Which family factors affect children’s development at school?
- 1According to the Population Census of 1991 nearly 90% of children aged under16 lived with both of their parents in the same house. Today, that family structure is no longer as common. Data from the most recent Census indicate that in 2011 around a quarter of children aged 16 were not living in the same household as their biological mother and father.
- 2In recent decades, families with a low level of educational attainment have undergone greater change than those with a higher level. By 2011, nearly 40% of children with a mother without primary education were not living with their biological father, versus 17% of those whose mother had a university qualification.
- 3Children living in single-parent homes have a slightly lower probability of completing Compulsory Secondary Education (ESO) on time.
- 4The influence of family structure is very small in comparison with the effects of the mother’s level of educational attainment and of the differences in economic resources between families.
- 5Given the importance of socioeconomic factors, policies aimed at preventing children from falling behind at school will have higher chances of success if geared towards reducing socioeconomic differences between households.
This graphic indicates what percentage of children born in 1995 did not complete ESO on time in each of the groups shown. In the first group it can be seen that the influence of family structure is only 5%. In contrast, in the second group, it can be seen that depending on housing status, the difference increases by 17%. Finally, if compared by the mother’s level of education, the difference is even more pronounced, increasing to 29%.
From this perspective, it becomes clear that factors such as the mother’s level of educational attainment are much more important for children’s school performance than the number of parents living with them.
Spain is changing fast, and so are the country’s families. Until relatively recently, the vast majority of Spanish children still lived with both their biological parents in the same home from birth until they moved out to form their own households. In many other parts of Europe, families had already undergone a dramatic transformation, but Spain still seemed rather traditional when it came to family issues. However, since the early 1990s, Spain’s rapid changes have been so striking that Spanish families now look much more like their Northern and Western European counterparts than their Mediterranean neighbours.
For instance, the number of divorces in Spain is now as high as in countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany and significantly higher than in countries such as Italy and Greece, which in the past were similar to Spain. Spain caught up with these other countries particularly after the introduction of its ‘express divorce’ bill in 2005, which made divorcing much faster and easier. Recent statistics on the stability of unmarried couples are much less widely available but, given that co-habitation did not increase until more recently in the country (Dominguez-Folgueras and Castro-Martin, 2013), trends in instability over time within Spain are likely to be even more pronounced if unmarried couples are taken into account.
Due to this increase in parental divorce and separation, increasing numbers of children no longer share their day-to-day home with their biological father or mother. Some of them live with a single parent and others also live with their mother’s or father’s new partner. Many children also switch homes on a regular basis to share their time between both parents.
Even though separation and divorce often free children from direct exposure to conflict between their parents, not living with a mother or father in the same home does pose its challenges. Single-parent families are more likely to be poor, and children often have less contact with the parent who does not live in the same household (Amato, 2010). Single parents might also be less effective in supervising and mentoring their children simply because they have less time on their hands to closely accompany their children throughout their school career and life. Due to these challenges, there are concerns that family change might have affected children’s wellbeing and outcomes in life.
This article will analyse to what extent this is the case in Spain. Firstly, it will describe the situation of families in Spain today and document how many children grow up in different types of family structures. Secondly, it will look at the school progress of children living in various family arrangements using data from the Spanish Census of 2011, the most recent census recorded in Spain. Its aim is to answer the question to what extent family structure influences children’s progress at school and how important this factor is in comparison to other characteristics such as maternal education and economic resources.
1. Families in Spain 2011
The Census of 1991 still indicated that almost 90% of children aged 16 lived with two parents in the same household. Today, this family structure is no longer as common as it used to be.
Most children still lived with their two biological parents (73%) and a few of them also lived with one or more grandparents in the same home (4% of all children). Some 23% of children did not live with their biological mother or father in the household. Some of them lived with two parents, but one of the co-resident parents was the child’s stepmother or stepfather. Meanwhile, 6% of children lived with their mother and her partner, whereas 2% shared the home with their father and his partner in 2011. The largest group of children living with one or fewer parents consisted of children living with a single mother (12%), followed by children living with no parents (e.g., those who live only with grandparents or other relatives, 4%) and children living with a single father (3%).
2. Growing up with or without two parents at home
How well do children living in various family types perform at school and how important is this family structure as compared to other characteristics such as economic resources and parental education? Why would differences be expected in school progress depending on how many parents children live with?
