Whether a child’s family is well-off or struggling for money has long been linked with their success at school. The gap between parents’ income and their children’s achievement is evident in kindergarten and accelerates over time.
Studies in the US have shown that students from economically disadvantaged families often achieve lower test scores and are more likely to drop out of school. Cognitive factors such as IQ and working memory – our ability to work with information – are also linked to school success.
In a recent study, my colleagues and I wanted to compare whether socio-economic factors such as where a child lives and cognitive factors such as their working memory and awareness of how words are structured could predict their longer-term school success.
I studied 264 British children in kindergarten and tested their learning outcomes two years later when they were in Year 2. My colleagues and I looked specifically at the children’s postcodes, as a mark of their socio-economic status. The children were selected from schools that were demographically representative, with different percentages of children qualifying for free school meals. There was an even distribution of schools with a low, middle and high percentage of children on free school meals in each local educational authority.
In kindergarten, children completed a range of cognitive tests, including verbal working memory, short-term memory and sentence memory. They were also tested for their non-verbal IQ, by being asked to assemble puzzles. The children’s phonological awareness was also tested, by measuring their sensitivity to how words were constructed, including the ability to recognise and identify sounds and rhymes. Two years later, the same children took the Key Stage 1 national achievement tests in reading, writing and maths.
Working memory scores among the kindergarten children accurately predicted their learning scores two years later. But a child’s socio-economic status did not. So the children who did well on working memory scores also did well on the national tests, but these children weren’t necessarily from low-income households.
Whether a child came from a low-income household did not affect their working memory score. But our study showed that socio-economic status did affect their non-verbal IQ scores and their phonological awareness. One explanation for this is that poverty can add to parental stress which could hinder learning at home.
These findings are important because they establish that working memory is one of the most important building blocks for learning. So a child’s ability to work with information is an important predictor of academic success. Even more exciting is that this important cognitive skill is not greatly affected by a child’s socio-economic background, suggesting that such working memory tests measure learning potential, rather than educational opportunity or acquired knowledge.
Postcodes not as important
The second key finding was that whether a child came from a high socio-economic background was not an accurate predictor of their test scores in Year 2. Working memory tests and phonological awareness tests were better at predicting how well a child would do in a test two years later than whether the child came from a well-off or low-income family.
This is possibly because other factors, such as the educational opportunities that come from the kind of school a child goes to, have a greater influence as they age. Other research both in the UK and in other countries has found that learning outcomes in younger children are not linked to the level of their parent’s education, but very few studies have also looked at postcode as an index of socio-economic status.
These findings indicate that where a child lives does not have to determine their academic success although it may impact on their non-verbal IQ. Other factors, such as a child’s working memory, play a more important role and should be focused on in early years learning.