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Effect of Single Parent Household on Child Education

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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 from parental separation often can lead to a lack of attentiveness in social and educational activities that aid the learning process and can have a significant negative effect on educational attainment (Rodgers and Pryor, 1998). There has been a vast amount of evidence to support this theory offered, providing data from interviews where adolescents have given their views, which showed that they felt it was hard to adapt to change when the parents had not. It was also apparent that children in single parent families felt reassured through good communication procedures; providing explanations to 'what' and 'why' a situation has occurred. The statement that distress can often lead to a lack of attentiveness at school also holds validity as scientific research supports the view and argues; stress can lead to a lack of concentration and inadequate performances at work (NHS Choices, 2008).

Adolescents who encountered the death of a parent are likely to witness the long-term experience of parental absence. Research connotes that those teenagers who experience bereavement are more profoundly affected, however may not necessarily experience the same negative results as those teenagers whose parents have divorced or separated. It is argued that the adolescent's educational attainment and employment prospects are not affected when parental deaths occur (Rodgers and Pryor, 1998). Research studies show there is verification that a change in behaviour occurs when a child experiences a parental death; however this does not affect their educational success. This has been portrayed through various longitudinal studies, where those individuals who experienced the death of a parent were monitored during school and later in their adult life. Results show their academic and occupational careers were not affected. However Rodgers and Pryor (1998) fail to explain the negative outcomes these individuals do experience, as acknowledged in their study. There is also no explanation as to why those children who witness parental separation to do experience the same 'negative' outcomes as those who witness parental death. Also, the length of 'long-term' absence is not defined; Rodgers and Pryor (1998) do not clarify if 'long-term' is for the rest of the adolescents' lives or for the majority of it. In addition, they fail to consider the structure of step families; if a step parent enters the single parent family structure, will the children still experience the 'long-term' effects of parental absence, or will the step parent 'stand in' for the absent parent?

Comparison of Boys and Girls

There is a propensity for some commentators to connote that there is a higher likelihood for adolescent boys than girls to experience the negative results of living in a single parent family, and have their educational prospects damaged. It has been predicted that within single parenthood, there is a limited amount of time and attention devoted to children and adolescents, and it is predominantly boys who tend to experience difficulties due to the lack of a male role model. It is argued that this lack of attention and male figures can commonly lead to behavioural problems, often in rebellion and crime, allowing little time and motivation for education. Thus, a notable difference in the educational performance of adolescent boys from single parent household than those from nuclear family structures is evident (Mooney et al, 2009). However, evidence has been portrayed from a variety of sources and studies of step families, bereaved adolescents and the impact of a lack of a male role model, which argue that the struggles associated with the 'absent father' syndrome may have only a feeble connection and cannot be proven. It has been indicated that a mixture of social factors may explain the differences in education between boys with and without father figures, including financial hardship and occupational statuses. Also, a number of fathers are able to maintain a frequent healthy relationship with their children when the parents have separated, signifying the context of the 'absent father' is not an issue and the differences in education is due to altering factors (Hawkings, et al, 2002). Also, male role models does not limit to the father only, there can be other male role models for adolescents boys to look up to and follow, for example, brothers, cousins, media icons, etc. Furthermore, crime can be associated with media and peer pressure and does necessarily result from a lack of male role models.

Mooney et al (2009) also fail to look at how girls are affected without their mother as a female role model. The question of whether adolescent girls follow this delinquent behaviour as boys claimed by Mooney et al (2009) has not been addressed.

Contradictory Arguments

Although there are many suggestions and arguments of negative outcomes in educational success for adolescents living in single parent households, there is a conflicting theory acknowledged by governmental bodies that argues; some adolescents can actually benefit from the change of circumstances. At times, parental separation can limit or stop a problematic family situation, for example, a situation that involves physical abuse, a high level of marital conflict between parents or poor quality relationships between a parent and child. Research evidence indicates that the breakdown of a family can lead to positive outcomes. For example, various studies discovered that adolescents can build a significantly close relationship with their custodial parent, and still have the financial, social and emotional support from both parents to achieve success in educational attainment (Amato, 2000).

Also, another opposing argument implies that family functioning has more of an effect on adolescent's educational performances than the type of family structure. Research conducted, compares adolescents from a nuclear family experiencing high volumes of conflict with adolescents from a single parent family, which found that adolescents form the 'stable' nuclear family were actually more distressed and seemed to be doing less well at school than those from the single parent family. Therefore, negative or poor family functioning can play a major part in the failure of education rather than the fact an adolescent has one parent absent (Mooney et al, 2009).

