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Effect of Single Parent Household on Child Education


The question of whether different family structures affect the educational achievement of children is one that has been debated over a vast amount of years and is still under scrutiny today. This theoretical study aims to contribute to our understandings of the links between single parent family structures and the affect it has on adolescent’s education (12 – 17 year olds). It particularly gives emphasis to single parent families, however also considers other family structures, such as, families that consist of two parents, step families, etc, which enables comparison between the data and gives an illustration of the educational differences between single parent family households and other family structures. This comparison has facilitated an analysis on positive or negative effects single parent families can possess on education. Lastly the study assesses the data available between educational attainment of adolescents from single-mother families and adolescents form single-father families. Research data has been collated from secondary sourced materials about single parent family structures and education, which were mainly in the form of journal articles all written by credible authors over the past 15 years. These statues of the sources used that influence the establishment of knowledge and policy are highly credible, as they are acknowledged by the accredited organisations that have allowed the primary research to be conducted and the data published. An analytical review has been conducted on all the research data examined and enabled the following findings; although adolescents are at increased risk of adverse outcomes when living in a single parent family structure, the differences between adolescents from two parent and single parent families is fairly insignificant and adolescents will predominantly, not be affected in terms of educational achievement and occupational success.


Prior to starting this study, a comprehensive and detailed research process around the area of interest on single parent families was undertaken, to provide the core foundations of the study. It was necessary to engage with a wide variety of secondary sourced materials, which needed an extensive and analytical review, in order to carry a successful theoretical study on the chosen title; ‘A Critical Review: The Educational Performance of Adolescents from Single Parent Families’.

There was a vast amount of literature and different methods of conduct in the way the information needed could be obtained, therefore a ‘search strategy’ was devised [Refer to Appendix 1 – Research Journal Book; Page 5], which included a clear and logical plan to collating the necessary research data.

The starting point for the research process was a search for relevant literature on the Manchester Metropolitan University library website. This enabled access to the basic electronic books, articles and on-line journals to provide the basic background reading around the topic under analysis. Later, a search for various journal articles that were not available on-line was carried out and copies were made of the relevant ones that could help with the study. Also, after conducting a ‘library search’ on the books required, the ones that were unavailable were reserved for later, and once obtained, it was necessary to read them. Comprehensive notes were made of the issues acknowledged around single parenthood and the information perceived to be of high significance. Although, now a lot of background knowledge and data on the subject matter was established, it was noticed that the materials used were not very contemporary, as some of the books and articles were published over 30 years ago. Therefore it was essential to engage with various online articles, including, ‘The Times’ and journal databases, such as ‘Demos’ to allow an analysis of a wider range of contemporary materials on the topic of interest. After collating and examining all the research attained, the materials were synthesised to the most relevant ones that were produced over the past 15 years and those that were published by credited authors and organisations, to allow the study to hold validity. In addition, a ‘timeline’ was created, which consisted of dates as to when certain tasks and research would be carried out, in order to ensure the research tasks and study was completed before the submission deadline.

After the research process was complete, it was officially time to commence in a detailed critical analysis and evaluation on the role of single parent families and adolescents’ educational attainment.




The nature of this research is to find out whether the educational performances of adolescents (12 – 17 year olds) living in single parent households is different (better or worse) to those adolescents living in other family structures.

The area of research interest is based around single parent families, particularly in relation to education and how children growing up in one parent households can affect their educational attainment. The focus is specifically on adolescents, as it has been argued by some practitioners who have studied single parent families that;

“adolescence in particular is a crucial time in which to study school success because educational achievement in the teen years has a direct influence on indicators of overall attainment, such as high school graduation and college attendance” (Heard, 2007; p.320).

The curiosity for this subject matter has stemmed from an individual standpoint, through personal experiences of being raised in a single-mother household, and holding positive educational achievements, as average academic grades have always been met. However, there seemed to be negative expectations from people in society (teachers, extended family members, etc), who considered individuals from single parent households to be less intellectually capable and to perform less well in education than those children from ‘stable’ two parent families. Hence, the nature of this study and the ‘hoped’ outcome after the review of literature is; that adolescents are often stereotyped because of their family structure which may have no or little relevance to their educational performance.

In the process of conducting the research required, a personal interest on this topic area has developed furthermore, because a lot of different and altering views on single parenthood were found, which were not considered at first. For example, different explanations were discovered on how a boy’s educational achievement is affected when he is living in a single-mother household, which can be significantly different to him living in a single-father household.

