How divorced parents perceive their children's schooling


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Family Matters article

November 1990


Findings from the Australian Institute of Family Studies' Parents and Children after Marriage Breakdown (PCMB) study has provided an opportunity to assess the views of parents on the effect of their separation upon their children's education. The majority of parents interviewed felt that marriage breakdown had not affected their children's education. Of those who noted effects, non-resident parents were more worried about type and level of school, interest, competence and opportunities than were resident parents. Resident parents were more concerned about financing education. Parents were largely pleased with school performance, but rated the performance of their daughters higher than that of their sons.

Christine Millward, AIFS Research Assistant, reports on findings from a major Institute study which gauge the feelings of divorced parents about their children's schooling

Both overseas and Australian research has shown marriage breakdown to have certain adverse effects upon children's education. For example, Keith and Finlay (1988) found lower school achievement levels following marriage breakdown, and Kilmartin and Wulff (1984) noted younger school leaving age and restricted workforce opportunities.

These trends have been explained by Amato (1988) in terms of poverty or 'downward social mobility', with its stigmatising effect and restrictions upon educational and, subsequently, workforce opportunities. Other research (Nock 1988) has argued that 'father absence', or lack of an 'authority prototype' in female headed households, contributes to poorer performance.

Yet other explanations for lowered educational success centre around the emotional adjustments required by the marriage breakdown itself and its effect upon the child's self- confidence. Bisnaire, Firestone and Rynard (1990) suggested a relationship between school performance and the amount of contact with the 'absent' parent. Pre-separation school performance levels were maintained when contact was at least seven days per month but fell when contact was only around two days per month.

According to Kaye (1989), boys' schooling is more likely to suffer than girls' following marriage breakdown; indeed, any adverse effects for girls may be temporary only. He found that immediately after parental separation both male and female primary school children had poorer test scores than other children, but five years later, only the boys were still performing at the lower level.

In explaining gender differences, Bisnaire and colleagues (1990) refer to research which indicates that boys become more emotionally maladjusted after marriage breakdown than girls. It is also suggested by Kaye (1989) that 'father absence' leads to disruptive classroom behaviour more for boys than for girls. However, Connell (1982) contends that, due to gender bias, Australian parents and teachers can have different expectations of boys and girls and might be more sensitive to changes observed in boys, regardless of overall performance levels.

AIFS Study of Marriage Breakdown


This analysis examines how parents feel about the effect of their separation upon their children's education. Do their views reflect the negative pictures suggested by previous research? Findings from the Institute's study, Parents and Children after Marriage Breakdown (PCMB), provide an opportunity to assess the subjective views of parents.

The PCMB study looked at families five to eight years after parental separation. Reports were from 289 mothers and 234 fathers, interviewed in 1987. All had been legally divorced in either 1981 or 1983, had been married for five to fourteen years and had two children. In 1987, these children ranged in age from 8 to 22 years, with an average age of about 13 years for the younger and about 15 years for the elder of the two children concerned. Ninety-five per cent of the younger siblings were in full-time education (with 53 per cent still in Primary school) and 84 per cent of the elder siblings were in full-time education (with 23 per cent still in Primary school). About 29 per cent of the parents interviewed had been previously married to each other and so were reporting on the same two children; however, no significant difference was found between their opinions and the opinions of the rest of the sample.

Parents were asked about the effect of marriage breakdown on the type of school the child attended or would attend, the level of education achieved or expected to be achieved, the child's interest in school and his or her general competence, overall school performance and educational opportunities. They were also asked to indicate other factors which had affected their children's education and their expectations regarding future financial support for the children to upper secondary or tertiary levels.

It should be noted that, first, only divorced people were interviewed, thus excluding comparison with parents from 'intact' families, and second, the findings are based solely upon parental perceptions and not actual performance measures. These sample characteristics affect comparisons with other research.

The findings were very similar for both children, and for ease of reporting, parental views about the elder child only are presented here.

This preliminary analysis considered who the children actually lived with - the 'resident' as opposed to the 'non- resident' parent. Resident parents included those who had only one of the two children living with them and those whose children lived approximately 50 per cent of the time with each parent. Most of the resident parents were mothers and nearly all of the non-resident parents were fathers. What differences did involvement with the non- resident parent (via access visits and holidays), financial status, maintenance payments and family type (household composition) make to parents' views of their children's school performance and opportunities?

Overall Effects on Education

Despite the problems suggested by some previous research, in this study nearly three-quarters of all parents indicated that the marriage breakdown had no effect upon the aspects of education listed - that is, school type, level of education, child's interest in school, child's general competence and educational opportunities. Also, between 75 and 98 per cent of parents reported no effect upon their children's education on a range of factors including income, responsibility for other children, encouragement from step-parents, influence of child's friends, or economic difficulties at the time of separation. Finally, nearly 70 per cent of all parents rated their children's school performance as 'good', 'very good' or 'excellent', with only 30 per cent rating it as 'average' or 'below average'.

