Reading between the lines of success

22nd March 2013 at 00:00
Kerra Maddern reports on a study examining the predictors of good and poor outcomes for students at 7

Students from deprived families can perform well in school at the age of 7 if their mother is well-educated, they have caring grandparents and rules are enforced at home, researchers have found.

Family and child disability is associated with children faring worse at key stage 1, but they are more likely to do better if their mother has higher-level qualifications.

Researchers from the University of London's Institute of Education identified the "family stress" situations and parental behaviours associated with better, and worse, educational outcomes for children aged 7. They also found that stressful life events experienced in different periods of childhood were linked to worse outcomes in adolescence.

The academics discovered a link between children living in a bigger house that was owned by the child's family and higher educational attainment at age 7. They also found that children were likely to do better at school if they were read to more often by their mother.

Other factors positively associated with higher KS1 scores included having grandparents who were willing to help out financially and rules being enforced by parents.

This suggests that children's learning is affected by the behaviour of their parents, as well as the degree of financial security and support they have in their lives.

Academics analysed data from the Millennium Cohort Study and the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children.

They examined how 13 known risk factors affected children's performance in verbal, non-verbal and maths skills, KS1 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.

"Both parenting and poverty matter for children's outcomes," the study says. "Tackling child poverty and supporting positive parenting are thus both important for ensuring children achieve their potential."

Even though family poverty was associated with children performing less well at school, there are few situations within families where making an "intervention would lead to closing the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children", the researchers say.

This is because parental actions that help children's learning will make a difference in all families - so encouraging them will not close the performance gap between rich and poor.

The study says there is "little evidence" that promoting more "positive parental behaviours has more impact in disadvantaged families, reducing the relative effect of that disadvantage".

Being a member of a family on means-tested benefits, or one that was behind with the bills, was associated, over and above deprivation, with lower verbal ability scores. Children whose families were behind with the bills also had worse behavioural outcomes.

But children had better verbal skills if they were read to by their father. Those who had fathers with more "basic" skills were more likely to have poorer verbal and maths skills and lower KS1 scores, other factors being equal.

But the researchers found that many children show resilience, even during "complex family circumstances or stressful life events".

"Some children do relatively well despite unpromising circumstances and some do relatively poorly despite having a good start and little in the way of stressful experiences," the study says.

An increasing number of siblings, having a depressed mother, having a father with limited literacy skills and being frequently disciplined were all associated with lower KS1 scores.


The researchers also examined whether there were links between stressful life events, emotional and social well-being and the performance at key stages 3 and 4 of teenagers aged 13 to 16. The study found that some events "could sometimes have enduring effects on educational outcomes and on well-being".

Factors associated with lower KS3 attainment and worse well-being for teenagers included abuse, both inside and outside the family, and homelessness or being placed in care.

Stressful events found to lower well-being but not to lower educational attainment included the death or serious illness of a family member, or the arrest of someone in the young person's family.

Events that caused lower educational attainment or worse well-being, but only when the event occurred after the age of 7, included parental divorce or arguments, lack of contact with parents or siblings and moving to a new school.

"It is clear that stressful events can potentially disrupt teenagers' lives; and in some cases have enduring effects from early childhood," the study says. "Some events are likely to be beyond the scope of intervention, such as parental separation and divorce. Indeed, in some cases parental separation may bring an end to stressful family experiences related to abuse and violence in the home.

"However, the analysis highlights the diversity and extent of stressful events in childhood, and their negative consequences across a range of outcomes. It also showed how some events remain significant for later outcomes only if they occur later in childhood, such as changing school after the transition to secondary schooling."

Some children do relatively well despite unpromising circumstances.


Jones, E. Gutman L. and Platt L. (2013) Family Stressors and Children's Outcomes (Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre).


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