The damage caused to a child’s education during a family breakdown is done long before the parents separate, a large study that began in 2000 suggests.
The Millennium Cohort Study of 19,000 children mapped since their birth found that young people with divorced parents on average performed 20 per cent less well in maths, English and other academic subjects, and 30 per cent less well in tests of softer skills, such as motivation, perseverance and self-control.
It has long been concluded that the pain of witnessing parents’ separation, adjusting to a new home led by a lone parent and often a drop in income were the reasons why children from divorced parents performed more poorly at school.
However, Gloria Moroni of the University of York said that almost the entire educational gap could be accounted for by factors in the home before separation.
The 20 per cent cognitive skills gap is largely down to parents’ poor education, poorer health or financial problems, with children performing similarly from these backgrounds whether or not their parents were still together.
The larger soft skills gap was the result of experiencing severe conflict at home before the split, along with the lack of child supervision that often accompanied a stressful relationship, Ms Moroni concluded.
The rich data source of the Millennium Cohort Study measures the level of conflict and quality of parental relationships in the children’s homes.
“The main result of my research is that the fact that children of divorced parents have on average lower cognitive and non-cognitive skills compared with children of intact families is not necessarily due to divorce itself,” Ms Moroni said. “Most of the damage is given by pre-divorce circumstances and characteristics of the family.”
Inter-parental conflict may be even more harmful to a child’s development than parental dissolution itself
There was a higher incidence of divorce and separation among lower educated couples, often because they had married younger or had financial problems. “And indeed, inter-parental conflict may be even more harmful to a child’s development than parental dissolution itself,” Ms Moroni said.
She added that the results suggested that interventions that encouraged parents to co-operate and solve their differences more amicably, or that made them aware of the negative impact of conflicts on children, could help to close these non-cognitive gaps.
The findings will be presented at the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference, which began yesterday.