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The transition to primary school: How family background and childcare experiences influence children’s skills on school entry

This paper uses data from Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) and the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) for Scotland to explore the factors influencing inequalities in children’s skills on entry to primary school. The main research questions are:

•    Are there social inequalities by parental background in cognitive skills on entry to primary school?
•    To what extent do early childcare experiences and family environment explain the differences by parental background and what is their relative importance?
•    Are there differences between Scotland and Ireland in the level of inequality and the processes shaping it?  

Type of inequality
Previous research has generally focused on mother’s education or social class. Instead, the analyses adopt a multidimensional approach to inequality, focusing on differences in child outcomes by parental social class, mother’s education and household income.

Our research looked at the extent to which cognitive skills (such as linking sounds and letters, and number skills) and non-cognitive skills (such as attitudes and dispositions) among five year olds in the two countries reflect their family circumstances in terms of household income, social class and maternal education using data from the Growing Up in Ireland study and the Scottish sample of the Millennium Cohort Study. We examined whether social inequalities could be explained by differences in the home learning environment and experience of non-parental care and whether the scale of social inequalities is different in the two countries, reflecting the policy context or broader societal factors. Each dimension of inequality was examined in separate multivariate models, adding measures of exposure to early childhood care and education and home learning environment to examine the extent to which these factors mediate family background effects.

Key findings
Our findings showed significant differentiation by household income, in both Scotland and Ireland, for all outcomes at age 5, particularly between top and bottom categories (i.e. families with incomes in the highest quintile versus those within incomes in the lowest quintile). In Ireland, all outcomes differed by mother’s education and social class but this was the case for only some outcomes in Scotland. Overall, our analysis indicated that inequalities in household income play an important role in shaping skills development in early life.  

Policy implications
From a policy perspective, the relatively strong effect of income on early child outcomes highlights the importance of supporting measures to address educational inequality with broader policies around taxation and social welfare.  This research provides crucial evidence on the way in which different dimensions of social background result in educational inequalities on school entry and offer insights into the way in which policy can ameliorate or reinforce such inequalities.


Research Team

Dr Adriana Duta
Research Fellow