Family breakdown

20th May 2005 at 01:00
Photograph: Digitalvision Additional research: Sarah Jenkins

"The child will never again be the wholly owned subsidiary of either parents," wrote one commentator last year after the Green Paper, Parental Separation: Children's Needs and Parents' Responsibilities, was published.

Early this year, a ministerial foreword to the Government's response to consultation on its proposals said: "Where separation goes badly and, in particular where children are drawn into parental conflict, then the effects can be profoundly damaging for children. Evidence shows that... they are likely to do less well in life. They are more likely to do less well at school, to truant or to run away from home." The potential impact of family breakdown on a child's education is clearly one of the most significant of those "damaging effects" the Government is keen to offset. But what is the extent of family breakdown? How damaging is it to children and their education? And what, if anything, can schools do to make a difference?

How many couples split up?

Between 150,000 and 200,000 couples with children separate every year. The number of divorces in the UK rose rapidly between the 1960s and the 1990s, from 27,200 in 1961 to a peak in 1993 of 180,000. In 2003, 166,700 divorces were granted, a rise of 3.7 per cent on 2002, the third annual increase.

Half of all divorces occur in the first 10 years of marriage and most - 69 per cent - are granted to women, usually because of unreasonable behaviour by their husbands. One recent study has projected that if recent trends continue, more than a third of new marriages will end within 20 years and four out of 10 will end in divorce. The 2001 census revealed 1.75 million lone parents in Britain (10 per cent of them fathers). In more than half of households with children, the couples are married, 11 per cent are cohabiting, and more than 20 per cent of them are lone-parent families.

Some reports suggest unmarried parents may be five times more likely to break up than married parents, and that three-quarters of all broken families with young children were started by unmarried parents. But the lack of official figures makes it hard to gauge the accuracy of these claims.

How many children are affected?

Three million of the UK's 12 million children experience parental separation; a quarter of all children experience divorce before they are 16; more than one million live in stepfamilies; more than 2.5 million have some experience of stepfamily life; and between a half and a third spend some time in a lone parent family. A summary of research into the effects of separation on children, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last year, reported that two-thirds of divorcing parents and an unknown but substantial number of separating co-habitees have children under 16. At least one in three children will experience parental separation before the age of 16; more than 70 per cent of children affected are under 10.

What does it cost?

According to a report published in 2000 by the organisation Family Matters, family breakdown costs close to pound;15 billion a year in welfare support, payments to children and parents, Legal Aid, the Child Support Agency, child psychology, and so on. However, this figure includes estimates for the cost of special needs schools and remand centres which, at best, are only indirectly linked to family breakdown. Other research suggests the cost to the public purse is significantly lower, in the range of pound;4 billion to pound;10 billion a year.

What's the cost to children?

It is widely believed that the emotional and psychological trauma of family breakdown can have a significant adverse impact on children, and may affect their life chances. The Family Matters report says: "The likelihood of adverse outcomes for children from broken families is about twice that (for those) from intact families." It argues that they have more health and behavioural problems, are more likely to commit suicide, are more frequently involved in drug abuse and crime, perform badly at school, and are twice as likely to go through divorce in adult life.

However, less partial research suggests the picture is more complex and that the cause and effect implied here cannot be so readily assumed. A 1998 report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, for example, said children of separated families "tend" to be poorer, have more behavioural problems, perform less well at school, have more health problems, leave school early and become parents at an earlier age. However, it concluded that long-term adverse outcomes typically apply only to a minority and that it "cannot be assumed that parental separation is their underlying cause".

So what causes "adverse outcomes"?

No one really knows. While there is a widely held assumption that the absence of a parent-figure - usually the father - has the most significant impact on children's development, recent research suggests this may not be the case. According to a report by Bryan Rodgers and Jan Pryor for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, of more significance are financial hardship before and after separation, the degree of family conflict, the ability of parents to recover from the distress, the number of changes in family structure, and the quality of contact a child has with both parents. They also conclude that the children's age at the time of separation is not as important as is sometimes assumed and that boys are not affected more than girls, just differently.

This research chimes with the views of some organisations that work with lone parents and children of broken families. Kate Bell of One Parent Families says: "You can't entirely disentangle the factors affecting children. But we do know that 52 per cent of children living in one-parent families today are poor, and we know that poverty affects outcomes for all children, so we should focus on that." Typically, a single mother's income drops by about 20 per cent after divorce, and a single father's by 10 per cent. Kate Bell says that reducing the economic insecurity of one-parent families is the best way of protecting children from the negative consequences of family disruption.

"Process not event" Researchers now stress the need to treat divorce and separation as part of a process, not a one-off crisis - a process that begins before a parent departs and continues throughout a childhood that often involves many changes to family life. Mavis Maclean of Oxford University, summarising research into parental separation, says: "We need to move on from categorising the children of divorced and separated parents as having an experience which is essentially different from that of other children. All children experience a number of transitions in family circumstances that can be difficult for them, and for which they require support."

How do children react?

Family breakdown always affects children, says Paula Hall, a young person's counsellor with Relate. "It is a life-changing event for them that can still have an impact 10 years down the line. It's not only very traumatic at the time, but their parents are then separated for life." Between April 2003 and March 2004, the charity ChildLine counselled more than 15,300 children about family problems including divorce, separation and the pressures of life in a stepfamily. According to Ms Hall, although it is "fairly rare" for separation to be a relief for children, it always brings changes that can be disruptive.

