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CEO blog: Narrowing the attainment gap

26th September 2022 by Kathryn Morley, Chief Executive, OnSide

September’s often thought of as a time filled with opportunity. But for many children and young people from low-income families, the reality is some of their story may have already been shaped before they step into the classroom, as through no fault of their own they’re already behind their more affluent classmates.

Simply put, this is the attainment gap which means that children from more affluent families tend to do better at school than children from low-income families.

The attainment gap is just as large now as it was twenty years ago, an unacceptable inequality that some commenters describe as “baked in” to the system. Over the summer the gap often widens due to how young people spend their time. It’s so important they have access to varied activities that keep them mentally stimulated, like the affordable holiday clubs at youth centres across the country.

The gap can have an impact for a lifetime and there are heart-breaking statistics showing the correlation between social class and educational success. Children who are on free school meals earn less as adults, and one in three poorer young people are not in sustained work or education five years after completing their exams. Disadvantaged young people are twice as likely to be unemployed as young adults as their wealthier peers.

Critically, we know that the impact of the last few years and the current cost-of-living crisis will widen inequalities even more. Yet it’s not enough to understand the problem, we also must do more to find solutions to narrow the gap, so no young person is left behind.

What role does youth centres and youth workers play in narrowing the attainment gap?

We know addressing the attainment gap is a high priority within schools. They work hard to help every pupil achieve, but the reality is schools can only do so much. Many more organisations have a role to play to ensure young people are equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to thrive.

Enriching non-formal learning activities outside of school can be hugely beneficial for young people but those who would benefit the most are often the least likely to have access to these opportunities. That’s why it’s crucial that disadvantaged young people can take part in affordable and inclusive activities, like those offered at youth centres.

There’s strong evidence that this works. Involvement in non-formal learning is positively linked to improved educational outcomes, employment prospects and physical and mental health. This is good for young people, their families, wider communities and society as a whole creating long-term economic benefits as they transition into adulthood.

Youth workers are absolutely critical to help young people during this transition because they excel at building trusted relationships. They instil a sense of self-belief, encourage them to try new things, build their confidence and help them see the potential within. And when it comes to education, they can support what is happening in school by helping young people to understand the value of education, believe that they’re good at something, and gain the motivation to engage at school.

We see this positive impact of youth work across the OnSide Network; 77% of our members are more self-confident, 68% work harder at school, college, work or training, and 58% report getting getter marks in class or perform better at their work or training.

There isn’t a single solution to create a society where everyone can thrive and succeed in education and their careers, but I believe the youth sector can make a difference. We have the evidence, and we have the experience supporting young people. But we also need to do more as a sector to make what we know more widely known. We need to demonstrate cohesively with decision makers how youth work can be a positive thread in the intricate tapestry of support services working together to address the attainment gap.

Lastly, I also believe that there could be benefits to incorporating youth work into the education system. It would be brilliant to see systematic connections developed between schools and youth work providers.

Potential is everywhere, but opportunity isn’t always open to everyone. Let’s work together to change that.

Read some of our other CEO blogs:

CEO blog: How the cost-of-living crisis is impacting young people

CEO blog: Power of Youth Day

CEO blog: It only takes one person to change a life