As previously stated, the research was conducted by collating relevant research data on the topic area and reviewing each article and information in depth to allow a detailed analysis of the main contentious issues, which included; the notion that adolescents from single parent households perform less well in education than those living with two parents, single parent families have a lack of funds to invest in educational resources, boys are adversely affected than girls from single parent households, boys growing up without a father are more likely to do less well in education, same with girls without their mother, and, lastly, the idea that living in a single parent family consequences very little parental involvement in the adolescents’ education.

After underlining the main contentious issues, a number of 3 questions were formulated to guide the study and allow a successful analysis and evaluation of the secondary research data. These comprised; are adolescents from single parent families at a disadvantage to those of two parents in educational achievement? Secondly, are there any similarities or differences of the educational performance of adolescents between single-mother and single-father households? Lastly, do single-parents have little involvement in their children’s educational attainment?

Report Structure

The structure of the report firstly consists of an abstract to give the reader an insight to the study and what it deals with.

Chapter 1 consists of the research process undertaken to allow the analysis of the research data. The section outlines the necessary steps taken when collating the research materials and provides the reader with a notion of the type of primary research previously conducted on the topic of single parent families.

Chapter 2 is the introductory chapter to clarify the nature of the research. It includes information about where the curiosity in this subject matter stemmed from, the main contentious issues discovered from the secondary source materials, the questions developed to guide the study and lastly, an overview of the main conclusion drawn.

Chapter 3 compromise a critical analysis on reports identified that deal with research and statistics conducted by governmental bodies, including the ‘Institute of Education’. It evaluates the effectiveness of the secondary sourced materials used to complete the study and takes into account the strengths and weakness of the materials analysed; also indentifying the gaps within the topic area under scrutiny. The analysis on these reports allows the subject matter to be put into a contemporary context.

Chapter 4 consists of an analysis and critique of ‘academic’ literature conducted by various authors and publishers. This part identifies other issues, ideas and competing theories related to children from single parent households and enables further arguments to be constructed. It also analyses the sociological data collection and analysis methods used to obtain data to form the studies on single parent households.

Chapter 5 deals with an examination of the previous sociological theories devised around single parent families and also the contemporary ones. This analysis allows an insight to theorist’s opinions and explanations of the differences in educational attainment.

Chapter 6 includes the addition of a comprehensive conclusion, compromising a brief summary of the research and independent conclusions related to the study are offered. This section allows an understanding of personal arguments and ideas made to contribute towards the concepts of the study and competing theories or interpretations. It also consists of a section that outlines the future work and study that can be implemented to develop the study of single parent families.

Chapter 7, the last section contains a personal reflection on the engagement of the research conducted. It includes how and what has been learnt throughout the course of the study, as well as, how personal interests have been impacted and changed as a result of the research process and the completion of the study.

Main Conclusions

The critical review has drawn together the evidence on adolescent’s educational attainment from single parent family households. There is evidence to show that although adolescents are at increased risk of adverse outcomes when living in a single parent family structure, the differences between adolescents from two parent families and single parent families is fairly insignificant and adolescents will predominantly not be affected in terms of educational achievement and occupational success.

The analysis has also exposed that family functioning and economic factors have a higher influence than the type of family structure on an adolescent’s educational success.

Furthermore, various sociological theories have been devised on the matter of single parent families, which can be used in context with the topic in hand.

Lastly, research indicates, the lack of educational success of adolescents being brought up in single parent families is not limited to one cause only; a lot of altering factors play apart.


There are a number of reports published by governmental bodies, such as, the ‘Institute of Education’, that deal with research and statistics established around single parent families and education. This chapter compromises a critical analysis of 5 major reports published in the last 15 years, which are all acknowledged by governmental bodies.

Causes of Single Parenthood

“Over the space of a single generation the number of people marrying has halved, the number divorcing has trebled and the proportion of children born outside marriage has quadrupled” (Lewis, 2001; p.37).

It can be suggested, that all of the above contribute to the factors related to the causes of single parenthood. The context of this statement has been assembled from data provided by the Department for Children Schools and Families (DCSF) from the 1970’s to the year 2000. However Lewis (2001) fails to look at contemporary data and statistics around the subject matter, which could alter the statement he has made. National statistics actually declare that the number of marriages in England and Wales steadily rose between 2001 and 2004 (Office for National Statistics, 2010), therefore although the number of marriages may have halved “over the space of a single generation” (Lewis, 2001; p.37), Lewis (2001) does not look at the rise of marriages in certain periods and does not offer any rationalisation for such trends [Refer to Appendix 2 – Statistics Graph; Page 48].

