This study was commissioned by the Sutton Trust to quantify the early cognitive gaps between low- and higher-income children in Britain today in the recent era of widespread child-care and universal nursery provision. It also explores which characteristics and behaviours underpin these educational inequalities.
The findings were based on the data from the Millennium Cohort Survey (MCS), a nationally representative sample of 12,644 British 5 year olds in 2006 and 2007.
Early years gaps
Children growing up today in the UK from the poorest fifth of families are already nearly a year (11.1 months) behind those children from middle income families in vocabulary tests by age 5, when most children start school.
The gap between the poor and middle income children is more marked than between middle and higher income children. Children from the richest fifth of families are 5.2 months ahead of those children from middle income families in vocabulary tests by age 5 - despite the fact that income gap between middle and the top earning families is 2.3 times larger than the income gap between the middle and bottom earning families.
Parenting style (for example sensitivity of parent-child interactions and rules about bedtimes) and the home environment (factors like parental reading and trips to museums and galleries) contribute up to half of the explained cognitive gap between the lowest and middle income families.
Childhood experiences in low income households
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.
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 age 5.
Over a third (37%) of children from the poorest fifth of families were born to parents without a single A-C grade GCSE between them; only 1 in 12 of the poorest families contained a degree-educated parent compared with 4 in 5 of the richest families.
28% of the poorest mothers were employed when their child was aged 5, compared with 73% of the richest mothers.
Over 8 in 10 children from both the poorest and the richest families had experienced centre-based child care, although this study does not distinguish between the amount or quality of this care.
Impacts of parenting and poverty
Comparing children with the same family income, parental characteristics and home environments, those who were read to every day at age 3 had a vocabulary at age 5 nearly 2 months more advanced than those who were not read to every day.
Similarly, a child taken to the library on a monthly basis from ages 3 to 5 is two and a half months ahead of an equivalent child at age 5 who did not visit the library so frequently. Regular bedtimes at 3 and 5 are associated with gains of two and a half months at age 5.
Comparing children with the same parenting behaviours, characteristics and home environments, those from the poorest fifth of families are on average 3 months behind those from middle income families at age 5.
Similarly, a child at age 5 with a degree-educated parent is three and a half months ahead of a similar child with no parent with a grade A-C GCSE or above. Children at age 5 whose mothers were aged 25-29 at the time of the birth had a vocabulary three and a half months more advanced than similar children of teenage mothers.