Journal of Social Policy

Secular Changes in the Association of Parental Divorce and Children's Educational Attainment – Evidence from Three British Birth Cohorts

M. ELY Research Associate a1 1 , M. P. M. RICHARDS Director a1, M. E. J. WADSWORTH Director a2 and B. J. ELLIOTT Research Fellow a3
a1 Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge
a2 MRC National Survey of Health and Development, University College Medical School, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, London
a3 Catherine Marsh Centre for Census and Survey Research, University of Manchester


This article examines the secular trends in the overall association of parental divorce (or separation) and children's educational attainment at school-leaving age during the period spanning a quarter of a century since the second world war in Britain. The study presents a reanalysis of data from the three British birth cohorts which studied children born in 1946, 1958 and 1970. Equivalent educational attainment at the different time points is defined relative to the population distribution at the time, using the median level. The relative risks (with 95 per cent confidence intervals) of lower than median educational attainment associated with parental divorce (or separation) are 1.3 (1.2 to 1.5), 1.4 (1.3 to 1.5) and 1.4 (1.3 to 1.5) for the three cohorts respectively. These results refute the commonly held opinion that the effects of divorce on children have attenuated with the increasing prevalence of divorce.


1 Acknowledgments: Margaret Ely was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, University of Cambridge. Data from the NCDS and British Cohort Study BCS70 16 Year Data was made available by the Economic and Social Research Council Data Archive, and thanks are due to the Cohort Studies Users support group at the Social Statistics Research Unit, City University.