Children who are born into different socio-economic circumstances grow up in very different educational, emotional and material environments. These environmental inequalities interact with genetic inequalities to create huge inequalities in cognitive, emotional and physical development by the time children start school. These inequalities in early childhood impact on their short-term prospects but also on their outcomes much later in life.
The disadvantage gap at GCSE has barely changed for decades
GCSE results have been steadily improving over time, but disadvantaged 16-year-olds (those eligible for free school meals) are still about 27 percentage points less likely to earn good GCSEs than their peers, and are also less likely to progress well through secondary school. At the other end of the scale, children in richer families do better than their peers, with 70% of students in the richest third of families getting good GCSEs, compared to 40% of students who just miss out on qualifying for free school meals. The biggest predictors of educational disadvantage are related to people, not places; a student’s family income is four times more strongly linked to GCSE results than the local authority where they live.
Disadvantaged children face multiple barriers to educational success
The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers is often thought about in terms of issues in school around skills, attitudes and aspirations, but this focus ignores the wider context of the multiple ways in which socio-economic disadvantage leads to educational disadvantage. These range from stress in pregnancy harming the baby’s cognitive development, to having less access to out-of-school learning opportunities and the psychological impacts of the experiences of disadvantaged children at school. Meanwhile, richer parents can use their financial and social capital to increase their children’s performance compared to others.
Poverty shapes people’s thinking and decision-making
People living in poverty often prioritise coping with short-term stresses rather than longer term objectives. Lower socio-economic status can also worsen cognitive performance, and damages people’s confidence and therefore their ability to learn new skills and carry out tasks. People may feel that their actions have less of an impact on their lives, which reduces their incentive to make decisions linked to future goals. But they are also more risk-averse and more likely to conform. Poverty is also linked to social exclusion, which can lead to aggression.