Please mind the (disadvantage) gap


Improving life chances for young children

There is a horrible logic to the disadvantage gap. Children living in disadvantaged circumstances are less likely to reach the same outcomes as other children. In 2015, only half the children from disadvantaged backgrounds had achieved a good level of development by the end of Reception. This compares with two-thirds of children from more secure backgrounds. By the end of secondary school, four out of five disadvantaged pupils had not achieved a ‘world-class standard’ benchmark.

According to statistics, two-fifths of the disadvantage gap takes place before children step foot in school. Effective early intervention is vital in narrowing the gap, or even in some cases, eradicating it altogether.

‘If people keep falling off a cliff, don’t worry about where you put the ambulance at the bottom. Build a fence at the top and stop them falling off in the first place.’ [1]

Disadvantaged children keep ‘falling off the cliff’. How can we stop this from happening?

What is the cause of the disadvantage gap?

The chief cause of the gap is deprivation.  Wherever there is a marked deficiency, particularly of security and wellbeing, disadvantage gaps will open up. Such deficiency may arise in one or all of the following areas: lack of income, time, play, talk, peace, or even loving connections.  

Poverty, with its lack of money or security, can make life a daily battle. Shortage of family support and structure intensifies the pressure, with depression and despair become commonplace – wreaking havoc with mental health.   

It is not surprising that many disadvantaged children are unable to benefit from our education system due to toxic stress. Toxic stress will persist unless we step in and intervene. Knowledge and understanding in stress/trauma can make all the difference to the disadvantaged child. 

Toxic stress and poverty

Toxic stress is prolonged and unrelenting stress in early childhood, damaging the developing brain. Such children are too busy ‘surviving’ to be able to learn effectively. Children exposed to poverty are going to struggle at preschool.

To help these children, practitioners need to appreciate how parents living in poverty are more likely to:

  • Experience conflict in their relationships.
  • Experience poor mental health.
  • Spend less time with their children due to pressures of ‘survival’.

These factors are all linked to present and future difficulties for children: antisocial behaviour, anxiety, academic and physical health problems, and social and relationship problems.[2]

How can we best help?

  • Create supportive relationships. ‘The single best predictor of how well children turn out is the secure attachment with at least one person in the early years[3]
  • Create positive learning experiences.
  • Be responsive; always respond to a child’s feelings by acknowledging/verbalising/validating them.
  • Provide a safe environment/sense of safety for the child.
  • Provide predictable routines, creating a secure basis for the child’s learning.
  • Create effective transitions, both in the daily life of the setting, and towards the next stage of the child’s life.
  • Provide specialist early intervention when necessary to target any causes of stress.
  • Become trauma/stress-aware and trained. Integrate this knowledge into the setting’s policies/procedures and everyday practices.

Early Years Pupil Premium

Preschools with disadvantaged children can apply for financial assistance, the Early Years Pupil Premium (EYPP) for 3-4-year-olds. The national hourly rate is 53p an hour, which equates to £302.10 per annum. This funding can be used at the discretion of the setting; training, transition focus, early language focus, etc.

Such modest funding barely scratches the surface but when used carefully will help to create some much-needed additional support for the child.

Getting it right

Eradicating the effects of poverty takes decades, but if we put in place simple but effective strategies, we can start to reduce the disadvantage gap in our own small corner.

The most effective settings have a deep understanding of their children and local community, alongside an excellent working relationship with all professionals who provide relevant support.  Empathy is key to the process. Without understanding the full picture, how can we help anyone?

Connecting with and understanding these families before they reach crisis point makes sound sense and essentially creates hope where there isn’t any. Our country’s most defenceless young children gain the greatest benefit of all, namely a hope-filled future, when we provide the early intervention they so badly need to overcome the destructive consequences of poverty.

[1] Detective Chief Superintendent John Carnochan, head of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit

[2] D. Acquah, R. Sellers, L. Stock, G. Harold. 28th April 2017. Inter-parental conflict and outcomes for children in contexts of poverty and economic pressure

[3] H Garnett. 2017 Developing Empathy in the Early Years   Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London.


About the author

Helen Garnett is a mother of 4, and a committed and experienced Early Years consultant. She co-founded a pre-school in 2005 and cares passionately about young children and connection. As a result, she has written a book, ‘Developing Empathy in the Early Years: a guide for practitioners’. She has also co-written an Early Years curriculum and assessment tool, at present being implemented in India. Helen is also on the Think Equal team, a global initiative led by Leslee Udwin, developing empathy in pre-schools and schools across the world. 



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