Although these contradictory arguments have been made, there is not a large amount of studies and research undertaken that offer profound clear evidence to support these claims. Hence, such arguments can be perceived to lack validity and can be contested by other practitioners studying the topic of single parent families.

Gaps Identified

One problem within the study of single parenthood and education, as already identified, is the fact that account is not taken of the role of informal affective networks in lieu of parental contact. There have been no clear studies that specifically look at the role of social informal networks, such as family, friends, etc, instead of parental contact. This is a gap in the study of single parenthood, and if addressed can bring about new theory and knowledge of how adolescent's education is affected when living in single parent family structures. The study of informal affective networks can lead to new explanations, rationalising why some individuals raised by single parents perform well in education rather than others in the same family structure. The question of whether affective social networks can constitute parental contact when trying to succeed in education can help to clarify the differences in educational attainment amongst adolescents.

As acknowledged previously, statistics show, those who witnessed parental divorce or separation as children (17 or under) were twice as more likely to lack formal qualifications than those children in 'stable' two-parent families (Kiernan, 1997). Some argue, such as Kiernan (1997) that during the divorce and separation stage, there is a 'crisis period', usually lasting two years, where the children and families face difficulties and stresses when learning to adjust and adapt to the new family changes. From a personal point of view, this connotation can be used to explain why some adolescents from single parent families perform less well in education, whilst other adolescents from the same family structure seem to thrive. This 2 year 'crisis period' and the difficulties of adjusting to new changes can be used as an explanation to the low educational statistics some of these adolescents hold. There is no substantial evidence that show the whole or majority of adolescents living with single parents perform inadequately in education. Thus, this 'crisis period' can affect various people differently; having a more adverse affect on some, distressing their education, whilst not affecting others as much, which can explain the drop in educational attainment between adolescents from single parent families in comparison to those from nuclear family structures.

There is also no differentiation between the effects of single parenthood caused by parental separation and those caused by parental death. It has been acknowledged that there are differences in the outcomes; however these have not been specifically stated.

Furthermore, although there is little information about the educational achievement of children from single father households, there are no substantial studies that compare the educational achievement of adolescents from single-father households and those from single-mother households, supported by governmental bodies. There could be further context from the findings of such studies that can be beneficial when addressing the matter of single parenthood.

Even though the differences in educational attainment between adolescents from single parent families and those from nuclear family structures seem to be quite clear, it cannot be alleged that single parenthood is the only cause. The complexity of issues that impose on families before, during and after single parenthood makes any single clear explanation of the differences in educational achievement contestable. There are a variety of different issues that researchers must measure in order to achieve a valid and clear picture of the issue in hand.


There is a vast variety of 'academic' literature conducted by authors and publishers on the subject of single parent families and education. This chapter consists of an identification of other issues, ideas and competing theories, as well as an analysis of the effectiveness of the different methods used to obtain data.

Overview of Contemporary Literature

An immense deal of sociological work has been committed to studying the relationship between family structure and adolescent's well-being. "These researches generally point to the disadvantages for children from single-parent families...." (Wen, 2008; p.1492) and commonly conclude; adolescents "who live in single-mother families have significantly lower school attendance and attainment than adolescents who live with both parents" (Kuenning Duryea, 2006; p.263). This conclusion is of the same consensus across the 'academic' literature and the reports published by governmental bodies. It is evident that the majority of both types of studies appear to ignore the single-father household; many studies do not acknowledge single fathers and are more concerned with those adolescents "who live in single-mother families" (Kuenning Duryea, 2006; p.263). Due to this reason, contemporary literature studying single parent families have been criticised by other practitioners studying the same field, arguing;

"nearly all of these studies...have either combined single-mother and single-father families into the category of single parent families, or have excluded single father families from their analysis" (Downey, 1994; p.129).

There is evidence of a vast number of single fathers in society, who are not often used in the study of single parenthood; at the end of the 1980's there was a 73% increase of single fatherhood (Downey, 1994). Therefore, studies that take into consideration both single-mother and single-father households could provide developed or stronger awareness of issues that could be beneficial when addressing the matter of single parenthood.

On the other hand, this critique cannot apply to all practitioners studying the topic of single parent families, as a minority have addressed single fathers in their studies. For example, Lee and Kushner (2008) used national survey data to examine whether adolescents living with a single parent of their same gender achieved more in education, than those living with the opposite gender parents (Lee and Kushner, 2008). However, this study amongst others of the same nature, fail to analyse the data from both single-father and single-mother households, to examine whether there are any educational similarities or differences between these two households of similar status. It is argued by some that the comparison of two sets of data, can actually produce correlations, which can enable the formation of strong predictions, thus it can be suggested, such comparisons can assist the study of single parenthood (Robinson, 2009).

