Parenting is not the key to tackling inequality

Happy parenting won’t necessarily get you into Oxbridge. Parenting via Goodluz/Shutterstock

Britain is quickly turning into a nation characterised by an obscene and unsustainable wealth gap, according to a new report on social mobility. Yet behind the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s trenchant critique of current party-political strategies for tackling inequality and child poverty there lies a familiar scapegoat – parenting.

The report’s recommendations highlight parenting as the starting point from which to address the disparity between disadvantaged children and their more privileged peers. Its authors argue that politicians should overcome their timidity in calling out bad parenting and establish a national parenting campaign: “to help more parents become excellent parents”.

Myth of effective parenting

Beyond the rhetoric of supporting families and improving early years’ services lies a dubious reasoning that the minutiae of everyday interactions between parent and child is deeply significant and capable of overcoming structurally ingrained disadvantages. Effective parenting, the report claims, has a bigger influence on a child’s life than wealth, class or education.

This myth has peppered policy and practice literature for years, but its prevalence conceals a lack of sound evidence to back up such a startling claim. In fact, analysis of cohort studies demonstrates that family income and maternal education have a greater impact on children’s outcomes such as educational attainment and well-being than any particular parenting styles.

The schools aren’t ready

The idea of “school readiness” is central to the Commission’s critique of parenting. It suggests that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are held back by their unpreparedness for education, a problem regarded as symptomatic of ineffective “home learning environments”. This echoes a similar concern voiced in September by public health expert Michael Marmot asserting that almost half of all five-year-olds are unready for school (two-thirds of whom are from low income households).

The claim attracted much publicity and provoked extensive consternation about the unmet need for parenting support. Few appeared to question why schools were apparently “unready” and unable to educate 50% of their Year 1 intake.

In response to the Marmot report a spokesman for the Department for Education was quoted as saying: “No child should start school behind their peers”. This revealed just how far understandings of education appear to have moved away from the aim of providing opportunities for all children regardless of their ability or background.

Heckman equation

While family has long been targeted as a site for political intervention, the contemporary obsession with parenting policy can be linked to a highly influential economic theory devised by the US Nobel laureate James Heckman. Arguing that human capital is cumulative rather than fixed, Heckman and colleagues proposed a formula summed up in the phrase “skills beget skills and abilities beget abilities”.

This economic reasoning, known as the “Heckman equation”, asserted that return on human capital was very high in the early years of life and diminished rapidly thereafter. This principle of investing early in a child’s life in order to maximise economic gains was placed at the heart of the New Labour government’s agenda at the end of the last century. Explicitly quoting Heckman’s work, Tony Blair concluded in 2006 that: “more than anything else, early intervention is crucial if we are to tackle social exclusion”.

The influence of the Heckman equation has been quite remarkable given it remains a purely economic prediction divorced from dialogue with actual research findings. Attempts to tie the model to empirical evidence have merely highlighted the complexity and unevenness of development from childhood to adulthood.

Yet the desire to ground the equation in facts perhaps partly explains recent misappropriations of neuroscience used to justify policies of early years intervention.

Middle-class advantage

At a more basic level, the positioning of parenting as a solution to inequality draws on a simple model of investment, with no acknowledgement of the uneven territory and different access to resources that each family has. Middle-class parents can, do – and indeed are now quite explicitly encouraged to – mobilise their considerable resources to ensure their children come out on top.

Money can buy advantages such as extra tuition, educational equipment (ipads, computers, books) and outings, educational assessments and, above all, a house in a good catchment area. Middle-class parents are usually well-educated, academically confident and reasonably familiar with the expectations around which school curriculums are built. This means they are much better able to teach and steer their children towards success.

They also tend to have useful contacts in their social networks (teachers, academics, lawyers), for maximising educational attainment and securing access into important work-experience placements. And, more than ever, in a culture that equates poor parenting with poverty, the more privileged enjoy a level of respect from education professionals frequently denied to disadvantaged families.

Parental arms race

The relentless focus on parenting since the millennium can only have made inequality worse. It has precipitated a parental arms race, morally obliging the middle classes to use every advantage to stay ahead and it has legitimated an old-fashioned determinism that ties children’s life chances to their lineage.

If the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission are serious about bridging the inequality chasm they will need to address the polarisation of resources, not parenting skills.


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