The answer to closing the attainment gap begins at home, and in helping poverty-stricken parents as much as their children, says Jaine Stannard

A report came out last week from the the Education Policy Institute, saying that the educational gap between richest and poorest ‘will take 50 years to close’

With over four million children in the UK growing up in poverty – 30% of the total number of children – the fact that they’re lagging more than two years behind their wealthier peers can no longer be considered a side issue. This is a crisis.

Fortunately, the main reason behind this gap is crystal clear. Unfortunately, it’s often overlooked.

Schools need to commit to building strong relationships with parents

When it comes to the issues that can cause a poorer child not to attain as highly as a wealthier child, educators predictably start to look at schools. However, it’s the issues at home that are crucial. 

Over two million children in the UK today are believed to be living in difficult family circumstances. Our monitoring has identified that the disadvantaged children and young people we work with – whose family, social or economic circumstances are affecting their attendance and attainment at school – are:

– Six times more likely to be affected by domestic violence

– Four times more likely to need support because of mental health issues

– Nine times more likely to need support because of drug or alcohol abuse problems

– Three times as likely to have child protection and/or safeguarding issues

You can make all the changes you want in the classroom to improve attainment but if, due to some of the reasons above, children are rarely or never there, they’re not going to benefit. A child won’t go to school if they’re scared to leave Mum alone with Dad. Their parents won’t make them go to school if they’re being bullied for the state of their school uniform. And they won’t concentrate in school if they’re exhausted from sharing a single bed with their two siblings.

With the right practical support provided by the school, children can go from 0% to 100% attendance (just think what that does to their educational outcomes and the overall education gap), but it needs a commitment from school leaders.

Schools need to commit to building strong relationships with parents. We’ve all been sold on the benefits of parental engagement but it’s a two-way street: if you want parents to engage with your school, you have to engage with them.

Schools need the same person at the school gate everyday, greeting parents and getting to know them. This person also needs access to a room at the school where children and parents can have one-to-one sessions; the time and ability to make regular home visits if necessary; and the knowledge to support families with the myriad of issues that arise from poverty and disadvantage. Parents need support with housing and benefits applications, they need to be signposted to local resources in mental and physical health, offered SEND and ESL support, and given food bank referrals.

Does that sound like too much for schools to take on?

The Guardian recently published a column by an anonymous teacher who asked “when did I become a social worker for vulnerable parents?” Although schools know this work makes a huge difference to the children in these families, staff are often given these duties with no training, so it’s no wonder they can feel out of their depth.

There needs to be someone in a school dedicated to this work – the fact that teachers are attempting it shows that much – but they need to be prepared. They particularly need training and supervision when it comes to safeguarding issues, as schools have increasing responsibilities but not the tools or time to cope and as a result, children are falling through the cracks.

Schools need an increase in funding if they’re going to close this gap

Of course, budgets are tight. But they shouldn’t be, and schools need an increase in funding if they’re going to close this gap. The government needs to consider this one of the most worthy investments of all: it’s common sense that helping disadvantaged children get a good education to secure fulfilling work in the future means breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty. This means fewer young people who are NEET, fewer people in long-term unemployment and fewer turning to crime.

We participated in a study carried out by Matrix in 2012 that showed that for every £1 invested in these kind of practical, home-targeted interventions, £11 is saved by the public purse.

We know what needs to be done, but we as a society need to commit to it. Financial savings and an end to educational inequality – who can argue with that?

Jaine Stannard is chief executive of the charity School-Home Support and has over 30 years experience in community health services