In 2006 in Great Britain, 25% of dependent children were found to be living in single parent households with little or no contact with the second parent (Mooney et al, 2009). This figure holds credible status as it was obtained from the National Office for Statistics, however Mooney et al (2009) are unsuccessful in explaining how little or no contact is determined. There is no thesis or evidence of chapters that attempt to make clear how they approached and justified their declaration made, therefore making it questionable. Lewis (2001), Mooney et al (2009), amongst others also offer alternative explanations to single parenthood that are recognised within the majority of the reports under analysis, which will be addressed throughout the course of this study.

Effects of Single Parenthood

The levels of single parenthood are continuously rising; the effect that this has on the adolescents living with a single parent is contested. Some argue there are no adverse consequences, whilst others suggest that there are clear implications for the adolescents, arguing;

“evidence indicates unequivocally that those children whose parents separate are at significantly greater risk than those whose parents remain together, for a wide range of adverse outcomes in social, psychological, and physical development” (Pryor and Rodgers, 2001; p.73).

These two positions offered are both backed up with evidence, firstly showing the consequences for adolescents, mainly pointing at the fact that there is a considerable difference in educational achievement between those individuals from single parent families and those from nuclear family structures[1]. This evidence is mainly shown through the comparison of statistical data; those who were brought up by single parents were “almost twice as likely to lack formal qualifications” (Kiernan, 1997; p.9). Again, the contradicting argument also uses similar procedures, such as statistical data to illustrate the evidence that argues individuals form single parent families are not negatively affected;

“the difference between children from intact and non-intact families is a small one, and the majority of children will not be adversely affected” (Mooney et al, 2009; p.3).

Although both of these grand claims provide evidence to back up their statements, they are not a 100 per cent warranted as gaps within their claims still remain. For example, Mooney et al (2009) acknowledge that there is a small difference between single parent and nuclear family structures and claim the majority of individuals from single parent families are not affected. However they fail to recognise the small proportion of individuals who are affected, forgetting to address the reasons to how and why only a minority of adolescents from single parent families suffer the alleged adverse consequences.

Separation or Divorce

It is argued that adolescents whose parents separate have the double probability of experiencing long-term negative outcomes in education than adolescents from nuclear family structures (Mooney et al, 2009). The ‘long-term’ studies that have been conducted to show this include the analysis of statistical data throughout a certain period of time and longitudinal studies, monitoring adolescents from single parent households over a course of their lives. There is no specific definition of the ‘long-term’ outcomes, and studies have taken place over a variety of periods, including, 5, 10 and 20 years. There is also no precise measurement of a ‘negative’ outcome, they tend to be the general opinions of the researcher or author rather than a factor defined through research or study; there are various chapters throughout all the reports that constantly refer to the “negative child outcomes following parental separation” (Mooney et al, 2009; p.13), however there is no mentioning of the measurements used to define these ‘negative’ outcomes.

A variety of research studies have indicated that adolescents who witness the breakdown of their own parent’s marriage in comparison to those who have not, hold lower educational qualifications, lower part-time or full-time incomes and more expected to be unemployed in later life (Kiernan, 1997). This expectancy is reasonably vindicated as Kiernan (1997) uses various statistical data from England to compare the educational achievements and employment roles of adults aged 33 who had been raised by single parents to those who had not. From her study, she found that there were a lower percentage of adults who experienced their parent’s separation than those brought up in nuclear family structures to commit to further educational studies. Also, there was a higher percentage of adults brought up by single parents who were unemployed than those brought up by both parents (Kiernan, 1997). Although, she provides some statistical evidence to indicate those from single parent families possess low levels of educational attainment, Kiernan (1997) does not take into consideration the fact that her statistics show; there was a higher proportion of individuals brought up by single parents holding ‘O-Level’ qualifications in comparison to those who lived in a nuclear family structure [Refer to Appendix 3 – Table of Statistics; Page 49]. She fails to provide an explanation for this statistic and in a sense seems to ignore this ‘odd’ occurrence. The ignorance of this statistic suggests Kiernan (1997) is judging and concluding in a manner that does not necessarily match the evidence, which may indicate towards a personal or professional agenda. This personal agenda may simply be stereotypical views of those from single parent families, which can include the expectancy of academic failure and low employment prospects.

