When is a gap not a gap? Before it becomes one in the first place.

Recently The Independent reported an 18-month attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their peers at GCSE, with researchers citing austerity cuts as a major reason behind the ongoing trend.

Speak to anyone working in education and they are in no doubt that cuts are putting schools under unfathomable pressure. One national article cited that schools are ‘beyond breaking point’. The author certainly has a point. 

But by dissecting a problem after it has manifested in poor results is like planning to clear up a village after flooding rather than trying to prevent the problem in the first place. The point is that by age 16 this gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged is at its widest, and it has been widening for some time. Since birth in fact. 

The thing about being ‘disadvantaged’, ‘pupil premium’ or ‘living in poverty’ is that no child choses it. And they can do little about it. But the effects of deprivation are more than just financial, as are the problems causing the aforementioned attainment gap. They are cultural, aspirational, nutritional and above all etymological. 

Most people are aware that babies and infants learn through imitation, and their ability to speak is garnered in the same fashion. But for the deprived child this is substantially more difficult as they are exposed to far fewer words. The attainment gap has already started. By the time they turn four those same children are already disadvantaged, but not in a way that is obvious. The ‘word gap’, or ‘vocabulary gap’, the difference in the number of words known and/or understood, stands at around four million. Four million words. Extrapolate that data 12 years and it is easy to see how a deprived child could be 18 months behind their non-disadvantaged peers. And that’s without even taking budget cuts into consideration. 

To tackle the attainment gap therefore, we must start with the route cause. That initial vocabulary gap snowballs over the next 12 years of a child’s education. So rather than our secondary schools making misguided attempts to ‘close the gap’ aged 11 perhaps we should be putting all our efforts into preventing it occurring in the first place. Building preventative flood defences rather than reactive pumping stations.  

Schools need more money. That is a statement not many in society would disagree with. But throwing money at a problem is not always a way to fix it. Disadvantaged children need more words. How do they get these? They learn to read. They read more. They have reading role models. They grow up in a home where there are books as well as screens. It’s not an easy problem to solve and it won’t be tackled overnight, but we have to start somewhere.

Reading Together provides a new way of enabling parents to support their children with learning to read in partnership with the child’s school. It revolutionises the learn-to-read process further by giving schools an overview of at-home activities and in real time, allowing them to intervene effectively at the point of gap widening. Every missed opportunity to read is also one to progress. One too many of those, research shows, is difficult to recover from. Our youngest generation need to be reading more. But they need everyone’s help. We need to be reading together.