Poorer high-ability UK children fall behind peers at school from age of 11

<span>The study found a ‘clear, rapid decline in high-ability, low-income children’s outcomes’ between the ages of 11 and 14.</span><span>Photograph: parkerphotography/Alamy</span>
The study found a ‘clear, rapid decline in high-ability, low-income children’s outcomes’ between the ages of 11 and 14.Photograph: parkerphotography/Alamy

A critical three-year period between the ages of 11 and 14 has been identified as the point at which talented children from low-income backgrounds fall behind their wealthier peers at school, according to new research.

The study tracked high-ability children from the age of five, from the lowest and highest income groups, and found that they progressed at similar rates until the first years of secondary school.

But by the time the two groups sat GCSEs or equivalent exams at 16 years old, those in the wealthier group were much more likely to gain top grades than those in the low-income group, and were more likely to take A-levels.

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Researchers found that after the early years of secondary school, those from low-income backgrounds were more likely to have contact with the police, lower self-esteem, and negative attitudes towards education.

“The failure to fully capitalise on the early potential of this group is likely to be a key reason why the UK is failing to become a more socially fluid society,” the research by academics at University London (UCL) concluded.

Prof John Jerrim, the lead author of the study, said: “Unfortunately, between the ages of 11 and 14, things seem to start going wrong for the most able children from low-income backgrounds.

“These are the kids who are in the best position to go on to achieve well at school, smash through the glass ceiling and increase diversity within professional jobs. But if many are unable to achieve top school grades, how are we ever going to become a more socially mobile society?”

Experts said the working paper by Jerrim, with Maria Carvajal, was evidence of the “insidious and cumulative impact” of differences in family income and the lack of support available for adolescents.

Iram Siraj, a professor of child development and education at the University of Oxford, said: “Youth services and the demise of third sector and local authority funding, coupled with growing poverty, are damaging our children.”

Steve Strand, a professor of education at Oxford, said the research identified “the important role of peer groups during adolescence”, including with reference to engaging in bad behaviour, poorer mental health and lower self-esteem.

“For me, this points to the vital importance of policy at the community and neighbourhood level, and of the support and services that have been stripped from our poorest communities by decades of cuts to local authorities,” he said.

The study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, tracked the results of 389 “highly able” five-year-olds from the poorest 25% of families in the UK during their primary and secondary school education. It then looked at the same outcomes for 1,392 highly able five-year-olds from the richest 25% of families, using data on both groups from the Millennium Cohort Study of children born between 2000 and 2002.

It found a “clear, rapid decline in high-ability, low-income children’s outcomes” between the ages of 11 and 14, which coincided with other differences emerging, including “significantly” worse behaviour and mental wellbeing, and having been more likely to have been stopped, cautioned or arrested by the police by the age of 17 than their high-income peers.

Only 40% of the low-income children were awarded A grades or better in exams at the age of 16, compared with 65% in the high-income group. The difference in exam results contributed to fewer children in the low-income group taking A-levels.