Failing poverty test - at 5

Children heading for a life of hardship can be identified at primary school, researchers say. But is it possible to change their fate?

Adi Bloom

Most people who will experience serious deprivation as adults can be identified by the age of 10.

Between 70 and 90 per cent of children who are heading for hardship can be spotted while they are still at primary school, according to academics at the University of London's Institute of Education. This enables teachers to intervene early.

The researchers say that pupils' personal and family backgrounds indicate their chances in life. And a combination of academic, social and psychological tests can clearly identify primary pupils who are at risk of poverty later.

For example, five-year-olds who are able to copy shapes and simple patterns, such as diamonds, crosses and circles, are more likely to be successful at reading and maths at the age of 10. In turn, literate and numerate 10-year-olds are more likely to be successful and solvent at the age of 30.

But the researchers found that poor academic achievement was not always linked to an inability to achieve in life. Children who gained no qualifications but were socially successful at school tended to be healthier in their mid-thirties than those who were underachievers and unpopular.

These findings were compiled from a review of research conducted over the past nine years into how education affects individuals. In particular, researchers looked at two large-scale studies, tracking the lives of people born in 1958 and 1970.

They hope that their conclusions will help teachers to prevent children's talent being wasted. "In our view, it would be socially and economically inefficient - and morally unacceptable - to ignore this very high level of capacity to identify early on those at risk of high-cost, high-harm outcomes," they said.

Chris Davis, of the National Primary Headteachers' Association, agrees that teachers should try to identify such pupils. "Most primary teachers have always felt that this is a crucial part of their role," he said.

"In the past 10 years, there has been a major emphasis on developing communication, interpersonal skills and an ability to cope with society. But most teachers would say they are already doing as much as they can through the normal school process. To ask teachers to do more than they already do for those children is a bridge too far."

The researchers also found that women who had not flourished at school academically or socially were five times more likely to smoke at the age of 33 than those who were low-achieving but better adjusted socially. They recommend schools should not focus purely on academic achievement.

"Education is, or should be, about more than developing skills that have economic value to individuals and society," they said. "It is also one of the primary means of promoting individual health and wellbeing. Education can affect virtually every aspect of our lives."

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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