Childhood origins of social mobility: Response to the media

Last week the government’s Social Mobility Commission published a report undertaken by the Centre for Social Investigation on the childhood origins of social mobility in the UK. In this report, we explored the social differences in experiences that are important to children’s later prospects, including parental engagement, children’s behavioural problems, deviant behaviours, and families’ social networks. By exploring how these social differences have changed over the past 40 years we sought to determine whether social gaps are widening (as reported in the US by Robert Putnam in the book Our Kids) or narrowing over time. Unlike in the US, where a consistently negative portrait of widening opportunity gaps was evident, our research identified a more varied pattern of results relating to social differences in children’s experiences. Encouragingly, social gradients decreased over time for truancy, help with homework, attendance at parents’ evenings, and mothers reading to children, mainly through large improvements among families from more disadvantaged social backgrounds. On the other hand, some of our results were more reminiscent of Putnam’s reports of widening social gaps: the socioeconomic gap in Gruffalo time (time spent reading and playing with children) doubled since the 1970s, and the social gap in fathers reading to children also widened. The widening class differences in children’s conduct problems, emotional symptoms and hyperactivity are also worrying.

The report was featured on the BBC’s Six O’Clock news on 9th June with an accompanying news piece on the BBC website. Our work was also been reported in The Times, The Telegraph (news article and opinion piece), The Financial TimesThe CanaryPolicy WatchThe Shropshire Star, and by news outlets as far afield as China. We are delighted to see such interest in our work and hope this starts a conversation about just what policy should and can do to make a difference to the prospects of British children. Nonetheless we are concerned about two key ways in which our work has been represented in the media and wish to take the opportunity to clarify some points that – for whatever reason – have been taken out of context.

First, the role of parenting has been over-emphasised in some reports. To be sure, we did identify considerable differences in some elements of parenting activities, and parenting is no doubt crucial to children’s early development and later life chances. Indeed, in the accompanying press release the Chair of the Social Mobility Commission, Rt Hon. Alan Milburn stated “This report makes clear that parenting can no longer be a no-go area for public policy…Parenting has not received the attention it deserves”. However, in some cases the underlying causes of differences we identified were attributed to parenting, when in fact these causes are more complex. The Telegraph’s opinion piece stated that “The problem is a rump of parents who are resistant to such appeals [to improve quality of parenting]”. Our research neither assessed parents’ attitudes directly (instead comparing parents level of engagement with certain activities), nor assessed their interest in any sort of parenting training. We have no doubt that information on parental attitudes could be extremely helpful in understanding how best to support parents to engage in activities that could improve their children’s prospects. Nonetheless, we are concerned that our research has been used to endorse a point of view that is not supported by empirical evidence and we urge journalists to be careful, even in opinion pieces like this.

Library visit by social class NCDS MCS

Figure 1: Proportion of 11-year-old British children who use public libraries by family social class in 1969 and 2012.

The second, related, point is that the media have tended to overlook the huge disparity in resources between families from different social backgrounds. When discussing potential policy responses, the Financial Times mentioned national targets aimed at closing parenting gaps, and an innovation fund to test potential policies. Yet such approaches fail to appreciate the fundamental role of income and household resources in influencing the activities we explored in this report. Because parents in routine occupations earn less than those in the professional occupations, they may need to work longer hours, or take a second job in order to make ends meet. Shift work is also more common in routine occupations. This has clear implications for the amount of time parents have available to spend on Gruffalo time with their children. Past research found that economically deprived three year-olds display lower cognitive development, independent of mothers’ education, and reading to children is one pathway that contributes to this association. We also found clear social differences in barriers to participating in certain activities: children from lower-SES families more often reported lack of transport, money, or facilities as reasons for not doing extra-curricular activities – so we know that resources matters for activities that get labelled as parenting. Finally, we found that fewer children used public libraries in 2012 than 1969 (although we did not report on this), which is likely to reflect the falling prices of books. Yet this decline was far larger among high-SES children for whom books are more affordable, suggesting that free services like public libraries are valuable to low-SES children, who might still struggle to pay for books of their own. Taken together, we believe that a crucial but missing policy response is to raise incomes for families in children. The 2010 Child Poverty Act was ended in 2015 and replaced with broader targets relating to family breakdown, problem debt, and drug and alcohol dependency. Of course, families facing these issues are likely to also face pressures in engaging with suitable parenting activities. However, these issues affect only a small and atypical group of families living on low incomes. Abandoning targets to reduce poverty in children could serve to perpetuate some of the persistent and widening gaps in children’s life chances that we identified. This possibility was raised in other media coverage of our work. However, while it is likely that austerity measures and welfare reform might well undo some of the progress we identified, these changes are so recent that none of our analyses are able to capture their impact on children’s life chances. We look to future research to provide answers to these questions.

Our report ‘The childhood origins of social mobility: socio-economic inequalities and changing opportunities’ was published on 9th June 2016 and can be downloaded here.