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Your mother may be key to your success

When it comes to academic achievement, maternal educational level and income matter, finds Adi Bloom

When it comes to academic achievement, maternal educational level and income matter, finds Adi Bloom

Want to do well at school? Then make sure that your mother is a graduate earning at least #163;37,500 a year.

New research conducted by academics from the universities of London and Oxford reveals that maternal educational level and family income are far more accurate predictors of pupils' achievement than factors such as gender or month of birth.

Academics involved in the Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education study have been observing 3,000 pupils from the early years through to secondary school. Recently, they examined the national test results of pupils at key stages 1 to 3, in an effort to discover which out-of-school factors are most likely to determine success.

Gender divides

As anticipated, girls achieved higher scores than boys in reading and English at all key stages. Boys scored more highly than girls in maths at key stages 1 and 2. But by the end of key stage 3, girls had caught up with them, achieving roughly equal scores in the subject.

Month of birth also affected pupils' achievement. Autumn-born children performed better than their summer-born classmates in English tests at all three key stages. (Their scores at key stage 3, however, were only marginally better than those of summer-born children.) In maths, meanwhile, summer-born pupils had caught up with their older classmates by key stage 3 and were performing equally well.

These findings were mirrored in teachers' assessments of pupils at each key stage. At key stage 3, 41 per cent of autumn-born children and 33 per cent of summer-born children were awarded level 6 for English. The figures for maths were 60 and 53 per cent, respectively.

At all three key stages pupils whose families had an annual income of more than #163;37,500 outperformed those whose families were on a low income. A similar difference was found when measuring pupils who did not receive free school meals against those who did.

Twenty-one per cent of pupils from low-earning families achieved level 6 in English teacher assessments at key stage 3, compared with 63 per cent from higher-earning families. And 42 per cent from disadvantaged families achieved the same level in maths, compared with 80 per cent of their richer peers.

Notably, pupils whose mothers had a degree achieved higher average scores than those whose mothers had low levels of qualifications or no qualifications at all.

Sixteen per cent of pupils whose mothers had few or no qualifications achieved level 6 in key stage 3 English: a fraction of the 73 per cent from well-educated families who reached the same level. The comparable figures for maths were 36 and 87 per cent, respectively.

"In summary, students from ... families whose mothers had a high qualification level, whose family had a high income, who were not in receipt of free school meals ... and (who had) a high-scoring home-learning environment had higher mean average scores in Englishreading and maths at the end of key stages 1, 2 and 3, when compared to students without those advantages," the academics say.

Make a prediction

The combination of all these factors, they explain, could be used to predict which children are most likely to be diagnosed with special educational needs.

By the end of key stage 3, summer-born boys from low-income backgrounds who received free school meals and whose mothers had few qualifications were particularly likely to have been diagnosed as having SEN at some point during their school career.

"These analyses highlight in absolute terms the key child, family and home-learning environment characteristics that appear to be linked to children's vulnerability for lower attainment, and a greater likelihood of being recognised as having special educational needs by the end of key stage 1," the academics say.

They add that "successive UK governments have paid attention to this important topic" but note that there has been greater success in raising standards of attainment for all groups "than in narrowing the equity gap related to social disadvantage".


Sammons, P., Sylva, K., Melhuish, E. et al. Effective Pre-school Primary and Secondary Education 3-14 Project (EPPSE 3-14), Final Report from the Key Stage 3 Phase (Institute of Education, 2012).


Brenda Taggart, Institute of Education, University of London:

Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education project:

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