Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Does Family Policy Environment Moderate the Effect of Single-Parenthood on Children's Academic Achievement? A Study of 14 European Countries

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Does Family Policy Environment Moderate the Effect of Single-Parenthood on Children's Academic Achievement? A Study of 14 European Countries

Article excerpt


In recent years, several large studies have compiled rich comparative data on the family policy environments in Europe (see, for example, Bradshaw et al., 1996; Clearinghouse, 2001). However, few international studies on family policy make the link between family policy environments and child outcomes (for exceptions see Phipps, 1999; Pong, Dronkers, & Hampden-Thompson, 2003). This paper seeks to compare 14 countries across the continent of Europe to understand the importance of family policy environments on the educational achievement outcomes of children from single-parent homes. We focus on young children about nine-years-of-age who are in grade levels equivalent to British Year Five. Our main objective is to examine if the effects of single-parenthood on a child's educational achievement are diminished or exacerbated by the context of family and welfare policymaking within national boundaries.


Consistent with all western, industrialized countries, an increase in divorce and births outside of wedlock has resulted in a rapid increase in me number of single-parent families in Europe (Commaille & de Singly, 1997; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994). Between 1960 and 1990, the divorce rate in most of these countries had doubled and, in some cases, increased fourfold (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994). Thus, the importance of single-parenthood has increased significantly over time. Indeed, the concern about single parenting has generated much debate in some European nations, subsequently leading to welfare reform in the 1990s in several countries, including Iceland, the Netherlands and United Kingdom.

Despite the upward trend of single-parenthood in Europe, the proportion of single-parent families varies from country to country. In the United Kingdom, only one parent heads 23 percent of all families with dependent children. This represents a 94 percent increase in single-parent families from 1983 to 1996. For Portugal, Netherlands, Ireland, and Austria the figures are 12 percent, 11 percent, 13 percent, 7 percent, and 14 percent, respectively. For the entire European Union the percentage increase of single-parent families is over 50 percent for the same 13-year period (Eurostat, 1998). In some countries, childbearing out of wedlock is a major cause of the increase in single-parenthood, and unmarried mothers who may or may not be cohabitating head many single-parent families. In Austria, 49 percent of single mothers have never been married, while in the United Kingdom this figure stands at 38 percent.

The Effect of Single-Parenthood on Educational Outcomes

Due to the increasing trend of single-parent families, particularly those headed by women, researchers and policymakers are concerned if children are at an educational disadvantage in these homes. In the U.S., some researchers have found that living in a single-parent family does not impair the achievement levels of the children living within this structure (Coontz, 1995; Desai, Chase-Landsdale, & Michael, 1989), but many others have concluded that there is a detrimental effect (Amato & Keith, 1991 ; Astone & McLanahan, 1991 ; Beller & Chung, 1992; Biblarz & Gottainer, 2000; Borgers, Dronkers, & Van Praag, 1996; Entwisle & Alexander, 1995; Kiernan, 1992; McLanahan, 1994; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994; Myers, Milne, Baker, &Ginsburg, 1987;Pong, 1998; Zill, 1996). Children from single-parent families are more likely to drop out of high school, less likely to attend college, have a lower grade point average, perform less well on standardized tests, and are more likely to display behavioral problems (Amato, 1987; Beller & Chung, 1992; Biblarz & Gottainer, 2000; McLanahan, 1994; Pong & Ju, 2000).

In Europe, single-case studies began in the early 1980s. A study in Switzerland compared the educational and occupational life course of children from single-parent and two-parent homes, and found lower educational attainment and earlier transition to work for children from single-parent families (Oggenfuss, 1984). …

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