Relationship between poverty and educational attainment is complex

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There is no standard definition of poverty. Historically, poverty was thought of in absolute terms: of there being a minimum level of need for essentials such as food, clothing and heating which could be identified. This initial understanding informed the introduction of the post war welfare state in Britain. Over time this absolute understanding has changed into a relative understanding which recognises the social and cultural context. The European Union's definition of poverty recognises that poverty is not just about lack of income but also about the range of difficulties which a person can experience:

People are said to be living in poverty if their income and resources are so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living considered acceptable in the society in which they live. Because of their poverty they may experience multiple disadvantage through unemployment, low income, poor housing, inadequate health care and barriers to lifelong learning, culture, sport and recreation. They are often excluded and marginalised from participating in activities (economic, social and cultural) that are the norm for other people and their access to fundamental rights may be restricted. (Council of The European Union, 2004, page 8).

Poverty and Educational Attainment

There is considerable evidence for an association between poverty and educational attainment. Repeatedly, studies either report or imply that poverty is a factor in school truancy and exclusion, in early school leaving, and in the failure of disadvantaged learners to attain educational qualifications. Factors in this are various. A robust finding of the last 30 years has been that teachers are not immune to the self-fulfilling prophecy and, quite unwittingly, have lower educational expectations of poor, dirty and otherwise disadvantaged children. Evans & English (2002) found that one in five children growing up in poverty have a heightened risk of socioemotional difficulties, attributable to interacting factors such as substandard housing, family turmoil and difficulties in behavioural self-regulation. Specifically maternal depression and poverty jeopardise the cognitive development of young children (particularly girls) while affluence buffers the deleterious consequences of depression. Hoff's (2003) extensive writing on the relationship between language development and socioeconomic status, finds that socioeconomic status exerts "its well-established influence" (p. 1368). Its effects are pervasive, with delayed overall development for poorer children. Importantly, the PISA surveys -for example, OECD (2004) - report the deleterious effects of social disadvantage on educational attainment in both literacy and mathematics, interacting with both the learner's own socio-economic status and the financial resource available to the school.

The relationship between poverty and educational attainment has recently been explored in studies which compared the perceptions and experiences of children from contrasting backgrounds of financial affluence and disadvantage. The disadvantaged children experienced a shorter school-day, a somewhat casual approach to homework and a restricted variety of extra-curricular activities (Sutton et al, 2007). They perceived schoolwork to be both boring and difficult and they perceived schools as exercising coercive control from which they were pleased to escape. Many of the disadvantaged interviewees did not consider schools to be places where they were treated with respect and they disliked when teachers shouted at them and when their views and opinions were disregarded. In the light of such perceptions it is understandable that the learners might not be able to capitalise on the educational opportunities that were available. It recognised in both the teacher education literature and in the child development literature that positive, warm relationships between teacher and learner are necessary. It is further commonly recognised that educational achievement requires learner motivation and engagement in work that is seen as relevant. Kellet & Dar (2007) found that children from poorer backgrounds did not get routine support for homework. They experienced significantly less help with literacy homework because this took time which mothers could not spare, resulting in less favourable environments for reading and writing and fewer opportunities to talk about literacy. Children in this category reported attending a homework club, specifically to get help from teachers.

A common theme running through these studies was while both disadvantaged and financially affluent children acknowledged education to be of value, although in different ways, the children's own awareness of the effects of contrasting financial family resources implied that reduced circumstances interfered with, and possibly undermined, the efforts of teachers and the initiatives of schools to use education to break intergenerational cycles of disadvantage.

