Poorest pupils in Wales fail to match English at school

Alan Milburn may be a former Labour cabinet minister, but today's "state of the nation" report by his social mobility and child poverty commission won't make pleasant reading for his party colleagues in Cardiff Bay.

Some of the comparisons between educational performance in Wales and England will also make bleak reading for parents of children in Welsh schools.

The report suggests the poorest children in Wales are significantly less likely to do well at school than children from similar backgrounds in England.

Pupils eligible for free school meals in England are 50% more likely to obtain five good GCSEs than their counterparts in Wales.

The report concludes that the gap between the most disadvantaged students and the rest is also higher than in England. "Wales performs less well than all regions in England, including comparably deprived regions like the North East."

It says: "Comparing just the population of children eligible for free school meals across England and Wales shows that 50% more FSM pupils reach the 5 A*-C at GCSE threshold (including maths and English/Welsh) in England than in Wales - although, at under two fifths of all children, the absolute level remains unacceptably low in England as well."

The report paints a bleak picture of school performance in Wales: "At age 5 the poorest children from Wales are a little behind the poorest children in England in vocabulary skills, but by age 7 a notable gap has opened up.

"By age 7 the word-reading ability of children in Wales is behind that of children in England and Scotland, irrespective of whether they are from families with relatively low or high incomes."

The Welsh government's deputy minister for tackling poverty, Vaughan Gething, said: "This report is an important contribution to how we help the poorest in our society. It says we are doing many of the right things and acknowledges that the rest of the UK could learn from what the Welsh government is doing, especially our efforts to make the experience of poverty less damaging to children and the way we represent school performance information.

"However, we are not complacent and tackling poverty is a daily battle where we can't afford to take our foot off the pedal. We are determined to do all we can and to use our resources to help those from our least well off communities to make sure they have the same opportunities as the rest of society. A key part of this will be breaking the link between poverty and poor educational attainment and helping children have the right start in life through our Flying Start programme.

"I believe we are doing more and going further than the UK government or any of the other devolved administrations in our efforts to tackle poverty. We are doing this against a tough backdrop, with cuts to welfare, the cost of living rising and a sluggish economy. Despite this we are unwavering in our commitment to do all we can."

Mr Gething may have been focusing on what the report said about poverty, but its conclusion that the poorest kids in Wales fail to match the modest school achievements of their counterparts in England will worry parents and politicians alike.