Countries should ensure that primary schools get as much funding as secondaries to improve the life chances of children from disadvantaged homes, an international charity has said.
A report published this week by Save the Children reveals that the future of poor children in England is largely determined by the time they reach their seventh birthday. Just one in six children from low-income families who fall behind by age 7 will catch up by the time they are 16, compared with one in four students from richer backgrounds, the report, called Too Young to Fail, states.
Will Paxton, the charity's head of education policy and advocacy, called for the equalising of per-student funding between primary and secondary schools by 2020 in order to produce a fairer system. At present, many countries provide more money per student for older age groups, rather than focusing resources on younger children.
In England, a fairer funding system could be achieved by increasing the pupil premium for children from disadvantaged homes, and giving schools more money for five- to seven-year-olds, Mr Paxton said. But the principle of providing more equal funding should be adopted by all countries, he added.
"In recent years we have learned so much more about how important the preschool years and early years of primary school are for children," Mr Paxton told TES. "All the evidence shows how critical that time is: that evidence doesn't change depending on what country you're in.
"So some of the broad arguments we're making about the case for front-loading funding and focusing on primary schools also apply to other countries."
The most recent data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), reported in Education at a Glance 2013, shows that, in 2010, just six out of 31 developed countries surveyed had higher per-student funding for primary school than secondary school. These nations were Iceland, Poland, Israel, Slovenia, Luxembourg and the Slovak Republic. In 2003, only Iceland had a higher per-student spend in primary than secondary, the OECD found.
According to the body, per-student expenditure on secondary education is, on average, 1.1 times greater than spending on primary. In the Czech Republic, France and Portugal, it is 1.5 times greater.
Save the Children, which is based in the UK but works in 120 countries, is particularly concerned about the impact that funding disparity has on students from poorer homes.
In England, 21 per cent of children from low-income families failed to reach the standard expected of seven-year-olds in national reading tests this year compared with 9 per cent of other children, according to government statistics.
The Save the Children report points out that action needs to be taken early to close the gap between students from different socio-economic backgrounds. Not only is overall per-student funding skewed towards secondary schools, but the way schools are funded means that secondaries also receive more money for their poorest students than primaries.
"Many children starting school this term already have the odds stacked against them," said Save the Children's chief executive, Justin Forsyth.
"These children of the recession, born during the global financial crisis into a world of slow growth, stagnant wages and increasing living costs, where communities are feeling the effects of austerity, need our help more than ever.
"The cost of failing is a young child without a fair chance in life, however hard they try."
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said that the charity was right to highlight the impact of poverty on learning. "(But) overcoming the disadvantages of poverty requires more than funding for specific school initiatives," she said. "Families need a proper living wage and the government needs to reverse some of its recent attacks on benefits support for the most vulnerable."