Children’s different rates of progress in their first two years at school are still largely driven by their parents’ social class, a UK-wide study has concluded.
Researchers who analysed the assessment scores of more than 11,000 seven-year-olds found a strikingly large performance gap between the 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