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The intergenerational transfer of numeracy skills (2013)

20 Jul 2018

Young children’s numerical ability scores were positively associated with their parents’ numeracy levels. 

There are different ways in which home environment can contribute to students’ engagement with maths,  their levels of drive and motivation at school and their beliefs about their abilities as mathematics learners.

One interesting example is the relationship between numeracy and parents’ qualifications. While numeracy and qualifications do appear to be correlated, there is significant variation in numeracy levels among cohort members with low or no qualifications. This suggests that numeracy is developed through a range of activities, not just education, and an individual with no qualifications may still have reasonable or even very good numeracy skills.

The purpose of this report is to investigate the intergenerational transmission of numeracy; that is the relationship between parent and child numeracy skills. The study used a ‘parent and child’ sample of 2,246 parents and 466 children, making particular use of a numeracy assessment the parents completed at age 34 (2004), and numeracy tests completed by the children (ages 3-5/ages 6-16) in that year. 

When parents have better numeracy, their children also tend to have better numeracy, even when controlling for a wide range of other factors. For young children, parental numeracy levels appear to have a greater impact on the highest scoring children. It is not clear why the relationship between parent and child numeracy differs depending on age group. 

Young children’s numerical ability scores were positively associated with their parents’ numeracy levels – that is, parents with higher numeracy levels tended to have children with higher numeracy scores. In particular, children of parents with Entry level 3 or higher numeracy had much better number skills than children of parents at Entry level 2 and below. (Note: according to the government’s 2011 Skills for Life survey 24% of adults in England were working at Entry Level 2 or below - find out more on what the levels mean here. 

The study cites de Coulon et al's (2009), suggestion that writing that policies “aimed at increasing parents’ basic skills may have potentially large intergenerational effects on the cognitive performance of children”, concluding that policymakers would be well served by commissioning additional studies that would allow researchers to move beyond statements of correlations to those of causation. 

De Coulon, A., Meschi, E. &Vignoles, A (2009), Parents’ Basic Skills and Children’s Cognitive Outcomes. London: National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy. 

Download the full report