The gloomy picture of educational disadvantage for some children from low income families can seem paralysing. Brain scans tell us that problems related to concentration, memory and language development are biologically embedded in some young, impoverished children. But this work can’t tell us much yet about how to repair or prevent such damage.

So what can be done to address the blighted learning opportunities of children from poorer families? Here are three categories of suggestions from research. The first aims to ensure that disadvantaged children get more of the educational stimulation that their wealthier peers already enjoy. The second explores supplementing low parental incomes when children are young so there is less poverty and less damage. Both these approaches are potentially very expensive, even if they may be cost-effective.

A third suggestion comes from economics. It’s often dismissed as the “dismal science”­, but it offers some good news in this context. Economists are demonstrating how it’s possible to make significant improvements in learning for children via relatively minor changes that may require modest spending.

Fixing the “word gap” is complicated and difficult

Let’s take the first approach – better educational stimulation of children early on. It’s challenging to design programmes that will overcome the gap in language development which is apparent at age 18 months in children from low income families. That gap grows, eventually hindering reading skills and access to learning.

Research suggests that programmes should train parents as well as child carers and teachers and that language efforts are coordinated. Everyone has to be on board if children are to hear not only more diverse vocabulary but also the multiple repetitions that seem important for language development. However, evaluation of existing training programmes shows high drop-out rates among parents, child carers and teachers. There is a shortage of well-evidenced long-term, large-scale programmes that work.

Universal pre-school education at 4

Research supports universal pre-school education at age 4: it reduces the gap in test scores during primary school years between children from better off and low income families. This research acknowledges that the test score benefits of pre-school education diminish eventually to zero as children grow older. However, the impact continues to show up in other measures such as number of years spent in education, less criminality, fewer teenage pregnancies and more stable marriages. So the long-term risks of missing out at 4 remain real in terms of school dropout and lifestyle choices, all of which are important for long-term learning and health.

Universal pre-school education at 4 would also address high levels of inequality. At the moment, for example, nearly all children from wealthier US families have pre-school education, compared with less than two thirds from poorer families. However, this policy would be expensive. At the moment, a fifth of US states don’t provide any publicly funded pre-school education.

Increase incomes for low income parents?

What about the second approach: supplementing incomes for low income parents of young children? One study aims to look at what happens if low income mothers of infants are given $4,000 more a year for several years. Will those families find themselves better housing, asks the research, led by Professor Greg Duncan of the University of California, Irvine and co-author of “Restoring Opportunity”. Will mothers who experience less poverty have lower stress levels, making them better parents? Will the learning and behavioural skills of their children show improvement? We don’t know yet. However, even if this intervention proves successful for learning, there may be problems funding such large scale income supplements for the parents of infants.

“Small, effective policy changes don’t remove the urgency of finding comprehensive solutions, but they offer options to less powerful local government that may lack funds.”

A third approach might be more immediately attractive to cash-strapped local government. Research into the comparative cost-effectiveness of health policies has identified several relatively low cost options for improving children’s well-being. Ill-health lies at the heart of much poor learning, so these findings offer opportunities for education. They suggest that, even in the absence of large amounts of extra funding, it is still possible to improve considerably the learning of poor children.

For example, influenza early in pregnancy can damage babies cognitively. Later in pregnancy, it can lead to premature birth and delayed learning. Research has revealed increased number of premature babies born in winter in the US, linked to flu cases. So, one simple, low cost way to improve children’s learning is to make sure that pregnant women have flu vaccinations. This work also details how improved access to other medical interventions during pregnancy or infancy can enhance long-term learning capacities.

Reducing lead poisoning is easy, cheap and effective

Another intriguing study has examined cheap ways to reduce children’s exposure to lead poisoning, which damages their learning. The US state of Rhode Island considered it too expensive to strip out all the leaded paint in public housing and redecorate, so it just removed and repaired any loose, leaded paintwork. Researchers subsequently examined the consequences for the health of the mainly African-American children living in the housing. They discovered that the consequences for the children’s improved learning of even this relatively minor measure were greater than from a programme elsewhere that had cut class sizes from 25 to 15 – at just 20 per cent of the cost per child incurred by reducing class sizes.

A fascinating review paper by professor Janet Currie has explored alternative, inexpensive environmental measures that improve children’s health and, a result, their learning capacities. For example, keeping busy roads a healthy distance from schools and homes, through zoning measures, reduces premature births and improves learning capacities.

Likewise, the same paper details how keeping plants that emit toxic chemicals at least two miles away from young children protects infants from damaged health because pollutants don’t travel far. Again, this work has raised some relatively simple questions of industrial and housing planning that might not involve huge costs but could be very effective.

These studies also show that helping children progress in their learning is not only an issue for educationalists. Environmental policy can play an important role. Likewise, we already know that learning is influenced by health policy: nutritional support for children can have a big impact on their health and that supports their learning.

These findings about small policy changes do not remove the urgency of finding more comprehensive solutions to the damage poverty inflicts on children’s learning. But they offer options particularly to less powerful local authorities that may lack funds. State, local governments and agencies may have environmental powers and influence on health systems that could provide inexpensive, practical ways to improve the learning of children raised in poverty.

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