Improving parenting does not level school playing field

07 December 2010

Children's progress in their first two years at school is still largely driven by their parents' social class, a UK-wide study has concluded. Researchers analysed more than 11,000 seven-year-olds and found a strikingly large gap between children of parents in professional and managerial jobs and those with parents who were long-term unemployed.

Even after allowing for other factors such as ethnicity and family size, the children of professionals and managers were, on average, at least eight months ahead of pupils from the most socially disadvantaged backgrounds at age 7. Furthermore, this gap was about four months wider at 7 than it had been at age 5.

The new report by researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London, also reveals that parents' social class, recorded when their child was aged 3, has a bigger influence on progress between 5 and 7 than a range of parenting practices, such as daily reading with a child.

"The finding that social class is still such a strong predictor of differences in the cognitive and educational scores of five and seven-year-olds confounds a good deal of received wisdom," said Dr Alice Sullivan, principal author of the study. "For example, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, recently blamed low levels of social mobility on class-based differences in parenting.

"Our research shows that while parenting is important, a policy focus on parenting alone is insufficient to tackle the impacts of social inequalities on children. Redistributive economic policies may be more effective than policies directly addressing parenting practices. Another implication of our findings is that exposure to schooling has not put social differentials in attainment into reverse."

The children involved in this research were born in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland between 2000 and 2002 and are being tracked by the Millennium Cohort Study.

Dr Sullivan and her colleagues produced a composite cognitive score for each child based on performance in reading, maths and pattern construction. They also analysed teachers' assessments of the children at age 7. Teachers rated the children's abilities in speaking and listening, reading, writing, science, maths and numeracy, physical education, ICT, and expressive and creative arts.

This analysis showed that social class differentials widened between age 5 and 7 in teacher evaluations as well as ability scores, despite the previous Labour government's heavy investment in early-years programmes and parenting schemes designed to help the poorest children. Youngsters with low birth weights and those with parents who were long-term unemployed or in semi-routine and routine jobs made least progress.

However, there was a marked improvement in the cognitive scores and teacher ratings of children from Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi families between the ages of 5 and 7.

The study also found that social class had an even greater bearing on children's progress than parents' qualifications. However, the researchers acknowledge that the standard measure of educational achievement they used – the five-level National Vocational Qualifications scale – may be an inadequate gauge of parents' abilities and cultural resources.

The consequences at age 7 of early childhood disadvantage in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. A report to the Northern Ireland Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, by Alice Sullivan, Heather Joshi, Sosthenes Ketende, and Polina Obolenskaya will be available from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies website (www.cls.ioe.ac.uk) from 9am, Tuesday, December 7.

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Notes for editors

1. The Millennium Cohort Study has been tracking children in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through their early childhood and plans to follow them into adulthood. It covers such diverse topics as parenting; childcare; school choice; child behaviour and cognitive development; child and parental health; parents' employment and education; income; housing; and neighbourhood. It is the first of the nationwide cohort studies to over-sample areas with high densities of ethnic minorities and large numbers of disadvantaged families. Surveys of the cohort were also carried out when the children were aged nine months and three years. The study is housed at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education. It was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council, whose funding has been supplemented by a consortium of government departments.

2. The new report builds on a previous report which examined outcomes at age 5: www.ofmdfmni.gov.uk/the_consequences_of_childhood_disadvantage_in_northern_ireland.pdf

3. Three scales were used for the cognitive assessment in the fourth MCS sweep. They are the Pattern Construction and Word Reading subscales from the British Ability Scales and the Progress in Maths assessment. All were directly administered to the children by interviewers who were specially trained, but were not professional psychologists.

4. In the Millennium Cohort Study, families considered to be in poverty are estimated to be living on less than 60 per cent of the average national household income. The poverty line calculation takes into account the number of people in a household.

5. Data from the fieldwork for the age 7 survey of the Millennium cohort are now available from the UK Data Archive www.esds.ac.uk. The contract for data collection in MCS is awarded under competitive tender to specialist agencies. For three of the four surveys undertaken to date the data collection was carried out by the National Centre for Social Research. The agency responsible for the second round of data collection was Gfk-NOP.

6. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million. At any one time the ESRC supports more than 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.

7. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the publications that the IOE submitted were judged to be internationally significant and over a third were judged to be "world leading". The Institute was recognised by Ofsted in 2010 for its "high quality" initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students "to want to be outstanding teachers". The IOE is a member of the 1994 group, which brings together 19 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities.