Featured Briefing: Too young to fail

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This new report by Save the Children has found that more than a fifth of children in England have already fallen permanently behind by the age of seven. The charity says being behind at reading, writing and arithmetic at such a young age can prejudice a child’s future earnings, health and, in economic terms, cost the country billions in lost revenue.

The report shows that, through no fault of their own, poorer children as young as seven are on course for poorer life chances.

By the time they are seven, nearly 80 per cent of the difference in GCSE results between rich and poor children has already been determined. If the trends seen between 2007 and 2012 are continued, around half a million children risk not reading properly by the age of seven by 2020, the report says.

While progress has been made over the past decade in improving the achievement of the poorest children, we must recognise the scale of the remaining challenge. Seven-year-old children from poor families are still consistently more likely to fall behind in critical skills such as reading.

The impact on those children’s life chances is huge, trapping many in a cycle of poverty. Modelling carried out for this report also shows the enduring cost to the nation’s economy in wasted talent.

Early-years provision, support for the parents of young children and a greater focus on primary education are vital for children’s learning and their future lives.


Main Findings:

  • Fewer than one in six children from low-income families who have fallen behind by the age of seven will go on to achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths.
  • Better-off children who are behind are more likely to go on to achieve well – but even they only have a one in four chance of getting five good GCSEs, including English and maths.
  • If a child from a poor family is already behind with their reading at the age of seven, they have just over a one in five chance of going on to achieve a C in English at GCSE.
  • Critical skills are of critical importance. With no solid base in reading, writing and maths, young children risk failure before they have even started in life.
  • Even continuing to make steady progress between now and 2020 could leave approximately 480,000 seven-year-olds, of whom 180,000 are low-income pupils, behind in reading.
  • One in eight children who are on free school meals would be behind in reading in 2020.
  • As many as 520,000 children, of whom 220,000 are low-income pupils, would be behind in reading by 2020.

If instead all primary schools were performing as well as those in the top ten local authorities:

  • Each year around 7,000 more children, or around 50,000 by 2020, would have attained good levels of literacy by the end of primary school.



All political parties to sign up to a 2020 ambition, which would ensure that all children, regardless of background, can:

  1. start primary school ready to learn
  2. catch up quickly if they start school already behind, so that no child is left behind at age seven
  3. leave primary school having had a good, fulfilling education, including being confident readers.

All political parties to develop proposals for their 2015 manifestos that would make progress towards these goals, focusing particularly on the following critical areas:

  1. protecting family incomes from the squeeze on living standards, so parents can provide the support their children need
  2. continuing to invest in and improve preschool services and parenting support
  3. starting early, ensuring no child falls behind in our primary schools.

The government to make progress towards these goals, focusing particularly on the following critical areas:

  1. publish an annual report on progress in creating fair chances for all young children
  2. as an immediate priority, focus additions to the Pupil Premium on five- to seven-year-olds – a new ‘fair chances premium’ at the age that matters most
  3. in the long term, front-load spending in primary school – in particular, the early years of primary school. Building on the successful introduction of the Pupil Premium, aiming to boost the Pupil Premium to £3,000–£4,000 in primary school would be one option.

You can download this report summary in pdf format here. Alternatively, download the full report by Save The Children here.

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