In a new report entitled Too Young to Fail, the charity said that less than a sixth of children who qualify for free school meals and are behind at seven-years-old will go on to achieve five A*-C GCSEs.
Figures published in the report show that 24 per cent of children on free school meals fell behind in 2012, compared with ten per cent of their better-off peers.
In the same year, 76,000 seven-year-olds were found to be behind in reading across the country.
If the trend seen between 2007 and 2012 continues, the charity estimates that around half a million children will be behind at the age of seven by 2020.
Save the Children has called for more focus and investment on five- to seven-year olds both to address the inequalities highlighted in the report and because it estimates that failing to help the poorest primary-age children catch up at school could cost the UK economy £30 billion in untapped potential by 2030.
The charity's chief executive, Justin Forsyth, said ‘Many children starting school this term already have the odds stacked against them. These children of the recession, born during the global financial crisis into a world of slow growth, stagnant wages and increasing living costs, where communities are feeling the effects of austerity, need out help more than ever. The cost of failing is a young child without a fair chance in life however hard they try.’
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) said, ‘ATL welcomes any additional support to schools to provide children with the best chance possible to read well and with enjoyment. Early intervention is key and Sure Start Centres need to be resourced sufficiently to provide the most vulnerable families with support, including with literacy.’
However, she added, ‘Overcoming the disadvantages of poverty requires more than funding for specific school initiatives; families need a proper living wage and the Government needs to reverse some of its recent attacks on benefits support for the most vulnerable and fund organisations who provide much-needed support.’
Save the Children has launched a nationwide Born to Read campaign to help children behind at seven with reading and has expanded its Families and Schools Together programme, which helps parents to work on children’s learning at home.
Mr Forsyth added that the charity aims to ensure that ‘primary school and the early years are a time when doors open for children – not where they are slammed shut.’