Parents and Educational Attainment

Douglas and, in support, Feinstein: longitudinal studies that support each other: statistical and tending to positivist. They have used significant amounts of secondary research, that is the use of existing data subjected to their analysis and interpretations according to what correlations the statistical groupings showed.
J. W. B. Douglas and colleagues carried out the work. 5362 British children who were born 1 to 7 March 1946 were tracked in their educational progress up to 1962 when they were 16. Students were divided by ability using many tests including IQ style tests. They were also divided into four social class groupings. These divisions into groups allowed for comparisons and contrasts, using statistical work. Douglas found significant different attainment in different social classes yet of the same ability. How long a child stayed in education was related to social class. 50% of the students from lower woking class left school when 15 (fifth year) compared with 33% from the upper working class, 22 per cent from lower middle class and 10% from upper class.
He also related attainment to health, family size, and school achievement. The biggest factor in student attainment was parental involvement in the child's education, measured by frequency of visits of the parents to the school. The importance of this grew as the children grew older, and these were the children who most likely stayed on. Early years primary socialisation was also important to launching later educational attainment.
Leon Feinstein (2003) supports Douglas: being poor (called material deprivation) added little explanation to low achievement once parental interest as a variable is removed; that therefore it is parental interest that makes the difference, not deprivation as such.
For Feinstein, doing secondary research on data from the National Child Developmental Study for children born in a week in March 1958 and the British Cohort Study for children born in 1970, quality of provision mattered in the provision of nursery education (those born in 1958 did better later in eduation than stay-at-homes, and those born in 1970 did worse than those who did not go to nursery school). Nursery places expansion had led to variable quality, he suggested. In school, salaries and teacher experience had little effect on educational attainment, there was only a small link between class size and attainment but a large correlation existed between social class of parents and attainment. when streaming put lower ability children into classes where there were few children of professional and managerial parents, the children did significantly worse. Where children of professional parents concentrated in higher streams, they did significantly better. Between 7 and 11 years, 41% did better in maths than in the less parentally concentrated class. The key is paental interest, and when combined with streaming had a huge differential effect. Maths attainment of 11 to 16 year olds was 15% higher corelating with parents who took a high interest in their child's education, measured on a four point scale.
Douglas saw that more parental resources were devoted to sons than daughters. This was because of the perceived extra benefits from advancing male employment as a result of education than a perceived more limited benefits from advancing through female employment.
Failings of working class home life needed to be redressed by such as improved primary school teaching and an increase in nursery schools to provide the kinds of stimulation lacking in working class homes.
Note the amount of interpretation that must go into understanding the statistics as well as that which made the statistics.
The work identifying parental interest and advantage leads to classifying this general finding into cultural deprivation theory - pupils at the bottom of attainment who are deprived of the culture of ambition, stimulation and a middle class culture of putting off the present in order to gain in the future. This approach of fatalism is well criticised (Coats, Silburn, 1970) in that the poor are resourceful. For Rutter and Madge, in secondary resarch reviewing literature, fatalism is a consequence of poverty not its cause (Rutter, Madge, 1976). They state that more than half of children do not repeat the cycle of poverty of their parents, whereas intergenerational poverty would be expected with cultural deprivation theory with failure of educational attainment through the generations.

Recent work by Feinstein et al. (2004) has continued to support the inter-generational transmission of educational success and failure. This shows that:

  • Parental education
  • Income
has the most significant impact on educational achievement. Whilst occupational status and family size are important, family structure, teenage motherhood and maternal employment are less important.
What matters are cognitions such as:

  • Parental beliefs
  • Values
  • Aspirations
  • Attitudes
A little less important are parental mental health and well-being.
They found that parenting skills which they class into:

  • Warmth
  • Discipline
  • Educational behaviours
do impact on attainment. Parental education is very significant but a direct causal relationship is still required.
Going outside the family, signifcant impacts that add to or modify the family effect on educational attainment are:

  • Childcare
  • Neighbourhood
  • Schools
Today projects such as Sure Start and a New Labour stress on parenting skills and responsibilities, including state intervention, is a recognition of cultural deprivation theory.


Coates, K., Silburn, R (1970), Poverty: The Forgotten Englishmen, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Douglas JWB. (1964), The Home and the School, MacGibbon and Kee, London.

Feinstein, L. (1998), 'Which Children Succeed and Why', New Economy, vol. 5, no. 2, June.

Feinstein, L. (2003), 'Inequality in the Early Cognitive Development of British Children in the 1970 Cohort', Economica, 73-98.

Feinstein, L.,  Duckworth, K., Sabates, R. (2004), A Model of the Inter-Generational Effects of Parental Education, London: Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning, Department for Education and Skills Research Brief, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: . [Accessed March 29 , 2006, 14:30]

Feinstein, L.,  Duckworth, K., Sabates, R. (2004), A Model of the Inter-Generational Effects of Parental Education, Wider Benefits of Learning Research Report No. 10, London: Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed April 3 , 2006, 14:12]

Rutter, M., Madge, N. (1976), Cycles of Disadvantage: A Review of Research, London: Heinemann.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful