The effects of a disadvantaged childhood may last a lifetime, particularly for men, according to new research.
Men whose qualifications were poor as a result of home circumstances stand almost no chance of improving their employment prospects by taking extra courses in their twenties. Women who improved their skills, however, could earn more or get better jobs in their thirties.
"It is striking that men who are later developers in terms of education do not seem, on average, able to enhance their employment prospects," said researchers Paul Gregg and Stephen Machin, who are working on the project at the London School of Economics' Centre for Economic Performance. "This gender-related difference is particularly interesting, mirroring, as it does, the relative fortunes of men and women in the British labour market as a whole, with women doing much better than men in recent years."
In a paper outlining their preliminary findings, the researchers suggested there is a need to intervene in the lives of children from disadvantaged homes before school-leaving age. "If one is concerned about the inequalities such factors generate, the results suggest a strong need to intervene at an early age (i.e. well before the scars from growing up in a disadvantaged situation are too well formed)," they said.
"Rising income inequality and increased crime suggest that the factors that cause disadvantage in the childhood years are hitting a larger fraction of children. If the mechanisms we have outlined in the National Child Development Survey (NCDS) continue to operate in future (and there seems no compelling reason why they should not), then this can only lead to further polarisation of economic and social outcomes as the current generation of adolescents grow into the early years of adulthood."
They have used data from the massive NCDS, which has followed the fortunes of those born in a particular week in March 1958 - around 10,000 people.
The research paper, which appears in the CEP's magazine, CentrePiece, said the impact of family financial difficulties had more effect on the subsequent fortunes of children than domestic circumstances such as an unemployed father or single mother. Children placed in care at any time were far more likely to have been in trouble.
Children with higher maths and reading ability at age seven, those with better-educated parents and those whose families did not have financial difficulties were all more likely to stay on at school, attend more regularly and had less contact with the police by the age of 16.
"It may not be unexpected, but it is important to note that the educational attainment of the disadvantaged is considerably lower," said the paper. "For example, only 1 per cent of boys and 1 per cent of girls who had a school attendance record of less than 75 per cent, or who had been in contact with the police, went on to get at least a first degree by the age of 23; this compares with 13 per cent of the other boys and 11 per cent of the other girls."
Among children either put into care or living in a financially disadvantaged family, only 4 per cent of boys and 3 per cent of girls went on to higher education.
On the other hand, more than half the boys and nearly two-thirds of the girls with a school attendance record of under 75 per cent, or those who had been in contact with the police, left school with no qualifications. This compared with under one-fifth of boys and one-quarter of girls who were not disadvantaged.
The researchers stress that the poor social and economic outcomes of the disadvantaged children when questioned at 23 and 33 were not entirely down to poor education. They were more likely to have had long spells of unemployment. The men were more likely to have been in prison or Borstal, and the women to have become single mothers before the age of 23.
"We document a picture where for men it seems that getting out of the trap associated with social disadvantages from childhood is very difficult," said the researchers. "For men in the survey, at least, wage and employment prospects do not get any better (and often worsen) by the age of 33. For women the picture is somewhat less bleak."