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Government schemes should help children from birth; Frank FIELD Outspoken and informed, Birkenhead's MP writes for you.

Byline: Frank FIELD

EARLIER this week Ofsted released three reports on the pupil premium, the flagship government scheme that aims to improve educational outcomes for children from low income families. This academic year, PS1.25 billion was allocated for the scheme.

The reports were extremely disappointing. Half of schools surveyed said that the scheme made little or no difference to the way they were being operated. Only 10% said it was having a significant effect. Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted's chief inspector, believes that funds were simply being used to "plug the gap" in school budgets.

The Liverpool City Region's Child Poverty Commission, which I chair, conducted a similar exercise last year. It found that just 20% of schools anticipated that pupil premium money would narrow the gap between richer and poorer pupils' results.

Clearly something is wrong. Schools should use the premium for its stated purpose - helping poorer children and improving social mobility.

However, the bigger issue with 'flagship' policies such as this one, is that whilst they are certainly worthy in their aims, how effective can they actually be? A large body of research, much of it conducted by respected British academics, concludes that schools are highly ineffective in improving the life chances of poorer children.

Almost a decade ago Leon Feinstein, a professor at the Institute of Education, found disturbing evidence which shows that the success individuals achieve during their adult life can be predicted by their ability level on their first day of primary school. It is in the very early years that the gaps in outcomes, which the pupil premium aims to close, appear.

By age three there are significant ability differences between children from lower and higher income families. These persist throughout childhood, widening during school years.

The good news in all of this is that the evidence shows high quality interventions really can make a difference. This includes policies to encourage positive parenting and improve children's school readiness.

Surely the government must, therefore, put a much greater emphasis on the importance of 'foundation years' development (covering pregnancy and the first five years of life), which would be reflected in 'flagship' government policies that target this stage of life - the stage where we can actually make significant positive improvements to poorer children's outcomes.

Furthermore, it is even more vital that in these financially constrained times the government and local authorities develop policies which are soundly evidence based and which will be able to achieve their aims.

Schools are the easy option and few governments are criticised for pouring more money into schools. But the simple fact is that schools

do not close developmental gaps that emerge very early on in life. Yet it is possible to significantly improve poorer children's life chances, simply by developing effective policies that begin much earlier than the first day of school. We surely need to properly act on this.
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Title Annotation:Letters
Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Sep 24, 2012
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