Children living with a single parent have home environments that differ from those of children who live with their two biological parents. Some of these differences are important for children’s school progress (Härkönen et al., 2017). Firstly, parents who supervise their children doing homework and who engage them in developmental activities have children who do better at school. Such ‘intensive parenting’ can be more complicated for parents who do not live with their children in the same household. For single parents who do live with their children, such intensive parenting might also be complicated because running a household on their own might leave little extra time to supervise and teach their children.
A second factor that can have an impact on children’s school progress is economic resources. Single-parent families are more likely to be poor because they often rely on the income of one adult instead of two. Poverty can lead to considerable stress within a family and this can have effects on children’s behaviour and school performance (Conger et al., 2010). Money buys families homes in rich neighbourhoods, allows parents to hire private teachers and makes it possible to enrol children in activities outside of school hours. All these factors increase the chances of children doing well at school.
Finally, most children who do not live with their biological mother or father have experienced the separation of their parents. Children often need some time to adjust to this new situation, which might temporarily disrupt their performance at school.
Many of the challenges that single-parent families face can be overcome, and many children living with single parents in fact do as well as their peers. At the same time, most empirical studies do show that children living with single parents, on average, perform slightly worse at school in comparison with other children (Amato, 2010). Earlier research has shown that a high degree of involvement of non-resident parents (in terms of both contact and finances) and joint custody are factors that minimize the impact of parental separation on children (Härkönen et al., 2017). Obstacles posed by single parenthood can also be overcome through maintenance payments, public childcare and other support for single parents. New partners could to some extent relieve pressures on single parents’ tasks and can bring economic resources to the household, but the presence of step-parents in the household might also require new emotional adjustments to be made by children.
In summary, there are reasons to expect the number of parents children live with to influence their progress at school. In the next section, it will be seen to what extent this is the case in Spain.
3. Completing compulsory education ("Educación Secundaria Obligatoria") on time in Spain
To look at children’s school progress, data from the Spanish Census from 2011 is used. One of the questions asked in the Census is whether people had completed compulsory education (ESO), or not. Children normally finish compulsory education at age 16. This means that at the time of the Census (November 2011), children born in 1995 should have completed compulsory education. Children born in 1995 who had not completed compulsory education either repeated a year at school or dropped out of school. Repeating a year and dropping out of school are related to important outcomes in later life, including income, health, and family life. Figure 3 indicates – for several groups of children born in 1995 – the share of children that did not complete compulsory education.
A first comparison is made between children living with two biological parents and children who live with a single parent (i.e., a mother or father who does not live with a partner). Among children living with two parents, 23% did not complete compulsory education, compared to 28% of children living with a single parent. From these numbers, it indeed appears to be the case that the number of parents that children live with influences their school outcomes. How important are these differences and how should they be interpreted?
To get a good idea of how important these differences are, they can be compared to differences according to other widely studied characteristics which are known to be related to children’s school performance. Figure 3 shows how the likelihood of completing compulsory education differs between children who live in a home that is rented by their family as compared to children who live in a home that is owned by the family. It can be seen that 20% of children living in a home owned by the family did not complete school on time, as compared to 37% of children who live in a rented home. This gap of 17% is somewhat larger than the gap of 5% observed between children living with two parents and children living with one parent.
Figure 3 also shows differences according to the mother’s education. the two extreme possibilities in the mother’s education were chosen, as information on the father’s education was not available for many single-parent families. Here, differences are even more dramatic, with a gap of 29 percentage points between children who have a university- educated mother and children who have a mother without educational qualifications. From this perspective, it becomes clear that other characteristics, such as their mother’s education, are much more important for the school outcomes of children than the number of parents that they live with.
4. How can differences in school completion between types of families be explained?
A 5% difference in compulsory education completion exists with children who live with one instead of two biological parents. This can be considered a relatively small difference, but how should such a percentage be interpreted? Does this mean that it does actually matter who children live with?
An important issue to take into account when interpreting these differences in school progress is the question of ‘causality’. When two characteristics are related – in this case family structure and educational performance – this does not automatically mean that one causesthe other. To illustrate the point, it is clear that children who live in a rented home perform worse at school, not because renting a home is a particularly impactful experience, but rather because of other characteristics typical of people who rent their home. For instance, people who rent a home normally have less money than people who own a home and a higher proportion of them live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. It might therefore be that differences in school completion between these two groups are because of money and not because of their housing status.
