Underachievement in early primary education is a key factor in triggering a life of crime, according to a Joseph Rowntree Foundation-backed analysis of ways to tackle poverty and disadvantage.
The national charity Communities that Care says in its latest good practice guide that education is crucial in reducing risk and enhancing the levels of protection children need. "It is no exaggeration to say that family and school are the two socialising influences that, together, can make or break a criminal career," it states.
In a message that echoes Scottish Executive programmes on pre-school education and early intervention, the charity emphasises that falling behind in basic skills of literacy and numeracy is a predictor of later problems.
Not surprisingly, children exposed to the greatest number of risk factors in their early years are most likely to under-achieve on reaching primary, where they may fail to pick up the thinking and social competence skills they also need to progress.
"Children who develop a sense of failure at this stage are, in turn, more likely to become alienated from school and exhibit behaviour problems, including disruption in the classroom and bullying of fellow pupils. Pupils whose social skills are poor, whether their behaviour is aggressive and disruptive or leads to withdrawal and isolation, are often unpopular with classmates.
"This makes it more likely that they will spend time with disaffected peers, thereby reinforcing anti-social behaviour," the charity says.
Schools that are disorganised and suffer from poor leadership and ineffective, inconsistent discipline "are in danger of compounding these problems", it continues.
The charity, however, believes early intervention can break and avert this downward spiral, and backs whole-school approaches to tackling bullying, truancy and exclusion, factors "directly linked to low achievement, aggressive behaviour and lack of commitment to the school".
The charity also advises that youth work, which aims to cut risk factors and improve social commitment, has to be targeted at particular groups to be successful.
"There is no real evidence that open-access youth clubs are effective in reducing risk or social exclusion. This is partly because no convincing evaluation of youth clubs has been undertaken but also because evidence suggests that they tend to be used by young people as short-term 'drop-in'
facilities. Youth clubs also tend to attract groups who are 'low risk'," it states.
A Guide to Promising Approaches is published by Communities that Care, price pound;25.