An additional area of weakness amongst contemporary literature is the lack of studies that examine the immediate impact of divorce or separation. They fail to analyse how this can affect the children within the family, and how the role of fundamental factors, such as family conflict can play a vital part when attaining educational achievement. Rodgers and Pryor (1998) support this view and argue "greater understanding of the way that short-term distress relates to longer term outcomes" (Rodgers and Pryor, 1998; p. 4) needs to be established comprehensively to aid the study of single parent families.

Furthermore, the 'academic' literature analysed use various studies, where the researcher acknowledges all the apparent variables that can affect an adolescent's educational attainment. However, it has been criticised by many practitioners that it is almost impossible to control or monitor all the variables or factors that can impact a child in a single parent family structure (Hill, et al, 2004). For example, it is very hard to monitor the different levels of stresses, emotional impacts on behaviour, all factors limiting education, etc, amongst the adolescents under study. Thus, this can connote, the study of educational achievement of adolescents from single parent families will not be a 100 per cent factual and applicable to most or all children from single parent households.

Data Collection and Analysis Methods

A lot of 'academic' studies on single parenthood use quantitative methods of data collection and analysis to produce their studies, which include methods such as, closed questionnaires, closed interviews, statistical data, etc. Quantitative methods;

"is a way of thinking based on the assumption that it is possible to observe social life and establish reliable, valid knowledge about how it works. Such knowledge can then be used to affect the course of social change and improve the human condition" (Johnson, 2000; p.231).

Some sociologists hold the belief that quantitative research methods are vital in studies, in order to compare data and make strong viable conclusions. The use of quantitative research methods in the study of single parenthood can be beneficial, as quantitative data is perceived to be specific and reliable, indicating, the studies that use this research method hold reasonable validity (Johnson, 2000). Some sociologists propose that sociology should ultimately aim to become a ' science of society', implementing scientific research processes and tackling human behaviour in the same manner as scientists who study the natural world. They allege that this can only be accomplished by using quantitative research methods (Taylor et al, 1993).

However, although quantitative research methods may be viewed to be advantageous in research studies, there is one major counter method that defies its principles, known as; qualitative research methods. These methods include, observations, interviews, focus groups, etc, and are defined as studies; "in the form of words, rather than numbers..." (Matthew and Huberman, 1994; p.3). Sociologists who favour qualitative research methods argue quantitative methods are not relevant when studying society, as human behaviour cannot be quantified into numerical terms, neither can these behaviours be measured or compared. It can be argued that qualitative data is of higher importance when studying societal factors, such as single parent families, as they usually provide more detailed, more vital and greater depth of information. Therefore this type of data collection and analysis is more likely to portray a clear or true image of the way of life within single parent families; demonstrating the adolescent's experiences, beliefs and attitudes towards educational attainment.

Nevertheless, qualitative data is still criticised by many practitioners studying society and human behaviour, arguing; this type of research method lacks reliability and the sample of people used for studies cannot be representative of the whole of society (Bryman and Clarke, 2006). For example, many of the studies discussed within the 'academic' literature, use a small sample of adolescents (10 - 20 people) from single parent families to represent the whole population. However this is a very small sample, and a few selected people cannot verify the behaviour and educational attainment for all of the adolescents who live in single parent households, whom may even posses clear differences to the sample selected; such as differences in terms of ethnicity, culture, sex, etc. Statistics show, there are over 15 different types of ethnic groups in the UK [Refer to Appendix 5 - Ethnic Groups; Page 51]; thus a sample of merely British or African adolescents is not representative of the whole population in society, and ultimately, the study will lack reliability and validity (National Office for Statistics, 2008).

On the whole, both types of data collection and analysis appear to have different advantages and disadvantages, therefore sociologist have created the idea of using both qualitative and quantitative methodologies in research studies of society and human behaviour. They argue the combination of both can work well together to decrease the flaws within research studies; suggesting the advantages of both methods put together can outweigh the disadvantages of each single research method. Thus, by using both methods, researchers are more likely to be able to compare the results and identify any similarities or differences between data; providing them the increased likelihood of establishing a reliable study on the issue of single parenthood (Taylor et al, 1993).


Various sociological theories have been devised on the matter of single parent families, which will be analysed in this chapter, in order to get insight into the theorist's opinions and explanations of the differences in educational attainment.

