Mind the Gap

Policy Analyses of Social Injustice in Education: A comparison of the effects of poverty on Academic Attainment.

Author: Finola Gaynor (c) 2013



‘Poor students fail to make the grade at A-level. Almost three-quarters of 19-year-olds from deprived backgrounds have fewer than two A-levels’

Shepherd (2010) The Guardian Newspaper.

The media is full of statements and commentaries relating to the UK’s failure to enhance the lives of ‘poor’ children. Save the Children UK, a children’s support charity recently published the report ‘It Shouldn’t Happen Here’ Whitham (2012). The report explicitly links the affects of being poor with a child’s future life success.

This paper seeks to provide an analysis and brief examination within the policy area of inequality in education and how it aligns directly with families’ low socio-economic position (SEP) and learners’ educational attainment. Poverty Risk Factors are highly complex and are both broad and deep. The vast amount of research indicates that the influencing factor of the attainment of learners is both genetic and environmental (Saudino, 2005). In addition, the ‘nurture and nature’ theories of Rutter, Moffitt, & Caspi, (2006) notes that parental care, stress and nutrition can enhance or degrade behaviour, learning and memory. This paper focuses on a narrower set of factors related to economic deprivation in England and its impact on learning and attainment in relation to the UK Coalition Government Child Poverty Strategy (CPS), (2011) and historic and subsequent education reforms and welfare cuts. Consideration will be made to create a context of understanding within the comparatively reactionary research and reports undertaken by the Joseph Rowntree Trust JRT, and Save the Children. In addition the paper will briefly compare the United States attainment gap.

Definitions of Child Poverty

The extent to which an individual goes without resources is a good indicator of Poverty. Resources can include financial, emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical resources as well as support systems, relationships, role models, and knowledge of hidden rules. Payne (2005). It is well researched that poverty directly affects academic achievement. It has been argued that this is due to the lack of resources and opportunities available to low SES families’ for student success. The correlation between child poverty and low achievement have been well documented particularly in terms of race, disability, gender, sexual preference and discriminatory teaching (e.g. Baldwin, 1979; Freire, 1970; Du Bois; 1994, Fuller et al 2006; Boger, 2002: Andrzejewski, 1995).

The research of Feinstein (2003) clearly identifies the impact of parents’ SEP on a child’s cognitive development. Those children tested from low SEP families who failed to score well during early years stages never managed to ‘catch-up’ in later years. Unlike their peers from high SEP who when tested had performed less well in early years, then subsequently overcame cognitive attainment often exceeding their peers at later stage testing, comparatively against children from High SEPS who originally performed well in early years tests. Jerrim and Vignoles (2011) reassessment of Feinstein’s research substantiate the heart of the findings, in that children from high SES families have greater cognitive skills development.

Sally Copley of Save the Children, during an interview on the BBC explains how child poverty is defined in ‘real terms’ stating that:

‘Living on less than £350 per week for an average family of 2 adults and 2 children, means paying for all your bills including housing, taxes, food, gas and electricity bills, everything comes out of that money’ Copley (2011).

She continues, explicitly stating what a ‘low-level’ of income means in real terms:

‘The reality for children is that, children often go without things on daily basis, things that they really need’ Copley (2011).

Copley refers to how the correlation of poverty, as those children defined, who go to school hungry or those who wear either inappropriate or incorrect uniform, results in low-level academic attainment reiterating Whitham’s 2012 report.

A democratic society by definition fundamentally involves education for all; Ayers & Stovall (2009) refer to the 3 principals in terms of Equity, Activism and Social Literacy. Whereby, the encouragement of education is better for society holistically and not merely beneficial to the individual learner. Referring to a criterion of democratic change in relation to an embedded or inherited injustice, whereby, the most privileged is more able to become and be more learned. Therefore, the most privileged have inherited opportunities to exceed economically, emotionally and culturally. This inherited opportunity is thereby sustained and sustainable, whereby learners with little or no opportunity of self-enhancement, financial or otherwise are pre-determined to negate educational success.