Also, teenage girls who have witnessed their parental divorce or separation have a higher probability than their peers to begin early sexual relations, to cohabit at early ages and commit to teenage pregnancies. To start early sexual relations and conceive children young is one reason why a vast percentage of adolescent girls from single parent families perform less well in education than those living in nuclear family structures. The stresses of sexual relationships and pregnancy can often leave very little or no time to focus on study, commonly resulting in teenage mothers leaving education early and gaining little qualifications (Kiernan, 1997). Although Kiernan (1997) makes such claims, she does not provide any evidence to justify them. There is no evidence of statistical data showing that teenage pregnancies are the result of being brought up by a single parent and no mention of any imperative measurements used to suggests such outcomes can occur; thus her explanations lack in validity and can be contested in numerous ways.

Economical Factors

One economical factor that is argued to be common in single parenthood is the issue of living in poverty. In comparison to nuclear families, single parents tend to be considerably financially worse and statistics show 70% of single parents live in poverty (Evans et al, 2004). This is an accredited statistic obtained from the Department of Work and Pensions, which gives an insight of the scale of financial difficulties faced by single parents. Poverty has been identified as one major factor that affects educational attainment at schools and used to explain the low educational performances of adolescents from single parent households, as a vast number of children living in single parent family structures are only supported by one parental income or through welfare benefits. In Britain in the 1990’s, approximately 80% of single mothers relied on governmental benefits to support themselves and their children (Kiernan, 1997). Again, this statistic is credited and provides a sound context to the argument being made, however it is not a contemporary piece of research. Today in modern Britain a lot of people are facing financial difficulties because of different factors that can affect educational attainment, regardless of the type of family structure an individual is from. For example, in the current financial climate and the issues of the recession, many people are finding it difficult to maintain jobs and fund their family’s educational needs, such as, university tuition fees, college expenses, etc; therefore adolescents from all family structures may have a lower educational attainment. Consequently there are more individuals today relying on governmental benefits to support their financial needs; from the start of 2008, 800,000 individuals were claiming ‘Job Seekers Allowance’, then rose rapidly in 2009, where there was 1.5 million claimants (National Office for Statistics, 2010: Refer to Appendix 4 – Statistics Article; Page 50). Thus, Kiernan’s (1997) examination on finance does not give a valid insight to the contemporary issues affecting educational achievement. Also, Kiernan (1997) suggests that single parents do not have the financial support from the second parent without any suitable evidence. Conversely this is not necessarily true, if parents have separated or divorced, the second parent is obligated to contribute to the finance of his/her family if any dependent children are involved; therefore although some single parents may face financial strain, there are others who still receive financial help from their ex-partners.

Financial difficulty increases the chances of other variables connected with negative outcomes for the adolescents, including; poor nutrition, inadequate housing, health issues and limited access to educational resources. Adolescents with poor nutrition will find it significantly difficult to concentrate at school during lessons, limiting their educational performances. Evidence shows a balanced diet and the consumption of adequate vitamins and nutrients can boost the concentration levels of pupils at school, making them more alert and attentive during class sessions (Welsh et all, 2004). This evidence offered is of widespread knowledge and supported by nutritional specialists, such as, the British Nutrition Foundation (Stanner et al, 2010). Poor nutrition can also lead to various long-term health problems, including Anorexia, Cardiovascular Disease, etc, which may require adolescents taking a lot of time off school compared to those not living in poverty, therefore, again, limiting their educational performances (Mooney et al, 2009). A viable argument is made here, however there is a lack of evidence to support the suggestion that these health problems is a definite explanation as to why adolescents from single parent families can do poorly in education. Health problems can lead to taking time off school, however there is no reasonable clarification to why it specifically affects those from single parent families; Anorexia and Cardiovascular Disease can affect any individual, not just those who lack a balanced diet and may be living in single parent families; the causes of Anorexia range from a variety of factors, including, the media, social pressure and genetics (Russell, 2007).

Inadequate housing conditions may make it difficult for adolescents to concentrate and complete coursework at home when required, resulting in another limitation in educational attainment (Mooney et al, 2009). Another viable argument, however, again, there is a lack of evidence to support this claim; it is not sufficient enough to suggest ‘inadequate’ housing only affects those of single parent families, move valid knowledge and research is required to support such claims.

Furthermore, it is contested; limited funds can often neglect the extra requirements of educational resources and materials to help during courses. For example, single parents may not be able to afford home computers, books, sportswear, etc that assist success in schools. Without the access to these resources adolescents from single parents are at a disadvantage in educational attainment compared to those adolescents living in nuclear families, supported by both parental incomes, thus an explanation for the questionable differences in educational achievement (Mooney et al, 2009). Although this is an explanation, Mooney et al (2009) fail to acknowledge the initiatives and support available for all family structures to overcome barriers when accessing educational resources. For example, public libraries are available to borrow books instead of buying them, libraries also facilitate free access to computers and schools also provide support free access to educational materials. Therefore the claim that adolescents from single parents do not have the access to resources available in order to perform well in education is not credible and lacks knowledge of contemporary support.