Morgan and Becker's Theories

Sociological theorist, David Morgan (1994) proposes the idea that the rise in single parent families could be the result of changing relationships between men and women. He argues, the imperative factors causing the increase could consist of;

"the expectations that women and men have of marriage and the growing opportunities for women to develop a life for themselves outside marriage or long-term cohabitations" (Haralambos and Holon, 1995; p.350).

These expectations include individual ideas of what a marriage should consist of; a typical example of marital breakdown from unfulfilled expectations includes the lack of shared gender roles. This compromises the notion that both partners should have an occupational career as well as fulfil the duties of 'housework' (cooking, cleaning, etc), and when there is difficulties in accepting this shared gender role, separation can occur (McAlister et al, 1991). Although Morgan (1994) acknowledges that changing relationships can lead to separation, he fails to consider other factors in relationships that can also lead to their breakdown. For example, abusive relationships, changing values, adultery, etc.

Morgan (1994) also believes that there is substantial evidence to indicate that children from single parent families achieve less to those from nuclear family structures. However he refuses to clarify what exactly these differences include and what they are caused by, arguing; "we still do not know enough about what causes these differences" (Haralambos and Holon, 1995; p.351). He implies, like with the effects of financial difficulties, adolescents could also be affected by the stigma society can attach when an individual is being raised in a single parent family household. Morgan (1994) uses an example to support this theory; suggesting that it is feasible for school teachers to be more likely to attach a label to a child, as 'difficult', if they possess the knowledge that an adolescent lives in a single parent family structure (Taylor et al, 1993). Although Morgan (1994) provides a reasonable theory, he fails to explain how the label; 'difficult' could impact a child. He fails to acknowledge whether the child will perform less well in education because of such a label, or will it not have any considerable damaging effect.

Nevertheless Morgan's (1994) theory also supports Howard Becker's (1963) theory of 'labelling'. Becker argued, if someone is ascribed a negative label (such as being labelled as a failure) then he/she will fulfil the expectations of the label and continue to believe that they cannot achieve success, resulting into the 'self fulfilling prophecy', where a person lives up to their label (Taylor et al, 1993). Acknowledging Becker's theory one could argue, to label an adolescent form a single parent household as 'incapable', or 'intellectually inadequate' could result in that person not having the confidence in themselves to succeed in education. However, Becker (1963) also argues that a person may go against the negative label that they have been ascribed, to prove society wrong, hence this may result in a positive outcome in educational attainment (Taylor et al, 1993). So the question is whether the constant use of positive labels is as effective as a negative one.

In Morgan's (1994) opinions, it is complex to differentiate between the direct and indirect effects on adolescents living in a single parent family structure, therefore arguing, it is not feasible to make generalisations about such effects.

Functionalist Theories

Functionalist theorists, including Tallcot Parsons (1965) share the view that the social structure (the social organisation of society) is more vital than individuals; they prefer to look at how society affects an individual rather than looking at the individuals themselves. Functionalists argue individuals are the product of their social influences, such as their family, friends, media, etc (Taylor et al, 1993). Therefore the functionalist perspective can be used to argue adolescents are influenced by their social networks to perform well in education and not necessarily by their family structure. Many adolescents from single parent households may have regular contact with both parents, indicating that the adolescent's social network has not declined, therefore arguing their educational attainment is not affected. Also, the phrase 'single parent' may not always portray the level of contact between adolescents and their parents.

Murray's Theory of the Underclass

ome sociologists, such as Charles Murray (1989) go as far as to proclaim that single parenthood has contributed towards the generation of an entire new division in society, known as the 'underclass'. This refers to individuals who were defined by their inadequate behaviour specifically in America and in Britain, who are seen as a threat to society. According to Murray (1989) single parent families are commonly those who could not keep hold of a job, lived in 'littered' homes, 'ill' schooled their children and made up of juvenile delinquents. This view is his proposed explanation of the differences between single parent family households and two parent family structures (Haralambos and Holon, 1995). However, Murray's (1998) theory has been severely critics by many opposing sociologists, arguing that there is no evidence to support his claims and he makes assumptions when regarding single parent families; implying the 'underclass' only consists of single parent family households, and that 'juvenile delinquents' only refers to those who have been brought up by single parents. These labels can refer to an individual from any family structure and should not be used to marginalise the single parent families. Most sociologists do agree that single parenthood can cause problems for certain single parents, however they do not perceive this as a social problem as Murray (1989) does, instead they argue it is a symbol of social progress. For example, sociologists, Sarah McLanahan and Karen Booth (1989) believe;

"some view the mother-only family as an indicator of social disorganization, signalling the demise of the family. Others regard it as an alternative family form consistent with the emerging economic independence for women" (Haralambos and Holon, 1995; p.350).

