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Out of the poverty trap

Targeted intervention in the early years of primary is costly but it makes a crucial difference, says Linda Croxford.

THE report on Poverty in Scotland 2002 shows the high proportion of school-age children living in poverty. Poverty has a negative effect on their learning before they start school, and throughout their school careers. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds start school with relatively low pre-reading skills and make less progress in the early years; they may suffer early experience of failure and low self-esteem compared with more advantaged peers. Consequently, the early years are the most important time for interventions to address educational disadvantage.

Back in 1997, the early intervention programme in Scotland set out to address these problems in the P1-P3 stages. However, hot on its heels came target-setting, with its focus on overall standards of achievement, and this brought a subtle change in priorities. National evaluation shows that overall levels of reading attainment in P3 rose dramatically by 2000, but the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils had not been diminished (National Evaluation of the Early Intervention Programme, by H Fraser, A MacDougall, A Pirrie and L Croxford, Edinburgh University, 2001).

There are three key areas for action. First, there has to be an emphasis on schools serving areas with high levels of deprivation. Patterns of socially segregated housing in towns and cities have led to school systems in which some schools cater for large numbers of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Children's attitudes, behaviour and learning are strongly influenced by their peers, and schools in areas of deprivation suffer a social context in which the majority of pupils have low baseline attainment and low academic goals and it is difficult to raise aspirations and attainment.

The results of the intervention programme are encouraging because they indicate that a real difference can be made in areas of multiple deprivation. The evaluation suggests that if the links between poverty and education are to be addressed, there is a need for greater concentration of support for pupils in schools with high levels of deprivation.

Second, reading recovery must be involved. While it is expensive, it is also effective. Reading recovery is an intensive system of individual tuition which has been found particularly successful with pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. A longitudinal evaluation in south-east England found the improvement to be evident five years after the intervention took place. The researchers concluded that "targeting intervention directly at poor children offers a viable strategy for tackling illiteracy among children from the most deprived social groups". (Evaluation of interventions for children with reading difficulties, by J Hurry and K Sylva, London University, Institute of Education, 1997).

Reading recovery is a relatively high-cost intervention because it involves one-to-one tuition for 30 minutes daily over an average of 20 weeks. There is additional investment in specialised teacher training, and teaching materials. Nevertheless, the evaluators argued that the investment is cost-effective, and suggest that:

* Children with reading difficulties are expensive to educate whether or not there is a specific intervention.

* For certain subgroups of children, those who were very poor readers at six and those on free school meals, reading recovery offers better value for money than existing provision.

Third, there is a need for home-link support. Parents and families have an important role, particularly with respect to providing encouragement for learning. In many cases parents in poverty may themselves have had unhappy or unsuccessful experiences of schooling which make them less confident in their dealings with schools.

Home-link teachers work between the parents and schools, and gain an understanding and appreciation of both perspectives. The effect of poverty in per-petuating educational disadvantage appears long-standing and intractable. It has long been believed that education is a means for reducing social inequality, but in fact pupils who start school with socio-economic and educational disadvantages make less progress than their more advantaged peers, and thus the gap widens.

Educational attainment is the key factor predicting young people's future career opportunities and life chances; young people who leave school with low levels of educational attainment are far more likely to suffer periodic unemployment than those with higher attainment. Others have argued:

"Children who have reading difficulties in our society suffer. As adults they are disadvantaged and may cost society dear. Both on the grounds of compassion and common sense the prevention of reading difficulties in children must be a priority." (The effectiveness of reading recovery and phonological training for children with reading problems, by K Sylva and J Hurry, Thomas Coram Research Unit, 1995).

The intervention programme in Scotland was funded by the Scottish Executive for five years, and demonstrated that appropriate, concentrated interventions can make a difference. However, this requires considerable resources. Evidence from the evaluation of the programme suggests that there is continuing need for investment in early years education, and such investment is especially productive in areas of multiple deprivation. It is vital that this investment is made to break the link between poverty and underachievement.

Linda Croxford is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Educational Sociology, Edinburgh University. A longer version of this article is published in Poverty in Scotland 2002, by the Scottish Poverty Information Unit and Child Poverty Action Group.

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