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

Published on Incomes and Inequality, Tax and Welfare

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.

  • A large part of the importance of family income and parental education for child development can be explained by measurable environmental factors. Aspects of children’s environment such as their exposure to learning opportunities, parents’ approach to parenting and mothers’ psychosocial and physical well-being all have a strong influence on the cognitive and socio-emotional development of children. Where parents are squeezed for resources of both time and money there is a risk that the resulting stress translates into less conscientious or sensitive parenting. Difficult economic times and a lack of affordable flexible child care are likely to exacerbate these problems for many LMI parents.
  • A large number of mechanisms predict either cognitive or socio-emotional outcomes for children to a greater or lesser extent. This suggests that improving outcomes would require a broad-based approach that fosters the multiple dimensions of children’s development. So what role could policy play? One important point is that not all differences in outcomes between groups can be traced to financial resources. Parental education is an extremely powerful independent predictor of early disparities and this highlights the crucial importance of considering long-term solutions. Ultimately the well-being of future generations may be most improved by fostering the skills and achievements of young people before they become parents. There is a wealth of evidence that successful interventions exist that can improve outcomes of parents and young people in current generations and start to break the intergenerational cycle of disadvantage (see for example the recent special issue of Science magazine on early interventions for the latest thinking in this area). We note that something as straightforward as a high quality preschool education environment has been shown to protect children from the consequences of less than ideal home environments.
  • While the environments of LMI children and those in higher income families are often quite similar, small differences in a wide range of different factors add up to significant consequences for children. Early childhood development is a topic of great policy and academic interest. While the focus of much government policy is understandably on the extremely poor outcomes of many of the most vulnerable children, there is substantial room for improvement in the school readiness of LMI children who, as we show, make up a third of their total cohort. Narrowly focused targeting of resources to parents who are struggling to provide the basic necessities for their children is understandable when government resources are scarce, but may be a short-sighted policy in the longer term. The future skills and economic productivity of today’s LMI children will not be as high as they potentially could be, and families who are just above the threshold to receive government services may benefit greatly from relatively modest levels of support. Our analysis suggests that the needs of children in low to middle income families should not be forgotten in this debate.