It has long been known that children from poorer homes struggle more with reading than those from more affluent families. But now research has revealed a large gap in attainment between even the ablest children in the highest and lowest socio-economic groups.
The best-performing 15-year-olds from poor backgrounds are, on average, about two years behind the highest-performing pupils from privileged backgrounds, according to the study. This is twice the equivalent gap observed in some other developed countries. The gap in England is 2.5 years, and in Scotland it is 2.75 years.
The findings have implications for government policies designed to widen access to elite universities and professions, according to the study's author, Dr John Jerrim from the University of London's Institute of Education. They show that it is vital to increase the academic achievement of the most able children from disadvantaged homes, as well as improving social networks or providing internships, he says.
In the study, The Socio-economic Gradient in Teenagers' Reading Skills: how does England compare with other countries?, Jerrim investigated the links between family background and achievement using the 2009 Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) data.
He examined the reading scores of pupils in 23 countries and found that England had a bigger gap than 19 countries. The association between family background and high achievement was stronger in England than in most other countries.
This could be because attention has been directed more towards helping disadvantaged children reach floor targets - for example, five GCSEs at grades A*-C - than towards helping disadvantaged children who are already doing reasonably well push on and reach the top grades, the report says. The fact that pupils from affluent backgrounds are able to get access to the best schools and private tuition could also account for the difference.
Jerrim measured family background for his research using the HISEI index of occupational status. It is included in Pisa and is based on children's reports of their mother's and father's occupations. The index assigns each occupation a score according to the educational level required and the salary commanded.
England sits around the middle of the international ranking of these scores, with the socio-economic gap standing at roughly 95 Pisa test points. This means that by the final year of compulsory schooling, the reading skills of English children from disadvantaged backgrounds are on average two-and-a-half years behind those from the most affluent homes.
Australia and Germany had similar scores, while in the US socio-economic differences in educational achievement were bigger: more than 100 Pisa test points. At the other extreme are Canada and Finland, described in the study as countries where "the association between family background and the average level of children's achievement is particularly weak".
"Results suggest children's reading skills are heavily linked to their socio-economic background, but not by more on average in this country than in most other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries," the study says.
Jerrim found some evidence that socio-economic achievement differences have been reduced in England over the past decade, although not among the most able pupils from advantaged and disadvantaged homes.
According to Dr John Jerrim, the fact that the literacy skills of the most able pupils from disadvantaged homes lag behind those of their more advantaged peers by more than two years suggests that access to elite higher education institutions and the top professions is not currently viable for them.
To widen participation in those areas it is "therefore vital to improve the academic achievement of the most able children from disadvantaged homes", the study says.
Solutions could include a targeted gifted and talented scheme, where high-potential children from poor backgrounds are identified at the start of compulsory education and receive "sustained investment" throughout their time at school.
"Schemes of this nature could be piloted in the most deprived parts of the country and undergo a thorough evaluation before being rolled out on a national scale," Jerrim says.
"Despite the fiscal limitations that governments are acting under, such investment may be needed in order to reduce England's comparatively strong association between family background and high achievement, and thus to make pathways to elite higher education institutions and the top professions a viable option for more children from disadvantaged homes," he adds.
Jerrim, J. "The Socio-economic Gradient in Teenagers' Reading Skills: how does England compare with other countries?" (2012). Fiscal Studies, 33 (2), 159-184.