The topology of poverty policy

UK educational policy development process has historically been both democratic and bloated whereby education policy was formed and created alongside experts, policy makers and practitioners. Influencers and commentators often determine the purpose, whether financial, societal, economical or political (for example Whitty, 2002 (a); Kogan 1975; Silver 1990).

During Conservative power in the late 1970s UK child poverty increased exponentially and by 1991 had grown to almost 30% (Cribb 2012). As in figure 1 below shows. A change in UK government power in 1997, to the Labour Party brought about significant changes to both education and benefits policies, in order to reduce the attainment gap between the ‘poor’ and the ‘rich’. Research of the previous governments reforms raised major concerns over educational equity and social justice (For example Whitty et al., 1993; Woods et al 1998). Labour legislative enactment of policy and budgetary changes provided a series of child poverty targets that emerged in the form of direct tax and entitlement benefits. Labour’s target was to half child poverty by 2010/2011 and eradicate child poverty altogether by 2020.

Cribb Figure 1

Figure 1. Based upon, Cribb (2012)

Poverty measured using before housing costs incomes.

In addition the Labour Party invested an increased £30bn in education rising from 4.4 % of GDP in 1999 to 6.1% 2007 DCSF (2009). Labour also instituted the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, its major objective was to rebuild or refurbish all schools by 2020 at a cost of £50bn (National Audit Office 2009). Labours intention was to provide a ‘future proof’ education model, to move away from Victorian teaching methods and to create learning spaces to empower and enable learners and in particularly for those children in deprived areas. Labour also initiated Every Child Matters (ECM) framework (2004) and the subsequent Children’s Act was passed in November 2004. ECM identified an integrated framework of delivery, support and evaluation.

It aims was to identify the needs of all children; to minimise harm and maximise potential:

‘Working together to improve the lives of children, young people and their families. We are determined to make a step-change in the quality, accessibility and coherence of services so that every child and young person is able to fulfil their full potential and those facing particular obstacles are supported to overcome them’ ECM (2004).

Subsequently by 2010/11 an extra £18 billion in total had been given in the form child-contingent tax and benefits (Browne and Phillips 2010). However, it could be argued that failed their promise of radical reform, Chitty & Dunford (1999) argue that the Labour Party

‘has accepted much of the Conservative Government’s education agenda… the Conservative education programme has remained remarkably intact’ Chitty & Dunford (1999).

The newly elected Coalition Government consider the decrease in child poverty relative to the increase in benefit entitlements and tax credit as a narrow gauge as implied within the Child Poverty Strategy (CPS), (2011). The CPS paper argues that income, whether measured in absolute terms, is a short-term benchmark. Indicating that the1998–2010 reduction of child poverty of 1.1 million children, calculated using the ‘income before housing costs’ measuring model is distorted. Attesting that a simple increase in income will not lead to a reduction in child poverty. One of the concerns is that the previous government (The Labour Party) strategies have increased the reliance on benefits and tax entitlements, leading to a society dependant on benefits. Thereby, determining that although incomes were increased, the social mobility remained the same. Moreover, the CPS refers to a significant number of children living in poverty coming from working families, who due to the current system disable them from moving out of poverty.

As such, the Coalition Government has introduced a range of far reaching measures to reduce and cut the budgetary spend in welfare and support services. In addition, the Coalition Government states that the CPS needs to be orientated towards a long-term goal of government taxes being better spent on education or deficit reduction CPS (2011). The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) forecasts that the reduction in welfare benefits will increase child income poverty over the coming years (Cribb et al 2012). Furthermore the number of Britain’s living in poverty is increasing, as the median (average) and mean (extreme poor) lines move closer together.

In addition UNICEF has challenged the Coalition Government to rethink it CPS, stating:

‘The UK did better than many other rich countries in reducing child poverty and deprivation during the early years of the financial crisis. But the current government’s policies to reduce spending will reverse this, and more children will grow up in poverty’ (UNICEF 2012).

The Coalition Government’s commitment to deficit reduction is outlined in the governments intentions paper, The Coalition: our Programme for Government (2010) points to a host of reforms including, their second point, under the Families and Children Section to reform Tax Credits to families in order to reduce fraud and overpayments. The education intention is towards the importance of discipline as well as the quality of the teaching within schools.