In addition, it is also argued, adolescents living with single parents may leave education early to gain employment to help with the financial circumstances, or work long shifts whilst still at school to fund their own wants and needs, which can ultimately result in low educational attainment. Low qualifications and an early entry into employment can increase the prospects of low occupational achievement, little income, unemployment and state dependency (Kiernan, 1997). This argument is supported with evidence, as Kiernan (1997) uses statistical data to show that a lot of adolescents form single parent families do enter early employment to assist their family’s financial needs. However, she has no evidence to suggest that an early entry into employment can increase the chances of low occupational achievement, this is an assumption made, that without further education individuals cannot succeed in the labour market. However this is not necessarily accurate, there are individuals in the media who have excelled within the labour market without an education to college or degree level, for example, Sir Allen Sugar, a successful business entrepreneur (BBC, 2009).

Although there is a certain lack of acknowledgement of various factors when arguing poverty is a major factor of adolescent’s academic failure from single parent families, there has been a study conducted of 2 nuclear families in America who experienced a substantial decrease in income. This identified that the financial pressure lead to increased depression in both parents, conflicts throughout the family, behaviour changes in the adolescents and a drop in their educational success in schools and in exams. (Conger et al, 1992). Therefore, there is some valid evidence to associate single parent poverty with educational success. Never the less, consideration must be given to the fact that educational failure in single parenthood is not only limited to financial strain.

Social Factors

The single parent family structure is frequently associated with social factors, such as a decrease in the quality and quantity of personal contact between adolescents and their non-residential parent. This can affect a teenager’s educational attainment due to the lack of support from both parents to perform well in school (Kiernan, 1997). Although this statement is made, there is no substantial evidence or research conducted to support the argument. There is the assumption that teenagers will automatically have a decrease in the quality and quantity of personal contact with their second parent. However, this is may not be the case, parents after separation can still have daily contact with their children on a regular basis; thus the support from both parents to do well in education may not decline. Misleading conclusions are being made, which suggest the author may hold biased views on this subject matter.

It can be argued, single parents providing childcare may also have limited time and energy they can dedicate to their children, particularly if longer hours of paid employment is necessary to maintain financial stability. These decreases in parental resources, for example, help with homework, support and attention they can offer to their children, can increase the possibility of educational failure (Kiernan, 1997). Although the long working hours may have an impact on parental time available, there is no verification that declares a lack of parental time has a definite effect on educational attainment. Kiernan (1997) also ignores social networks that can provide support with educational attainment, such as, family, friends, neighbours, relatives, etc. It has been argued by many that social networks and support is crucial for the development of individuals intellectually, emotionally and socially; strong networks allow the foundations to achieving success in academic and occupational careers (Hooyman and Kiak, 2008).

Psychological Factors

Amongst these social and economical explanations are psychological explanatory factors that attempt to clarify the educational differences between teenagers from single parent and nuclear family structures. It is argued that the notion of family stress during bereavement, divorce, separation, etc, can provide a vast amount of strain on the children, which can add onto the predominant stresses of educational attainment. A number of studies have exposed that parental conflict during separation can have a harmful impact on the adolescent’s well-being. This can result to lack of concentration during school class sessions, less motivation to complete designated assignments and a lack of class participation, which usually lead to academic failure (Kiernan, 1997). There is substantial evidence to suggest stress can be related to educational achievement and affect academic results obtained; for instance there have been various observational and longitudinal studies that have discovered traumatic stress can lead to a decline in academic success (Hall, 2000). Whilst Kiernan (1997) takes into consideration the stresses of parental separation, she fails to acknowledge the relief some marital breakdowns can have; for example, one where the child or partner was suffering physical abuse. In this situation a positive outcome could occur in educational attainment rather than the negativities of academic failure.

Also research suggests that the parental ability to recover from distress of bereavement, separation and divorce can affect the children’s ability to adapt to new changes. Effective communication and frequent contact between the adolescents and both the resident and non-resident parents are important in assisting teenagers to adjust and adapt to change. If change is not accepted and the adolescents do not adapt, studies have discovered that there is a higher possibility of poor educational outcomes for teenagers from separated families than those from intact ones. The distress teenagers may face fro

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