In a new report entitled “Too Young to Fail,” the charity said being behind at reading, writing and arithmetic at such a young age could prejudice a child’s future earnings, health and, in economic terms, cost the country billions in lost revenue.

More than a fifth of children born poor in England who are behind at seven years old – tens of thousands of children across the country – will have less than a one in six chance of getting five good GCSEs through no fault of their own, the charity added.

By the time they are seven, nearly 80% of the difference in GCSE results between rich and poor children has already been determined. Save the Children says the first two years a child is at school is a crucial window during which to close the attainment gap – but, despite SATs tests at age seven, most of the education system is geared towards assessing attainment at age 11 or the end of secondary school.

If the trends seen between 2007 and 2012 were continued, around half a million children risk not reading properly by the age of seven by 2020, the report said.

The charity says there has to be more focus and investment on five to seven-year-olds, not just because of the individual tragedy of wasted lives, but because failing to help the poorest primary-age children catch up at school could cost the UK economy £30 billion in untapped potential by 2030, slowing the country’s recovery from recession and preventing it from being a global leader.

Save the Children’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 our help more than ever. The cost of failing is a young child without a fair chance in life however hard they try.”

Never before has there been such a focus on the effects of poor children falling behind by the age of seven, the charity said. “Too Young to Fail” reveals:

  • At every stage of schooling, the UK’s poorest children are likely to do worse and make less progress than their better-off classmates.
  • At worst, it can mean higher rates of truancy, anti-social behaviour and being more likely to end up in prison.

Save the Children is today launching a nationwide “Born to Read” campaign  – in partnership with Beanstalk – to get 23,000 children across England reading over the next four years. We are aiming to recruit 20,000 ‘change makers’ over the next four years who will help us reach children in their first chapters of life, giving them a better chance of fulfilling their potential. We are also expanding our hugely successful parenting programme – FAST – to more deprived areas of the country to give parents the tools they need to help their children get the best out of their education.

Save the Children is also calling on the government:

  • To immediately allocate an additional £1000 “fair chances premium” for children aged five, six and seven who are falling behind because the first two years they are in primary school is a crucial window when the most difference can be made to their life chances.
  • To triple the pupil premium to between £3,000 – £4,000 for every eligible primary school pupil by 2020.
  • And all political parties to pledge to ensure that every child leaves primary school with a good education, including being a confident reader.

Rob Wall, CBI head of employment and education policy, said:

“This report highlights the huge economic cost of allowing so many of our young people to leave school with poor levels of literacy and few qualifications.

“It supports the CBI’s own research which suggests that raising levels of attainment in the UK’s schools to match the best in the world could add more than 1% to GDP every year. Or £8 trillion over the lifetime of a child born today.

“This shows clearly why improving education is one of the most important elements in the UK’s long term growth strategy.”