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Economic disparity may affect children's learning, Japanese survey finds

Professor Hiroko Okamoto of Takasaki University of Health and Welfare explains the results of the survey at Oizumi Town Office in Gunma Prefecture, on Dec. 24, 2020. (Mainichi/Atsuko Suzuki)

MAEBASHI -- Economic disparity may affect children's learning, according to the results of a survey an eastern Japan town conducted on elementary and junior high school students and their guardians.

    Oizumi in Gunma Prefecture conducted a survey asking students about their understanding of what they are taught. A total of 27.7% of children and their guardians in households with an annual income of less than 3.5 million yen (about $33,700) answered that they had little or almost no understanding of what they were taught. On the other hand, a total of 12.8% of households with an annual income of 3.5 million yen or more and households that did not report their income gave the same response. The town will consequently take action to tackle the problem.

    The survey was conducted between September and October 2019 by a research group consisting of members from the Oizumi Town Office and Takasaki University of Health and Welfare, targeting students in the fourth grade at elementary school through the third year at junior high school and guardians of all elementary and junior high school students. Responses were received from 1,889 students (90.8% response rate) and 1,886 guardians (61.2% response rate). As there are many Brazilians in the town, 260 of the respondents answered the questionnaire in Portuguese.

    When asked about their learning abilities, 22.5% of children and guardians from households with an annual income of 3.5 million yen or more and those who did not report their income answered, "I understand well," while 11.7% of those from households with an annual income of less than 3.5 million yen answered the same.

    A total of 46.3% of children from households with less than 3.5 million yen in annual income answered that they thought their performance in class was "lower than their peers," or "slightly lower," while only 28.6% of children from other households answered the same. Moreover, a total of 20.6% of children from households with an annual income below 3.5 million yen answered "higher than their peers," or "slightly higher," while 33.9% of children from other households answered the same. These results showed that children from households with lower incomes also had lower self-esteem.

    Self-evaluation of grades was also correlated with the home eating environment and the content of meals. In the group that has meals with their families, the percentage of children who rated their grades high (30.4%) and low (34.1%) were about the same, but in the group that ate alone or did not eat, only 8.4% rated their grades high and 70.3% rated their grades low.

    In the group that cooks meals at home, 31.8% rated their academic performance highly, while 31.2% rated it low, about the same percentage. In the group that eats mostly convenience store boxed bento and retort foods, 18.6% rated their understanding of what they were taught highly, while 46.5% rated it low.

    It is assumed that low-income households do not have enough time for guardians to prepare meals or spend time with their children, which may affect the children's academic performance.

    Meanwhile, since 2017, the town has set up "children's cafeterias" in four locations in the town to provide both meal support and a place for children to stay. The survey revealed that 52.1% of those in households with an annual income below 3.5 million yen answered they "didn't know about them," indicating that the information is not properly conveyed to those who need it.

    Professor Hiroko Okamoto of Takasaki University of Health and Welfare, who led the study, pointed out that "educational and welfare support is essential in order to minimize the impact of poverty on children."

    The town will improve the way it informs residents about the children's cafeterias and two free learning classes it is already offering, and will also consider further support measures.

    The survey was conducted before the spread of the new coronavirus, and professor Okamoto stressed the necessity of continuing the survey to understand the actual situation throughout the prefecture.

    (Japanese original by Atsuko Suzuki, Maebashi Bureau)

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