The head of a Christian children's charity has called for churches to step in to help support schools and families after a damning report on children's attainment.
Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies funded by the Nuffield Foundation showed 16 year-olds eligible for free school meals are still around 27 percentage points less likely to earn good GCSEs than their class mates.
It found the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers has seen "virtually no change" in two decades.
Report author Imran Tahir said failure is “baked in” from an early age with the disadvantage gap having a “lifelong impact” on people's life chances.
Ian Soars, chief executive of Spurgeons explained the findings to Premier: "The children and families that we're working with feature heavily in this demographic. Actually what we're seeing on the ground is an increased difficulty to cope with the facilities of mental health, cost of living crisis, not so much spacing, lockdown and so on. What is surprising is that the gap hasn't widened. I actually think you'd have to commend a lot of these families who don't have the privileges of others, they've managed to keep pace with that gap under such stress and pressure."
The report said the pandemic had "significantly worsened overall outcomes as well as widening inequalities", with the proportion of pupils leaving primary school meeting literacy and numeracy benchmarks falling from 65 per cent in 2018-19 to 59 per cent in 2021-22.
Ian Soars said many factors can make it difficult for poorer children to achieve the same results as more advantaged classmates:
"If you come from a disadvantaged background, often you just don't have space to study, there isn't somewhere where you can go, you're trying to do it on a kitchen workspace,” he said.
“You don't have a desk, you don't necessarily have an isolated room. A second one is obviously the more privileged you are, the more access you have to tutors for additional support. Your parents will have sharper elbows perhaps in terms of school expectations, and setting the expectation on their own children.
"We've got to address access to support for emotional and mental well-being. If you're poor, there are hardly any resources and yet, this is like an epidemic being played out in our children's lives. The last two or three years have seen it played out in this particular demographic more than anywhere else. So if you take those factors into consideration it's a surprise that the gap hasn't widened. These guys will have my full admiration for that."
Ian Soars has urged the government to invest more into schools and for churches to create hubs to support parents and families :
"We work in about 150 schools, and none of them are saying that they've got budget excesses. Schools are under massive financial pressure at the moment. And that's playing out in terms of the books that they can afford, the extra help that they can give to children. But secondly, the infrastructure around the school that enables the school to be a place for wellbeing and create a life expectancy that is an exciting place for kids where they can actually flourish.
"My heart cry as a Christian charity working in this space is to partner with the Christian church to say, what can you do in your community? Actually you can create family hubs where your schools converge, because they haven't got the resources. It's time for the church to be able to stand in the gap in their communities, to support parents.
"We know that churches don't have the resources to do that, but that's where Spurgeons can help - to equip churches to be able to care for those families that have nowhere else to actually go. The Church can be not just a centre of religious practice, but in the centre of community renewal in the heart of children and families in every town. That's our heart and that's what we're equipping the church to do. Yes, the church can do so much more."
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said that since 2011, the Government had "narrowed the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers at every stage of education up to the pandemic, and recent figures show that a record proportion of the most disadvantaged students are progressing to higher education".