Fathers play major role in transmission of disadvantage

15 October 2014


Jeremy Davies writes:

New figures from the Office for National Statistics confirm fathers’ central role in the transmission of disadvantage in the UK.

They appear in an ONS report about intergenerational earnings mobility, which measured the extent to which children’s economic status differs from that of their parents.

OECD research[1] shows that the UK has a relatively low level of earnings mobility (along with other countries including the US and Italy). What this means is that if you’re British and your parents are poor, you’re likely to be poor when you grow up too – you’ll find it difficult to escape your background. Intergenerational mobility is a lot higher in the Nordic countries, Canada and Australia.

To explore what affects earnings mobility in the UK, ONS researchers looked at data on educational attainment, poverty and material deprivation.

Fathers’ education is the biggest factor

What they found was that fathers’ level of education has the biggest impact on the likelihood of low educational attainment – itself (see below) a key factor behind poverty.

Children are 7.5 times more likely to have a low educational outcome themselves if their father has a low level of education, compared with having a highly educated father. Mothers’ education level has an impact too, but to a lesser degree; people are around 3 times more likely to have a low educational outcome if their mother has a low level of education.

The number of adults and children living in the household, and parents’ employment status, also affect educational outcomes. So for example, the odds of a low educational outcome is 1.6 times higher for those who grew up in a single adult household compared to households with two adults; living with three or more adults also increases the odds of low educational attainment by a factor of almost 2.

Growing up in a household with three or more children also increases the likelihood of a low level of education by 1.4 times compared with being an only child; if there are four or more children this rises to a 2.5 times greater likelihood of low educational attainment.

Compared with those whose father was employed in a managerial position when they were aged 14, those whose father was unemployed are around three times as likely to have a lower educational outcome. The effect of having an unemployed or inactive mother is similar.

Education is the main factor behind poverty

The researchers found that educational attainment is the most important factor in explaining poverty in the UK. Those with a low level of educational attainment are almost five times as likely to be in poverty now as those with a high level of education.

Poverty is also affected, unsurprisingly, by growing up in a workless household  – holding all else equal, those who lived in a workless household at age 14 are around 1.5 times as likely to be in poverty compared with those where one adult was working. But interestingly, once educational attainment is controlled for, the financial situation of the household as a child is not, in itself, a significant predictor of future poverty.

Educational attainment is the most important predictor of severe material deprivation in the UK, too. Holding all else equal, those with low attainment are 11 times as likely to be severely deprived as those with a high level of education. Those growing up in a single parent household are over twice as likely to be severely materially deprived as those who lived with both parents; the odds of severe material deprivation are also twice as high for those who grew up in households with four or more children, compared to being an only child.

So what does all this tell us? First, that British children face a big challenge to escape the legacy of their backgrounds. Second, that doing well at school is their best chance of success. And third, that fathers’ contribution to their children’s ability to do well at school – via their own level of education, their employment status and their presence in the home – should not be underestimated.

For more detail on the ways fathers impact on young children’s educational outcomes, read our research summary http://www.fatherhoodinstitute.org/2014/fi-research-summary-fathers-impact-on-young-childrens-language-and-literacy/



[1] D’Addio, A.C. (2007). Intergenerational transmission of disadvantage: mobility or immobility across generations? A review of the evidence for OECD countries. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development  (Working Papers No. 52).

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