Attitudes and behaviour matter to educational attainment

The aspirations, attitudes and behaviour of parents and children play an important part in explaining why poor children typically do worse at school.

It is well known that children growing up in poor families have lower educational attainment than children growing up in richer families. By 11, only around three quarters of children from the poorest fifth of families reach the expected level at Key Stage Two, compared to 97 per cent of children from the richest fifth3. Only 21 per cent of the poorest fifth of children (measured by parental socio-economic position) manage to gain five good GCSEs, compared to 75 per cent of the top quintile.

The ways that affluence and disadvantage can influence educational attainment are potentially very broad. Research by the ESRC Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO) and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) suggests that aspirations, attitudes and behaviours of parents and children potentially have an important part to play in explaining why poor children typically do worse at school.

The research shows that poorer children who performed well in Key Stage tests at age seven were more likely than better-off children to fall behind by age 11, and poorer children who performed badly at seven were less likely to improve their ranking compared with children from better-off backgrounds – an important factor behind the widening gap.

Exploring some of the possible explanations for the widening gap during primary school, researchers point to factors such as parental aspirations for higher education. For example, parental aspirations and attitudes to education varied strongly by socio-economic position, with 81 per cent of the richest mothers saying they hoped their nine-year-old would go to university, compared with only 37 per cent of the poorest mothers. The adverse attitudes to education of disadvantaged mothers are one of the most important factors associated with the lower educational attainment of their children at age 11.

The study also found that young people are more likely to do well at GCSEs if the young person him/herself has a greater belief in his/her own ability at school; believes that events result primarily from his/her own behaviour and actions; finds school worthwhile; thinks it is likely that he/she will apply to, and get into, higher education; avoids risky behaviour such as frequent smoking, cannabis use, anti-social behaviour, truancy, suspension and exclusion; and does not experience bullying.

Since young people growing up in poor families do less well in all these respects compared with those in better-off families, this provides some explanation for their poorer educational attainment by the end of compulsory schooling.

These findings suggest that attitudes and behaviour are potentially important links between socio-economic disadvantage and children’s educational attainment. While drawing policy conclusions from this evidence must be done with care, this research highlights two major areas where policy might help to reduce educational inequalities.

First, in relation to parents and the family home:

  • Improving the home learning environment in poorer families (eg, books and reading pre-school, computers in teen years)
  • Helping parents from poorer families to believe that their own actions and efforts can lead to higher education
  • Raising families’ aspirations and desire for advanced education, from primary school onwards.

Second, the child’s own attitudes and behaviours:

  • Reducing children’s behavioural problems, and engagement in risky behaviours
  • Helping children from poorer families to believe that their own actions and efforts can lead to higher education
  • Raising children’s aspirations and expectations for advanced education, from primary school onwards.

Better schools key to higher achievements