Press release

Socio-economic influences on children’s life chances

A new Social Mobility Commission report highlights wide division in parenting and children's life chances.


The Social Mobility Commission today (9 June 2016) publishes a new study by Oxford University (Nuffield College) describing the childhood origins of social mobility and how these have changed over time.

Using data from the 1960s to the present day, the report finds some improvements in the early life chances of the United Kingdom’s least advantaged children. But it uncovers a wide social divide between children from families with high and low socio-economic status (SES) in building the childhood foundations for mobility in later life - such as dads reading to, and parents playing with, their kids.

The report is inspired by ‘Our Kids’, Robert Putnam’s alarming portrait of growing inequality in the United States in relation to parental time investment, spending on extracurricular activities, educational success and parents’ social capital. This report was commissioned by the Social Mobility Commission for the purpose of replicating for the British case, as far as possible, the findings in ‘Our Kids’.

Overall the picture in the United Kingdom does not look as bleak as in the United States. Families eating their evening meals together, for example, do not vary much by SES, and inequalities are not worsening over time. Levels of truancy fell from 15% of pupils in 1999 to 2000 to 10% in 2013 to 2014, with the socio-economic gap narrowing from 11 percentage points to 5 percentage points over this period.

Other positive improvements include an increase - from 90% to 95% in the same period in attendance at parents’ evenings at schools with a narrowing in the social class gap - from 20 percentage points in 2004 to 12 percentage points in 2013.

Parents helping with homework increased overall from 81% to 83% while the socio-economic gap closed from 15 percentage points in 2004 to 4 percentage points in 2013.

The likelihood of mothers reading regularly to their children also increased substantially between 1965 and 2006, from 50% to 95%. Similarly, the amount of time parents invest in doing developmental activities such as playing or reading with their young children (which we call here ‘Gruffalo’ time) saw an average increase from 23 minutes per day in 1975 to 80 minutes per day in 2015.

But worryingly the report finds that in areas vital to child development and attainment at school, gaps are widening between high and low SES families when it comes to:

  • fathers reading regularly to children: the gap between high SES fathers and low SES fathers increased by almost three quarters - from 15 percentage points in 1965 to 26 percentage points in 2006
  • parental time investment (‘Gruffalo’ time): very young children with high SES parents receive on average 40 minutes a day more parental engagement in developmental activities like playing and reading than those with low SES parents (which equates to 240 hours a year), a gap that’s widened since the 1970s
  • children’s wellbeing and behaviour: 11-year-olds from the lowest SES groups are three-and-a-half times more likely to display the worst behaviour problems compared to the highest SES groups. This has risen from twice as likely in 1969
  • hyperactivity: in 1969 children from all backgrounds had more or less equal risk of hyperactivity but by 2012, low SES children were twice as likely as high SES children to score in the highest 10% most hyperactive.

There are also a number of areas with persistent gaps between children from high and low SES families over time. This includes:

  • participation in sport and physical activity: in 2012, 34% of low SES children did sport less than once a week compared to 13% of high SES children
  • participation in cultural activity: 84% of high SES children go to art galleries, compared to 51% of low SES children
  • having high status acquaintances: broad social networks are an important part of developing aspiration, character and opportunity - 48% of high SES parents compared to 14% of low SES parents know a university or college lecturer
  • engagement with schools: high SES parents are far more likely to be involved with parent-teacher organisations (22% compared to 4% of low SES parents) and are therefore much better placed to ensure that their own children’s needs are met at school

Rt Hon. Alan Milburn, Chair of the Commission, said:

Every parent tries to do the best for their kids and this report shows parental involvement increasing over time. But there remains a yawning divide in children’s life chances. The social class make-up of children’s behavioral and emotional problems is truly shocking.

Low incomes and insecure jobs place an enormous strain on family life. It is not right that children from low SES families miss out on the opportunities for play with their parents or reading with their dads that is the norm for their better-off peers. These activities are vital to children’s development and provide a platform for improved educational attainment at school and social mobility in adulthood.

This report makes clear that parenting can no longer be a no-go area for public policy. There has been a lot of focus on improving social mobility by tackling disadvantage in schools, universities and workplaces - but social mobility begins in the home. Parenting has not received the attention it deserves. Parents provide the foundations for children’s progress in later life and government must do more to support them in doing so.

In previous reports the commission has called on the government to:

  • establish an innovation fund designed to road-test and evaluate policies which aim to help improve parenting skills
  • set out its ambitions for the early years in a long-term strategy, with stretching targets, including halving the child development gap at age 5 by 2025 (currently better-off children do 42% better than poorer children)
  • develop a single, national, easy-to-use definition of school readiness which will unite parents, early education providers and primary schools behind ensuring that all children develop the skills and experiences that will help them to thrive at school
  • launch a set of social mobility measures, including a new destinations measure which will look beyond exam results - this measure should show how children from different backgrounds and different parts of the country go on to do in life, including results of post-16 study, higher education and in the labour market, all linked back to the secondary school that they attended

Dr Lindsay Richards, report author and postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Social Investigation, based at Nuffield College, said:

Studies of social mobility have sometimes suggested that education is the means by which to achieve social mobility; but exams cannot level the playing field where ability and exam performance are themselves dependent upon socio-economic opportunities.

Our research demonstrates that - well before exams are taken or application forms filled in - more advantaged children have had more investment in terms of time, they have done more extracurricular activities, and experienced fewer behavioural problems.

Where a little extra help is needed, high SES parents are also far better placed to use their social networks to make sure their children do well. It is unlikely that education alone can fix the problem of unequal life chances in Britain.

Notes to editors

1) The Social Mobility Commission is an advisory, non-departmental public body established under the Life Chances Act 2010 as modified by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. It has a duty to assess progress in improving social mobility in the United Kingdom and to promote social mobility in England. It currently consists of 4 commissioners and is supported by a small secretariat.

2) The commission board currently comprises:

  • Alan Milburn (chair)
  • Baroness Gillian Shephard (deputy chair)
  • Paul Gregg, Professor of Economic and Social Policy, University of Bath
  • David Johnston, Chief Executive of the Social Mobility Foundation

3) The functions of the commission include:

  • monitoring progress on improving social mobility
  • providing published advice to ministers on matters relating to social mobility
  • undertaking social mobility advocacy

4) For more information call Jodie Smith or Paul Johnston on 020 7783 8733.

Published 9 June 2016