The same argument applies to families where children live without their biological father or mother. One of the striking elements of the changes in family life observed over the last decades is that families of less-educated people have changed much more than the families of more-educated people. In 2011, almost 40% of children whose mother did not have educational qualications did not live with their biological father, compared to 17% of those who had a university-educated mother. It is a well-known fact that children of educated parents are more likely to do well at school (a pattern similar to that already illustrated in figure 3). Better-educated parents transmit skills and attitudes to their children and can help them navigate successfully through the schooling system. If many children living with single parents have less educated parents, this could be the reason why they are more likely to not finish school on time. Therefore, ascertaining whether the number of parents that children live with really matters for their school outcomes, or whether they do worse at school due to other characteristics, is not so straightforward.
A first strategy for dealing with this issue is to statistically account for background characteristics that might possibly explain differences in school progress. In other words, the estimates of school completion can be adjusted according to the different levels of education of children’s mothers. This exercise is displayed in figure 5.
The first set of bars reproduces the unadjusted differences in compulsory education completion already shown in figure 3. The second set of bars in figure 5 shows these differences, but this time accounting for a set of background characteristics such as maternal education, region, and whether children are foreign born. Here it can be seen that the differences between the groups become slightly smaller, indicating that background characteristics are part of the reason why children living with a single parent perform worse at school in comparison with children living with two biological parents.
Nonetheless, after accounting for these characteristics, a 4% gap in school completion remains between both groups of children. Of course, there are many other possible background characteristics that could theoretically account for this gap which are not available in the census data. It is therefore still possible that this 4% difference between groups of children is due to third factors. However, it is also likely that part of this difference indeed reflects something that is particular to children living with one biological parent.
It was noted earlier that children living with one biological parent often receive different parenting, are more likely to live in an economically poor household, and might have needed to adjust psychologically to their parents’ separation in the past. The third set of bars in figure 5 enable evaluation of the importance of one of these three explanations: differences in economic situation. This third set of bars statistically accounts for differences in the mother’s employment and a set of durables children have in their home (in addition to the background characteristics covered by the second set of bars): heating, internet, and the number of rooms their home has. It can be seen that the differences between groups are further reduced to 3% once this small set of economic factors are accounted for. Economic factors are therefore likely to be an important reason why children living with one biological parent instead of two do slightly worse at school.
Remaining differences could possibly be explained by better measurements of economic resources, such as family income, or measurements of parenting and psychological well-being. Such information, however, is not available in the census.
5. Should there be concern about whether children live with two parents or one?
Families in Spain have changed dramatically over the last decades. More and more children spend part of their childhood living without their biological mother or father in the same household. Given the challenges involved in raising children as a single parent or as a separated couple, it is not surprising that there have been some concerns as to whether family changes have had consequences for children’s outcomes. This article looked at the likelihood that children did not complete compulsory education (ESO) on time using data from the Spanish Census 2011. Children who lived with a single parent were less likely to have completed compulsory education on time as compared to children who live with two biological parents. However, once differences in school completion were compared according to other characteristics such as maternal education or housing status, it became clear that the number of parents children live with is much less important for school progress than these other socioeconomic characteristics.
Given the importance of socioeconomic characteristics for children’s school progress, the increasing economic inequality that Spain has witnessed over recent years is more concerning than the changes families have undergone. Policies aimed at preventing children from lagging behind at school are therefore likely to be most effective once directed at reducing socioeconomic differences between households. The modest differences in school progress between children who live with one instead of two biological parents could be partly explained by socioeconomic differences. Policies aimed at lowering socioeconomic inequality are therefore also likely to close gaps in the completion of compulsory education between children living with one biological parent instead of two.
AMATO, P.R. (2010): "Research on divorce: Continuing trends and new developments", Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(3).
CONGER, R.D., K.J. CONGER and M.J. MARTIN (2010): "Socioeconomic status, family processes, and individual development", Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(3).
DOMÍNGUEZ FOLGUERAS, M., and CASTRO MARTÍN, T. (2013): "Cohabitation in Spain: No longer a marginal path to family formation", Journal of Marriage and Family, 75(2).
HÄRKÖNEN, J., F. BERNARDI and D. BOERTIEN (2017): "Family dynamics and child outcomes: An overview of research and open questions", European Journal of Population, 33(2).
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