While it may be true that the Coalition Government is committed to the Welfare of children, there are some contentious issues that have been raised towards the lack of support for children in low socio-economic position (SEP).

The then, opposition leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, commissioned the Social Justice Policy Group to provide policy recommendations on issues of social justice called Breakdown Britain (2006). Breakdown Britain was a political tool used to leverage provocation against the residing government the Labour Party. The language used creates a depressing and bleak picture of Britain and the future of its young people, referring to a ‘dadless’ family infrastructure being the correlational link to society’s demise. As in figure 2 below shows.


Figure 2. The systemic nature of family breakdown, Breakdown Britain (2006).

The research data collection refers to the method of ‘openness’ via the use of online forums and public hearings in major UK Cities, where young people provided personal anecdotal evidence of poverty and educational failure. In addition the research gleaned personal testimony from research gained from polling via YouGov, YouGov is a commercial market research agency co-founded by Stephan Shakespeare. The evidence was substantiated from a broad representative sample set of 40,000 people who were able to respond to the Social Justice Policy Group defined five pathways to poverty, (family breakdown, educational failure, addictions, economic inactivity and indebtedness) Breakdown Britain (2006). While it may have been true that some areas of society require more support and guidance towards better parenting et al. The evidence and data collection is questionable in terms of it’s bias, as ‘Critical friends’ and members of the Conservative Party managed and generated the final report.

In addition the use of Internet polling is problematic, as respondents answers may have been edited prior to submission. (Lyons et al 2003) and respondents would have required technical skills as well as access to equipment and the Internet. In addition, it is unlikely that where respondents indicated themselves from low SEP backgrounds that would have the means or the know how to adequately access the 2006 YouGov Poll.

Further more, bias is attached to the Co-founder of Yougov, Shakespeare, as he also the co-founder of ConservativeHome.com, a ‘blog’ type website ‘dedicated to the to champion the interests of grassroots Tory members and to argue for a broad conservatism’ conservativehome.com (2005).

The Guardian newspaper, Roberts (2007) in response to the Breakdown Britain paper reported: ‘the sense of proportion that might prove more productive to the creation of solutions is dangerously absent’. Furthermore, Roberts invites a distinct understanding and awareness of the issues raised:

‘The underclass are plagued by elements that make real choice extremely difficult to comprehend as a concept, never mind exercise – a lack of education, spare cash and qualifications plus the absence of a sense of self worth, aspiration and entitlement all render “choice” irrelevant except for the resilient few. Hence the rise of the thick middle class child (often brimming over with a sense of entitlement) and the slide of the bright working class son or daughter’ Roberts (2007).

Defining a sense of social injustice a social construct to be accepted by the affected.

JRT, Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion (2007) simultaneous report summarises:

‘Progress on child poverty has stalled at a level that is only half-way to the target set for two years ago. Tax credits may be working, but they are not enough on their own. Yet the Government’s budgetary and legislative programme set out this autumn contains no substantial new ideas about what should be done’ Kenway (2007).

The study by JRT found that in 2005/06, 11 per cent of 16 year-olds in England gained fewer than five GCSE’s, equal to the same percentage during 1999/00. In addition the percentage of children to reach 5 GCSE’s at grade C in 2005/06 was 50 per cent lower that those compared to in 1999/00. Of those 33 per cent were white, boys in receipt of Free School Meals (FSM) who didn’t achieve any GCSE’s at any level Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion (2007).

Currently, FSM acts as a proxy indicator of children from low SEPs. Children are made eligible for FSM where parents are in receipt of Employment Support Allowance or Income Support welfare benefit entitlements.


Mind the Gap


The National Pupil Database (NPD) data, formally Pupil Level Annual Schools Census (PLASC), (2009) data indicates that eligible children in receipt of FSM attending the top 10th percentile most advantaged schools gain around eight GCSEs more than those eligible children in receipt of FSM attending the bottom 10th percentile most disadvantaged schools.

