Both parents and poverty matter to children's outcomes, according to a new government report

04 February 2013

Tackling child poverty and promoting positive parenting environments are both important for ensuring children achieve their potential, according to a report published by the Department for Education.

Researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London, analysed data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) and the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). They identified a range of parent and family characteristics and behaviours that could lead to worse outcomes for children at age 7. However, they also determined that there are several factors that might help to protect those children at risk. The researchers then looked at how stressful events in childhood, such as homelessness, abuse or serious illness, affected wellbeing and educational attainment in adolescence.

Poverty, illness and disability pose the greatest risk to children's outcomes at age 7

Researchers examined how 13 known risk factors affected five different outcomes children: verbal, non-verbal and maths skills, Key Stage 1 (age 7) attainment, and behaviour. Two risk factors had a negative impact on all five outcomes: if the family was in poverty on one or more occasions, and if the child had a longstanding illness or disability.

Having several siblings was associated with poorer cognitive development and educational attainment, but not worse behaviour. Children whose fathers had difficulty reading had poorer verbal and maths skills at age 7, and performed worse on school assessments. Those who were disciplined regularly had poorer maths skills, Key Stage 1 attainment and behaviour. Having a parent who smoked was linked to poorer verbal skills.

Having a mother with higher qualifications can help protect against risk

Children whose mothers had higher educational qualifications (professional diplomas or certificates and above) had better cognitive skills at age 7, and performed better on Key Stage 1 assessments. They also showed better behaviour than children whose mothers had lower or no qualifications.

The more rooms children had in their homes, the better their outcomes were in cognitive development and educational attainment. However the size of the home was not associated with better behaviour.

Children had stronger verbal and maths skills and performed better at Key Stage 1 if their mother read to them regularly. Those whose fathers read to them regularly showed significantly better verbal skills.

Abuse and homelessness in childhood have a lasting negative effect on wellbeing and educational attainment in adolescence

The study showed that teenagers who had experienced certain stressful events in childhood, including abuse or homelessness, were more likely to have lower levels of wellbeing and poorer educational attainment. Experiencing a death or serious illness in the family during childhood was linked to lower wellbeing in adolescence, but did not affect academic achievement.

Researchers found that other events, including divorce, parents arguing and moving to a new school, only affected wellbeing and educational attainment in adolescence if they occurred when the child was over 7 years old.

Read the full report:

'Family stressors and children's outcomes' by Elizabeth Jones, Leslie Gutman and Lucinda Platt was published by the Department for Education in January 2013.