How much do you think poverty affects children? The latest research reveals some surprising results, as Biddy Passmore discovers
Talk about social mobility and education in the UK tends to centre on the pros and cons of selection at 11, staying-on grants at 16, or to degenerate into another squabble about Oxbridge admissions.
But any changes at the age of 11, 16 or 18 come far too late for most poor children. As research has shown - and every reception teacher knows - the gap in achievement between children born into the poorest households and those born into the middle class already yawns wide by the time they start school.
Research from the United States shows just how great the effects of poverty are, especially on children's vocabulary and cognitive skills, and gives a breakdown of what the most likely explanations are. Using data collected from nearly 30,000 children in the US and UK, it suggests for the first time that the biggest factor in the achievement gap is parenting style. (For parents, read mothers.)
"It's a question of maternal sensitivity - warmth and nurturing - but also responsiveness to the particular needs of the child: knowing when the child needs attention and when to be left alone, for instance," says Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University, New York, who led the research with Elizabeth Washbrook.
Next in importance comes a factor more obviously related to income - home background - that includes access to books and computers. But this seems to be much less important than maternal sensitivity for the development of language. Computer access, for instance, "explains" 9 per cent of the gap in achievement in literacy and maths, but very little of the language gap.
"Taken together, parenting style and the home learning environment explain between a third and a half of the gap in achievement between the poorest children and their middle-class counterparts," says Professor Waldfogel.
Then it's maternal education - again, accounting for much more of the gap in literacy and mathematics than in language, where its effect is small. Other significant factors are maternal and child health, race, family size and single parenthood. And income itself matters - both through its direct effects on child health and development, and its effects on the other significant factors.
The findings leave many questions unanswered - and Professor Waldfogel and Dr Washbrook are keen to start trying to answer them.
"To what extent is parenting an inherited trait?" Professor Waldfogel asks. "Or does it reflect a parent's childhood? Or is it a reaction to environmental stressors? Even the most responsive parent wouldn't respond well under the stress of domestic violence, or financial hardship, or the loss of their housing or job."
Whether or not parenting ability is inherited, she's in little doubt that parents can be trained to be more responsive. Professor Waldfogel cites studies with primates suggesting that an animal born to an insensitive mother can, if fostered by a nurturing one, become an effective care- giver.
And she singles out for effectiveness the American Nurse-Family Partnership Scheme, where low-income, first-time mothers receive monthly visits during pregnancy and the first two years of a child's life. This programme, now being piloted in the UK, has been shown to improve the health and wellbeing of mother and baby, reduce abuse and neglect, and encourage more responsive parenting and a better home learning environment, which leads to better behaviour and cognitive skills, especially among high-risk children.
Their study should be interpreted with caution. The cohorts of children being studied are large - 10,000 children in America born in 2001 and 19,000 in the UK born in 2000 and 2001 - and the findings on the gaps in children's cognitive skills are robust and comparable for children in both countries. But the figures for the factors "explaining" the gaps in achievement are based entirely on evidence from the US. UK results could differ.
Evidence on behaviour - where the researchers found smaller differences between rich and poor children - is based only on maternal reporting, not reports from schools or playgroups. Mothers were asked to report problems such as hitting, grabbing toys, having trouble concentrating, fighting and general misbehaviour. But they were reporting on behaviour at different ages: four in the US, five in the UK. That means the American children would not have started full-time school while the British children had.
This may explain one of the more worrying results of the study: that greater behavioural problems were reported among low-income children in the UK, relative to their middle-income peers, than in the US.
As Professor Waldfogel says: "We know from other work that it's hard for boys especially to make the transition to school. They work hard to meet expectations while they are in school, and can behave badly when they are back home with their mothers."
Now the team would like to compare the behaviour results for British five- year-olds with those of American children of the same age, to see if the same difference is found.
Its next project is to analyse all the UK data in the same way as the American evidence and then publish both parts together, but that will take a year or two. Meanwhile, Professor Waldfogel advises UK policymakers to carry on developing programmes such as Sure Start, which can combine high- quality child care and family support for low-income children up to two, and improving nursery education for three and four-year-olds.
She applauds the UK's preschool expansions, but wants to see more wrap- around care and closer linking of nursery provision with primary schools. Policymakers should also place high priority on parenting programmes, she says - those, such as the Nurse-Family Partnership, that target several aspects of parenting, and others, such as PEEP (Peers Early Education Partnership), that focus on specific aspects of parenting related to preparing children for school.
Although parent support programmes have often had weak results in the past, these newer and more focused programmes have been more successful. "If these programmes were rolled out to all children in low income families, that would go a long way to closing the gaps between them and more affluent children," says Professor Waldfogel.
Jane Waldfogel is professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University, New York, and a research associate at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics. Elizabeth Washbrook is a research associate at the University of Bristol and a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia. They presented the findings of their study on early years policy to a private conference on social mobility and education policy hosted by the Sutton Trust and funded by the Carnegie Foundation in New York last month. The paper will be published by the Sutton Trust in the autumn.
Waldfogel, J. (2004) Social Mobility, Life Chances and the Early Years. CASEpaper 88, Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, London School of Economics.
Waldfogel, J. What Children Need (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).
Gregg, P., Propper, C., amp; Washbrook, E. (2008) Understanding the Relationship between Parental Income and Multiple Child Outcomes: A decomposition analysis. Centre for Market and Public Organization Working Paper 08193.