Policy Position

The present Labour government has made, since being elected in 1997, an explicit commitment to improving education, arguing that a highly educated workforce is necessary for economic growth and prosperity. Further, it has "acknowledged the importance of equity issues in education, so it has maintained a concern with social and economic disadvantage -often understood through the lens of 'social exclusion' - and has tried to develop policies to address this" (Ainscow et al, 2008, p. 7). To this end, the government has not been slow to resource initiatives to enable parents to bootstrap themselves through capitalising on new opportunities; as exemplified, for example, in the H M Treasury (2008) announcement. As reported by Ainscow et al (2008) there has been an "intense focus on institutional improvement, supported by targeted interventions directed at low achievers" (p. 27) and it is disappointing to realise that these initiatives have been viewed as "inadequate" (p. 27). However, as Raffo et al (2007) have made plain, the relationship between poverty and education is very complex. The causes and factors which are integral to the disadvantages experienced by families extend well beyond the school gates. This in turn implies that the interventions needed to address the entrenched relationship between poverty and educational attainment will require to be sophisticated.

It is not the case that small-scale initiatives are, themselves, unhelpful (Raffo et al, 2007). Schools - particularly those with a community orientation - can help at an individual level: to get employment, to extend facilities for the community and to provide counselling services. But such responses are problem and person specific. Indeed it is important that initiatives are geared to the factors that directly impact on the lived experience of the individual. So factors such as the experience of being read to, the quality of the teacher's instruction and parental emphasis on the importance of learning will impact on children. Further evidence for the importance of authentic intervention which is meaningful is offered by Raikes et al (2006) whose analyses of data suggested a reciprocal and snowballing relationship between maternal daily bookreading and children's vocabulary among low-income mothers. Hoff's (2003) recent work explored environmental specificity as an explanation for the relation between socioeconomic status and language development, using a sample of very young children whose mothers were the primary source of their language-learning experience. In all but one of the measures, mothers of higher socioeconomic status used more complex language than did mothers of lower socioeconomic status. While the mothers held similar childrearing beliefs, differences in the lexical richness and sentence complexity of mothers' speech were mirrored in their children's vocabulary development. It seems, therefore that when a well-targeted intervention makes sense, the participant is able to take advantage of an educational opportunity. In other words, such a participant is able to benefit from the actual equality of opportunity. Effective mediation between educational attainment and poverty thus requires the active engagement of the participant.

But no matter how relevant a particular initiative is for a particular individual or group, a piecemeal approach is not of itself effective in raising educational attainment, as Ainscow et al (2008) and Raffo et al (2007) highlight. What is now becoming better understood is the need to work within well-coordinated local strategies for addressing disadvantage. Although there have been repeated exhortations that good service delivery depends on 'joined-up thinking' and integrated policies to respond to local issues, a silo mentality has obtained with the agendas of individual interest groups diluting corporate altruism. Ainscow et al (2008) see the way forward in a "shared analysis of the local situation, a common vision of how that situation might change, and joint responsibility for tackling complex, interlocking social problems" (p. 27). They are hopeful that policy development can move forward in this integrated way and their report flags up how the various partners might work to sequence and group multiple interventions to produce coherent plans with effective or important outcomes. The DCSF (2009) project, the Extra Mile is one manifestation of schools seeking to raise aspirations through the corporate involvement of teachers, pupils, parents, the local community, partner schools and ITT institutions. The project suggests 'extra mile' practices which are found in successful schools. Of themselves, these won't read as unusual to those involved in Education. Indeed many schools could claim that to some degree at least they were already adopting practices such as tackling low-level disruption through student behaviour panels or replacing traditional parents' evenings with review and guidance sessions to increase parental participation in school. But by implementing the practices in a coordinated whole-school fashion, rather than as individualised, idiosyncratic innovations, what they allow are common platforms through which all of the stakeholders can work towards the much needed effective outcomes.


The relationship between poverty and educational attainment is both complex and nuanced. The testimony to this is extensive (Raffo et al, 2007). Although there have been many attempts to ameliorate the damaging consequences of low educational attainment, it is now understood that the interventions have not been as effective as had been hoped. The cumulative evidence now points to the need for multiple initiatives to be planned and delivered as coherent and chronologically comprehensive interventions. This means simultaneously recognising, and acting on, factors that operate at the (micro) level of the individual, at the (meso) level of peer groups, families and neighbourhoods and at the (macro) level of social structures such as health, housing and educational provision - no mean challenge for policymakers.