There is no single factor that can determine how successful a child is likely to be at school and in later life, with social influence, the family unit and the type of school they attend all playing a key role in their achievement.
However, there are undoubtedly some factors that play a greater role than others when indicating how successful a child is likely to be, one of which is the level of their parents’ education.
This was illustrated in a recent study by the Office for National Statistics, which examined the extent to which the circumstances children grow up in can affect their future lives.
It found that educational attainment generally has the most significant impact on the likelihood of being worse off as an adult, both in the UK and other EU countries; in Britain, those with a low level of educational attainment are almost five times as likely to be in poverty and 11 times as likely to be severely materially deprived as those with a high level of education.
The data suggests that growing up in a workless household appears to have an impact on future poverty in the UK, with those who live in such an environment at the age of 14 being around 1.5 times more likely to be in financial difficulty compared with those where at least one adult was in work; something that was only identified as a significant factor in one other EU country.
One key finding was that an individual’s assessment of their childhood household financial situation is not a significant predictor of poverty and material deprivation once educational attainment is accounted for.
This indicates that household income during childhood mainly impacts future life chances through the educational attainment of the child.
Specifically, a father’s level of education has the largest impact on the likelihood of low educational attainment in the UK out of all the factors examined, with people being 7.5 times more likely to have a low educational outcome themselves if their father had a low level of education, compared with having a highly educated father.
The mother’s education level also has an impact, though to a lesser degree; with people being around three times more likely to have a low educational outcome if their mother has a low level of education.
A further relationship was observed between educational outcomes and the number of adults and children living in the household, as well as the employment status of the parents and the household’s financial situation.
The data was met with a mixed response, with Conor Ryan, director of research at the Sutton Trust, which aims to improve social mobility through education, saying it is in line with his organisation’s own findings on weak social mobility in the UK.
He explained: “This report shows just how important education is in breaking that cycle of poverty across generations and ensuring that poor educational achievement is not transmitted from parent to child.”
Meanwhile, Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, said it is “unsurprising” that a relationship has been observed between parents’ income and the future earnings of their offspring.
“What’s interesting about this report is where the UK parts company with other EU countries. Critically, it shows that growing up in a workless household has a much more significant impact on a child’s future earnings in the UK than in almost any other state.”
Little evidence exists that the cycle of poverty and educational outcomes was caused by low aspirations among poor families, according to Helen Barnard, policy and research manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
However, she said evidence does exist to suggest that children and parents from poorer backgrounds develop lower expectations as children grow older, and either stop believing that their children will be able to achieve high ambitions, or do not know how to help them do it.