On your marks: measuring the school readiness of children in low-to-middle income families

Document type
Washbrook, Elizabeth; Waldfogel, Jane
Resolution Foundation
Date of publication
14 December 2011
Education and Skills, Children and Young People
Social welfare
Material type

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The extent to which children start school ready and able to learn can have a long-term impact on their likelihood of success in education and employment. It is well known that children from the poorest backgrounds are already falling behind their more affluent peers at the start of school. But little is known about the school readiness of children from low to middle income families. Analysis of a cohort of children born in 2000 finds that, at the start of school, children from low to middle income families are five months behind children from higher income families in terms of vocabulary skills – an important measure of cognitive development – and have more behaviour problems.

Nearly half the gap in vocabulary between the two groups, and over three-quarters of the gap in behaviour can be explained by measurable aspects of the environments in which children are raised, including how they are parented, the health and well-being of their parents and the educational opportunities they enjoy in the home. The remainder of the gaps is explained by other environmental factors associated with income, parental education and other background factors such as mother’s age at childbirth.

For vocabulary, the fact that children from low to middle income families have a less rich learning environment in the home than higher income children is the most significant environmental factor in explaining the developmental gap. For behaviour, the fact that mothers of children in low to middle income families have less good mental well-being and are more socially isolated is the most significant environmental factor in explaining the gap. A large part of the influence of parental education and income feeds through these environmental factors. With parents on low to middle incomes being increasingly squeezed in terms of time and money as wages continue to stagnate and the cost of living rises, there is a
risk that greater parental stress will translate into less positive environments for their children.

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