Falling poverty rates in Wales since 2000 have failed to narrow the gap in school achievement between better-off and deprived 16-year-olds.
Academics tasked with investigating poverty and social exclusion in Wales found the number of Welsh pupils leaving school without qualifications has stuck at 7.5 per cent since 2000 - the highest in Britain, it emerged this week.
However, research published this week by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found poverty levels have fallen faster in Wales than in England and Scotland, and the proportion of children living in low-income households is now the same as the British average (one in four). At the same time, homelessness has doubled since 2000 (see box, right).
Child poverty rates are highest in the south Wales valleys, but deprivation does not always result in exam failure, lack of opportunity and unemployment, notes the report. Of 50 Welsh schools with more than 25 per cent of pupils entitled to free school meals, 18 were found to be bucking the trend and doing significantly better than expected, with poverty-busting, good-teaching practices.
Dr Heledd Hayes, education officer for the National Union of Teachers Cymru, said the number of pupils leaving school without qualifications was worrying, but it was too early to see the results of recent poverty-attacking schemes.
The academic, who sits on a Welsh Assembly committee investigating ways to narrow the performance gap between schools serving poor and better-off areas, said: "Initiatives in Wales, such as the free breakfast scheme, aim to tackle poverty early on. Poverty and education is being taken seriously but narrowing the gap won't happen overnight."
The report, completed by a four-strong team from the New Policy Institute, shows more 11-year-olds are reaching the standard expected for their age (level 4) in deprived primaries. But the gap between these schools and the average for all primaries in Wales remains large.
In English, for example, the proportion of 11-year-olds failing to reach level 4 has gone down from 49 per cent in 1997 to 32 per cent in 2004, in schools where more than a third of pupils have free school meals. In the same period, the average for all schools has fallen from 33 to 18 per cent.
Elsewhere, Wales is also home to some of the worst-performing schools in Britain at GCSE level, with several schools in Cardiff and Swansea dragging down the two cities' overall success rates.
Figures for the capital reveal the number of pupils failing to get five GCSEs (grades A*-G) is 18 per cent - 4 per cent higher than the all-Wales average. However, results range from 2 per cent in one secondary school to 35 per cent in another.
Exam success in Wales is also a postcode lottery with some local authorities, such as the Vale of Glamorgan, doing twice as well as neighbouring counties Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent. The report, which also covers child health, barriers to work and low income, was launched at Cardiff's Millennium Centre this week.
An Assembly government spokesperson accepted that the rate of improvement in key stage 4 results has slowed down but pointed to substantial improvements at primary level. She added: "We are already looking at local funding variations."
Monitoring poverty and social exclusion in Wales 2005, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and New Policy Institute, tel: 01904 615905
Report's key findings
* More than half of all children in lone-parent households are poor compared to one fifth of children in couple households.
* Those with fewer than five A*-C grade GCSEs, or equivalent, at age 17, are unlikely to acquire any further qualifications later.
* An average of 3.5 teeth per child are decayed, missed or filled in Merthyr Tydfil, compared to 1.5 teeth per child in Flintshire.
* The proportion of teenage mums aged 13 to 15 varies from between eight and nine per 1,000 girls in Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil, to only two per 1,000 in Monmouthshire.
* The proportion of low birthweight babies was 7.25 per cent in 2003, and is highest among those babies registered solely by their mother.
* The number of households accepted as legally homeless doubled from around 8,000 in 2000 to almost 16,000 in 2004.