Ms Hall also points out that the way a child reacts varies with age: it tends to have a minimal impact on very young children, while those of early primary school age can resort to fantasy explanations, and older primary school children can display disruptive or withdrawn behaviour. Early teenagers tend to have a logic which tells them, "If Mum and Dad don't love each other they'll stop loving me", while older teens are all too aware of what's going on.

What do the children need?

Research suggests the trauma of parental separation is lessened if children feel included in the process. Children want to know and understand, and feel they have a right to be involved in decisions. One child told interviewers from the charity Gingerbread: "It's important we all know what's gone on, because children are part of the family." Another said: "I think my dad should have asked me. He didn't really ask me anything: if I was happy, if I was sad or anything." A quarter of children in a 2001 study said no one talked to them about what was happening, and only 5 per cent thought they'd been given full explanations by their parents. "Silence does not protect them," says Debbie Bruce of Gingerbread. "The more you include the children then the less likely it is to have damaging effects."

In most cases children benefit from maintaining a positive relationship with both parents, although sometimes this has never existed anyway. For poor children especially, parental separation may not be the only, or even their main, source of insecurity. In many cases, grandparents and friends are key sources of support. Children always need someone they trust to talk to.

How does it affect school?

School can provide a refuge or diversion from family worries. It is often the one major focus of a child's life outside home and can be a key source of stability and identity that's not linked to family. On the other hand, when a child is feeling powerless at home, then school can be the place where their frustration erupts. "Sometimes school can be the last straw," says Paula Hall. "How well they do and how happy they are at school before the separation really makes a difference. If the pupil never valued school before, then that's likely to get worse."

Ms Hall always advises children and parents to let the school know what's happening so they can "cut them some slack" if necessary. There are also practical situations - moving house, living in two houses, when the father's taken the computer - that can have a direct impact on schooling.

Friendships at school can provide support, but they may also be affected, such as when pupils can no longer afford school trips or can't go to weekend parties because they're seeing their separated parent. Bullying is possible, too.

What can schools do?

In October 2003 Graham Able, master of Dulwich College and at that time chairman of the Headmasters' and Mistresses' Conference, stirred controversy when he said too many parents rushed into divorce without considering their children's educational needs, and left schools to deal with the consequences. "The need for high quality pastoral care has, sadly, never been more crucial than it is today," he said, adding that schools have neither the time nor the resources to give pupils from broken homes the attention they need.

Many single parents and teachers reacted angrily to Mr Able's comments. In fact, research with primary children suggests school-based programmes of individual counselling and group sessions can help them cope with family breakdown and offset the potential damage to their education. While some children feel uncomfortable talking about personal issues in a school setting, many find school a safe environment. Activities such as circle time can also help.

Teachers or counsellors?

Teachers can be the first to register change in a child's behaviour. Paula Hall's advice is to talk to the pupil and find out what's going on, but she warns that the approach should come from a teacher who already has a good relationship with the child, someone they trust. The support service Relate is campaigning for more and better sex and relationship education in schools, arguing that if schools teach relationship management, children will be better able to deal with family breakdown. But it says such education is not the job of teachers: it should be carried out by counsellors and relationship professionals.

Many schools already have their own counsellors, and a number of regional Relate organisations work closely with schools. Shropshire and Herefordshire Relate, for example, runs a project called Relateen in 15 secondaries and two primaries; a Relate counsellor visits each school for three hours one day a week, offering six half-hour sessions for one-to-one work. Chief executive Lin Foley says the demand is "huge" and the cases "just horrendous". "Fifty per cent of the children who come to us are not with both parents," she says. "Sometimes this is the first time someone has stopped and listened to them. It's so important for them to have somewhere to go, and being there on site in school makes it so much easier for them to come to us. It's safe."

"Parents separate, kids don't," says Paula Hall. "They really feel they have no voice, that no one's listening. If that's reflected at school too the impact is even harsher."


* Parental separation: children's needs and parents' responsibilities, Green Paper, published July 2004 and Parental separation: children's needs and parents' responsibilities, next steps, report of consultation on Green Paper published January 2005. Both available from

* Divorce and Separation: the outcomes for children, by Bryan Rodgers and Jan Pryor. Children's Views of their Changing Families, by Judy Dunn and Kirby Deater-Deckard. Facing Family Change: children's circumstances, strategies and resources, by Amanda Wade and Carol Smart. Supporting Children through Family Change, by Joanna Hawthorne, Julie Jessop, Jan Pryor and Martin Richards. School and Family Change: school-based support for children experiencing divorce and separation, by Anji Wilson and Janet Edwards. Together and Apart: children and parents experiencing separation and divorce, by Mavis Maclean. All available from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (

* The Cost of Family Breakdown, a report by Family Matters.(

* ChildLine ( Helpline for young people, it also runs CHIPS (ChildLine in Partnership with Schools). Tel: 020 7239 1000. Free 24-hour helpline 0800 1111.

* Gingerbread ( A network for single parents. Tel: 020 74889300

* National Council for One Parent Families (

Tel: 020 7428 5400

* National Family Mediation ( Tel: 0117 904 2825

* Relate ( has been working with children for eight years and offer "Relateen" relationship workshops and counselling to schools.

Did you know?

* Three million of the UK's 12 million children experience their parents'


* At least one in three will go through it before they are 16, more than 70 per cent of them before they are 10

* One report puts the cost of family breakdown close to pound;15 billion a year

* It is "fairly rare" for separation to be a relief for children. And even if it is, "it always brings changes that can be disruptive", says one children's charity

* But research suggests the trauma is lessened if children feel included in the process

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today