For McLanahan and Booth (1989) the different forms of family structures, including single parent ones are not a threat to society, claiming that they can actually bring social progress to a contemporary society.

Bowlby's Attachment Theory

John Bowlby's (1988) attachment theory is a psychological analysis on relationships and behaviour between parents and their children. The fundamental point to his theory is that a child needs to develop a relationship with at least one parent or care provider for social, emotional and intellectual development to occur normally. He argues, during childhood the goal of the attachment behavioural system changes from closeness towards the parent/s to the availability of parents. In general, children are satisfied with longer periods of separations from their parents, provided contact is available and the knowledge that the non-residential parent can be physically contacted if needed (Eysenck and Flanagan, 2000). Bowlby's (1988) theory can be used to support the study of single parenthood, arguing that as long as a child develops a relationship with one parent or carer, their emotional, social and intellectual development can occur without any problems. Therefore, indicating that parental separation does not necessarily affect a child's academic development and success within education can still be achieved. Bowlby (1988) suggests that during later childhood, children accept situations where a parent may not be present for long periods and a usually satisfied with the new changes of circumstances. This connotes, children can successfully adapt to changes when parental separation occurs, therefore the impact of new changes may not have a negative effect on the children's development and intellectual success. Although this theory offered by Bowlby (1988) can support the study of single parenthood, it has not been evaluated and tested against this topic in hand; thus, there is no evidence to show that these connections suggested are substantially factual.

Also, Bowlby's (1988) attachment theory has been criticised by other practitioners of psychology and sociology, arguing it does not explain what a 'normal' social, emotional and intellectual development is. To use the word 'normal' is very vague, and different people may possess different opinions of what 'normal' defines; therefore, this suggests that aspects of Bolwby's (1988) theory is biased (Eysenck and Flanagan, 2000).

Ultimately, it is argued by many sociologists, that there is a lack of theory-based research on single parent families. Some practitioners or researchers have undertaken sociological theory and theoretical frameworks within their studies; however a minority have tested and evaluated these theories to bring about new or developed versions to support their study of single parenthood (Hanson et al, 1995). Although some sociologists make this claim, it can be contested, that many sociological theories have been created a very long time ago, for example, functionalist theories on single parenthood date back to 1965 (Taylor et al, 1993). Therefore, it is difficult to put these theories into a contemporary context with new and different issues constantly arising. Hence, one conclusion can be that the historical theories offered by sociologists no longer play a vital relevant role in the study of single parenthood in modern society.


After the write up of the study of single parent families, this is a comprehensive conclusion, compromising a brief summary of the research undertaken and a synopsis of independent conclusions made throughout the study. It also contains an outline for future work and study that can be implemented to develop the study of single parent families.


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 nuclear and single parent families is fairly insignificant and adolescents will predominantly, not be affected in terms of educational achievement and occupational success.

In comparison to adolescents living in nuclear families, the resulting consequences of a range of factors are generally more negative for adolescents who experience their parents' marital breakdown. For example, those adolescents are more likely to fail academically, leave home early and bring up children during teenage years.

Conversely, the differences are moderately small, with many adolescents who are not affected through family breakdown. Research findings actually show that some adolescents benefit from parental separation, predominantly those who have experienced abuse or violence, and where a household comprises of higher levels of parental conflict.

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. There is evident research that shows adolescents from dysfunctional (conflict between family members) nuclear families fared less well in education than those from single parent families. Financial difficulties and disordered parenting can play a vital role in the negative impacts on the outcomes for adolescents living in all different types of family structures. Therefore, it is necessary to evade the risk of stigmatising various family structures, in particular, single parent families, that are prone to negative stigmas. Instead, the focus should be on underlying factors that can contribute to the academic failure of some adolescents.

Various sociological theories have also been devised on the matter of single parent families, which can be used in context with the topic in hand. However, there is a lack of theory-based research on single parent families. Some practitioners or researchers have undertaken sociological theory and theoretical frameworks within their studies; however a minority have tested and evaluated these theories to bring about new or developed versions to support their study of single parenthood. Also, some sociological theories offered by sociologists are very back dated; hence, they may no longer play a vital relevant role in the study of single parenthood in modern society.

Future Work

There are some gaps in the study of single parenthood, which can enable the consideration of future work to be conducted.

As pointed out previously, there are a vast amount of reports, studies and literature on the topic of adolescent's

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