Social mobility depends on parents’ education and social class, not parenting styles, study finds

13 May 2013

Parents’ qualifications, social class and wellbeing have a bigger effect on their children’s development than poor parenting, according to researchers from the Institute of Education, University of London.

A new study based on data from almost 14,000 seven-year-olds included in the Millennium Cohort Study has explored the link between children’s cognitive ability and their social and economic background. The authors found that children of graduates make most progress in the classroom, with an advantage equivalent to a year in age over their classmates.

They found that children with at least one parent with a degree performed significantly better on reading, maths and pattern recognition tests at age seven than those whose parents did not go to university. The difference in test scores was equivalent to a twelve and a half month gap in age between the children. Seven-year-olds with parents who had a postgraduate degree achieved even higher test scores, and those whose parents had A-levels and GCSEs performed better than those with no qualifications.

The researchers also found a strong link between parents’ social class and children’s cognitive ability at age seven. Children with professional parents were more than seven months ahead of their peers whose parents had manual jobs.

Maternal depression had a significant impact on children’s cognitive ability, as well. Seven-year-olds with mothers who suffered from high levels of depression were more than five months behind their classmates.

In contrast, children whose parents enforced rules, taught the alphabet, and set regular meal and bed times had a much smaller advantage in the tests, equivalent to just one extra month in age for each factor. Children who were breastfed for three to six months were likely to have an advantage in the classroom equivalent to being three months older than their peers who were not breastfed.

Ability at age seven was not affected by having younger siblings, but having at least two older siblings put children at a disadvantage of almost three months. Those with mothers who gave birth at age 20 or younger also achieved lower scores than those with older mothers.

While the type of area children lived in did not have a significant impact on their test results, the researchers were surprised to find that seven-year-olds who watched television for more than three hours a day were at an advantage equivalent to being three months older than their classmates.

Household income was also linked to children’s cognitive ability, but not as strongly as parents’ social class and education. Children whose parents earned over £691 per week had an advantage equivalent to being almost three months older than those whose parents earned less than £193 per week.

Children with parents in a higher social class and with a higher level of qualifications were also more likely to make better academic progress between the ages of five and seven.

Read the full report

Social Class and Inequalities in Early Cognitive Scores’, by Alice Sullivan, Sosthenes Ketende and Heather Joshi, was published in the journal Sociology in April 2013.

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