Your experiences in childhood make a substantial difference to your pay as an adult. Test scores of 5-6 year olds are strongly linked with pay at 27, the likelihood of attending a university and the probability of owning a home. The standard of a child’s education in primary and secondary school also affects their likelihood of attending university.

Extensive research suggests that the first few years of a child’s life have a large effect on their future outcomes and their future position in the income distribution.

  • One of the strongest predictors of later success is the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before the age of six[1].
  • A child’s development score at 22 months can serve as an accurate predictor of education outcomes at 26 years[2].
  • Adverse experiences in early childhood are associated with lower rates of employment in later life[3].

Key Factors in Child Development and Later Outcomes

Home Learning Environment (HLE)

  • HLE has the strongest single effect on outcomes for children at age 10[4].
  • A good home learning environment is considered one of the key factors in ensuring successful child development[5].
  • A poor HLE is associated with a low level of mother’s education, larger families and living in areas of higher deprivation[6]. This further adds to the inheritability of inequality.

Formal Child Care and Early Years Education

Formal early years education is experienced by most children in the UK at some point in their childhood. Currently 87% of 3-4 year olds spend a significant amount of time in formal early education[7]. Some research suggests that inequality in the provision of childcare could have an effect on early experiences of life[8]. This could affect later earnings in accordance with research discussed above.

Other studies have suggested that attending formal childcare gives a child a cognitive advantage over those that don’t[9]. The effect of early years education on education outcomes and employment/labour market success as an adult is conditional. Research indicates that unless early years education is of a high quality it can fail to have any effect by the time the child finishes early years education[10].

Other Impacts of Childcare on Inequality

Research suggests cheaper or free child care may lower the barriers to female employment, which in turn may reduce inequality[11]. In this area of research, however, practice has been found to conflict with research findings. A UK government pilot which completely covered the cost of childcare, found that it did not increase the amount worked by parents[12].

Primary and Secondary Level Education

  • More equally distributed state funding for education is associated with increased social mobility[13].
  • The gap between income groups already seen in the early years widens in the UK over the school years, particularly between the ages of 7 and 14 years[14].
  • In England, 67% of all pupils achieve A* to C in English and Maths GCSEs and only 39.2% of pupils on free school meals do.[15]

  • The effects of primary school are much more important for disadvantaged pupils than more advantaged ones[16], and later educational success is strongly influenced by your level of attainment at 11, underlying the importance of primary schools to decreasing inequality.
  • Research from the USA has shown kindergarten test scores are strongly linked with pay at 27, university attendance and home ownership[17].
  • Small classes in kindergarten increase the likelihood of the child attending university[18].
  • Children randomly assigned to better kindergarten classes are paid more as adults and are more likely to attend university[19].
  • The extent that school alone influences a person’s level of attainment is unclear. Whilst there is considerable research suggesting that school factors, such as the type of school you attend, the mix of students, the school’s location and the quality of teaching and learning, strongly influence attainment[20], evidence also suggests that many other factors are of equal or greater important than the school you attend[21]. This includes gender, income, being in care, living in a deprived neighbourhood, having a special educational need and recent mobility between schools.

Higher Education – A level and Degree Level

  • People who hold academic qualifications receive much higher returns in later income from work than those who pursue vocational qualifications[22].
  • Higher education and its funding is unequally distributed. Only two out of five young people study for A levels (as opposed to vocational qualifications or studying for no qualifications at all) but they receive a disproportionate amount of funding per student[23].
  • High levels of public funding for higher education do less to increase enrolment in higher education than higher funding for primary and secondary education, which has a large effect on enrolment in higher education[24].
  • Degree attainment is an important driver of higher pay but even more so is where you obtian your degree from. As many as 71% of senior judges graduated from Oxbridge (and 65% of senior judges attended an indepdent school)[25].

Social moblity

All of the above influences social mobility. 40% of Britons think that it is becoming more dificult for people from less advantaged backgrounds to move up in society and younger generations are less likely to view themselves as better off than their parents[26]. Indeed, Britain’s social mobility is getting worse and top jobs remain dominated by the elite. Where you live also influences your social mobility, with London and the areas around it displaying the highest scores[27].

As with other drivers of inequality discussed on this site, this driver of inequality – childhood – can also be seen as an impact of inequality, with further inequality increasing the effect this has on driving inequality in future generations. This is because as families become more unequal, the size of the effect of parental income on their children’s income as an adult increases.

[1] Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 2013

[2] Allen 2011

[3] Allen 2011

[4] Sylva, et al. 2007

[5] Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 2013

[6] Sylva, et al. 2007

[7] Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 2013

[8] Johnson and Kossykh 2008

[9] Meyers, et al. 2002

[10] Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 2013

[11] Vaalavuo 2011

[12] Goodman 2011

[13] Bjorklund and Jantti 2011

[14] Hills et al. 2010

[15] State of the Nation 2017. Social Mobility Commission, 2017

[16] Sylva, et al. 2007

[17] Chetty, Friedman, Hilger & Saez 2011

[18] Chetty, Friedman, Hilger & Saez 2011

[19] Chetty, Friedman, Hilger & Saez 2011

[20] Kerr and West 2010

[21] Hills et al. 2010

[22] Dickerson 2006

[23] Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 2013

[24] Bergh and Fink 2006

[25] Elitist Britain 2019. Social Mobility Commission, 2019

[26] Social Mobility Barometer 2018 report. Social Mobilty Commission, 2018

[27] State of the Nation 2017. Social Mobility Commission, 2017