In real terms the gap of attainment is quite significant in terms of actual GCSEs, whereby eligible FSM children at the lowest 10th percentile disadvantaged schools are likely to obtain two grade Ds and six grade Es out of eight GCSEs taken. This compares to eligible FSM children at the highest 10th percentile advantaged schools are likely to obtain two grade Cs and six grade Ds out the eight GCSEs taken. Therefore the average level of attainment of eligible FSM children attending the most disadvantaged schools.

Comparatively Non-FSM children attending the 10th percentile most advantaged schools achieved significantly higher grades obtaining five GCSEs at C Grade and three GCSEs at B Grade out of eight GCSEs taken. This equates to an average attainment of thirteen grades higher than those Non FSM eligible children at 10th percentile most disadvantaged schools.

Therefore, there is a trend for GCSE results to be higher in the most advantaged schools for both FSM and non-FSM eligible children. As in figure 3 below shows.

GCSE grades are still inferior for FSM eligible children in the majority of advantaged schools. However, for FSM eligible children there is a minor rise in GCSE grades in the highest disadvantaged schools. In other words, FSM eligible children in the most deprived schools tend to do better than the pendant children in schools with smaller measures of disadvantage, but not as well as those in the top 10 percentile of schools when compared with opposed school deciles.


Figure 3. Average best 8 GCSE and equivalents point score for non-FSM and FSM pupils by 10th percentiles of disadvantaged schools (high to Low).

The figures shown do not consider additional factors related to other variables related to ethnicity or social background. They are based around averages related to white, female ethnicity and prior average attainment.

The attainment gap factor differences could be further influenced by the research of by the likes of Chowdry et al (2010) whereby consideration towards the causal impact on educational outcomes and the importance on the learner and parental aspirations, attitudes, and behaviours, may substantially influence the gap factor.

Poverty and Attainment in a Global Landscape


Comparative to the UK the gap in educational attainment between low and high SEPs in the United States (US) are substantial (Rowan et al., 2004). Research by the US Department of Education (US, DOE) (2001) indicates that children who live in poverty are significantly disadvantaged compared to their counterparts. The research was conducted across 71 disadvantaged schools looking into the gap in attainment. The US, DOE study shows that children of low SEP scored well below average in all levels and grades tested. Whereby, children living 50 per cent below poverty line consistently scored 7 to 12 grade points lower that the norm (Smith et al., 1997). In addition, low SEPs children scored consistently low regardless of ethnicity or race (Bergeson, 2006).

In 2001 the United State Act of Congress reauthorized the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) in an attempt to close the attainment gap for low Sep children in the US. Hailed as a flagship support program its intention was to raise the educational standards, aspirations and goals to improve education. Ten years after the policy’s introduction, studies measuring the impact of the policy indicate NCLBs failure of academic achievement or attainment.

Strauss (2012) commenting on the policy failure states:

‘Because of it’s misguided reliance on one-size-fits-all testing, labeling and sanctioning schools; it has undermined many education reform effects. Many schools particularly those serving low income students, have become little more that test-preparation programs’ Strauss (2012).

However, NCLB policy impact studies Phillips and Flashman (2007) found the quality of teachers and teaching increased. Teachers were given time to effectively prepare as well as extend extra-curricular activities. However, the researched indicated that teachers continued professional development was inadequate and that the school environment and class sizes had changed very little.



An attempt to reduce Child Poverty has fallen by the wayside and is set to increase with the imminent cuts to welfare benefits and entitlements. While the Children’s Act 2004 went some way to reduce child poverty in the UK the target to reduce the percent by half 2010/11 fell short. It is also unlikely that the eradication of child poverty by 2020 will not exceed. Children from low SEPs will still continue to attend schools of higher deprivation and consequently score lower at GCSE level. The factors affecting children’s low achievement are directly related to lack of opportunity, support and resources correlated to low family income, whether measured by absolute or relative value indicators. Moreover, the educational attainment gap between low SEP and high SEP is evident. However it is important to recognize that government policy can help to reduce the attainment gap for low SEP children by providing appropriate resources and support.