucial.

The most effective programmes involve children spending at least three years in a pre-school setting with high quality staff and a mixture of children from different socio- economic backgrounds.

Jeanne Reid of Columbia University examined the performance of 2,966 four year olds in 704 pre-Kindergarten classrooms in 11 states. Reid found that being in a classroom with an above average socio-economic composition had a positive impact on receptive language, expressive language and maths learning.

What is so impressive about Reid's study is the short amount of time these children spent in the classroom itself. More than half the children attended half day programmes.

These part time students spent on average 2.7 hours per day in pre-school of which only 32 minutes were spent on language and literacy and just 10 minutes on maths.

"Despite this limited exposure", Reid finds, socio-economic classroom composition had an effect on receptive language, expressive language and maths learning, "comparable in size to two other aspects of children's learning that we know from other research are very important, children's own socio-economic status and instructional quality".

Research by Crawford, McMillan and Vignoles found that even the highest achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds began to fall behind at secondary school. Their analysis suggests however, that there is less divergence between pupils from different socio-economic backgrounds who attend the same schools. This result is particularly strong for children with low initial achievement.

This and many other research studies lend support to the Coleman Report (Equality Of Educational Opportunity) which is widely regarded as the most important educational study of the twentieth century. Coleman found that the most powerful predictor of academic achievement is the socio-economic status of a child's family, and the second most important predictor is the socio-economic status of his/her classmates.

In other words, being born poor imposes a disadvantage; but attending a school with large numbers of low income classmates presents a second independent challenge.

:: Jim Curran is a retired teacher and educationalist

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