Children growing up today in the poorest fifth of families are already nearly a year (11.1 months) behind those children from middle income families in vocabulary tests by the time they are five according to research commissioned by the Sutton Trust, published today (Monday).

Good parenting and a supportive home environment emerge as the most important determinants of better test scores at age 5, accounting for half of the explained gap between low-income and middle-income children. The Sutton Trust today highlights five priorities for early years policy to help reduce this gap.

The research is the most comprehensive study so far on the factors behind the stark educational inequalities during the early years in the UK – based on 12,500 British five-year-olds in 2006 and 2007 in the Millennium Cohort Survey. It was carried out by Jane Waldfogel, professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University and visiting professor at London School of Economics, and Elizabeth Washbrook, research associate at the Centre for Market and Public Organization at Bristol University.

It found that just under half (45%) of children from the poorest fifth of families were read to daily at age 3, compared with 8 in 10 (78%) of children from the richest fifth of families and that nearly half (47%) of children from the poorest fifth of families were born to mothers aged under 25; just under two-thirds (65%) do not live with both biological parents by the time they are five.

But the study also finds that good parenting behaviour, such as reading daily to children or ensuring regular bedtimes, is associated with more advanced development at age 5 – whether children are from the poorest or richest households.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “It is a tragic indictment on modern society that our children’s future life prospects depend so much on their family background, not their individual talents. These findings are at once both shocking and encouraging – revealing the stark educational disadvantage experienced by children from poorer homes before they have even stepped into the school classroom, but also the potential for good parenting to overcome some of the negative impacts that poverty can have on children’s early development.”

Professor Waldfogel said: “We now have sound evidence about policies and programmes that raise achievement for low income children and help reduce gaps in early childhood. We also know that the best of these investments will yield returns well in excess of their costs.”

The Sutton Trust has identified five priorities for a future Government that would help to reduce this gap:

  • Children’s centres should offer effective parenting programmes which have been evaluated and proven to work by robust research, and which engage parents/carers and empower them to be their child’s first educator.
  • Sure Start early learning practitioners should work in partnership with health professionals to support families, including home visits for the hardest to reach children.
  • Specialised outreach projects should be established as part of the wider Sure Start children’s centre provision to improve contact with vulnerable families.
  • New funding the Government plans to allocate to extend free nursery education entitlement to 3 and 4 year olds should be redirected to provide 25 hours of nursery education a week to 2-4 year olds from the 15% most disadvantaged families.
  • Access to these extra nursery places should be complemented by automatic access to a proven parenting programme.

Media enquiries

If you're a journalist with a question about our work, get in touch with Ruby. If it's out of office hours, you can call or text 07834 461 299.

E: [email protected] T: 020 7802 1660

Keep up to date with the latest news