Why were the PCMB parents fairly positive, despite the breakdown of their marriages? One of the inadequacies in the literature is that many studies treat 'intact' families as a homogeneous group and do not take into account any school problems which may arise when family conflict is high. It is understandable that parents whose conflicts eventually led to separation might see their separated status as making little difference to school performance in the long run. Furthermore, it is difficult to distinguish a child's current performance from his or her past school history.

Where there were perceived effects, differences of opinion were examined in the light of resident status (who the children lived with) and contact visits (access) with the non- resident parent, and in the light of family finances.

Contact with non-resident parent

It was found that non-resident parents were more likely than resident parents to be worried about their child's school type, level, interest, competence and opportunities. Opinions did not vary with repartnering or household composition.

Why were non-residents more negative? Could it be because a greater percentage of resident parents reported making the decision to separate in the first place, and so were more inclined to deny any ill-effects upon the children, whereas non-residents may have wished to lay blame for what they saw as subsequent problems?

This scenario was not found to be the case; for both resident and non- resident parents, there was virtually no difference of opinion between those who participated in the decision to separate and those who did not. Thus, in the context of children's education, blame or denial did not appear to influence views five to eight years after the actual marital separation.

According to Bisnaire and colleagues (1990), we would expect that where a child's contact with the non-resident parent was minimal, school performance would be lower, which could be reflected by parental concern. Parents reporting high contact (frequent overnight, weekends, holidays) indeed rated school performance more favourably than those who reported only low contact. Surprisingly, parents reporting no visits were also inclined to rate school performance a little higher. Possible reasons for such feelings need to be probed more deeply in future analysis.

According to Amato (1988), we might expect children in one-parent households to have problems at school owing to limited financial resources. This could be reflected by 'single' (unrepartnered) resident parents feeling particularly worried about education. However, not just single parents, but resident parents in general were more likely than non- resident parents to feel their income had had an adverse effect upon their child's education. Here, it should be noted that many resident parents had, of course, spent some time since separation as a single parent, before repartnering.

Financial circumstances

There were no significant differences of opinion about school performance between upper and lower income groups relative to the Henderson Povery Line. High income resident parents were likely to feel the type of school their child attended had been adversely affected. Low income parents in general were likely to feel their child's interest in school had increased, which seems to contradict the negativity of the 'downward social mobility' research. Overall, though, household income was not a very important factor in influencing parental views. When comparing the views of parents who were financially better off with those who were worse off, following marriage breakdown (as calculated by Weston 1989), no differences of opinion were found.

Regarding future financial support, only 36 per cent of resident parents expected their ex-spouse to support the child to finish high school, and 21 per cent expected financial support for tertiary study. Around 60 per cent of non-resident parents said they would provide future financial support for continuing education, but those who had repartnered and had new children or a stepfamily were less likely to suggest this. Where there was little or no contact between the child and non-resident parent, all parents were inclined to feel that future support was even less likely. This agrees with Funder (1989) who concluded that a 'continuing' relationship between the non- resident parent, and children is 'associated with ongoing financial support', (p.59). There was generally a great deal of uncertainty regarding the ex-spouse's future support, with around 18 per cent of all parents being uncertain regarding upper high school and around 30 per cent being uncertain regarding tertiary levels. This uncertainty factor seems important, especially regarding future tertiary studies, with unrepartnered resident parents and those non-resident parents with new children or stepchildren being the most uncertain groups. Indeed, Funder (1989) stresses the importance of ongoing support for adolescents who could be 'put at risk' as they enter tertiary study, (p.60).

To further probe this question of financial obligations, certain other questions were analysed. It was found that, first, only 7 per cent of all parents interviewed had discussed the financial support of children beyond the age of 18 years. Second, 82 per cent of parents felt it was the resident parent's duty to support dependent children over the age of 18 years, but only 55 per cent felt it was the non-resident parent's duty. Given these findings, it is quite possible that planning for future education might be restricted.

Maintenance payment was also considered as a possible influence upon parental opinions. Where no maintenance was paid, parents felt that future support from the non- resident parent was very unlikely. Also, they rated school performance a little higher where maintenance was being paid, although the actual amount paid did not seem an important factor. This is not surprising, since most weekly payments had stayed around a low $20 to $30 per child for several years (Harrison 1988).

Effects on Girls and on Boys

Of further interest were some differences of opinion about the schooling of girls and boys. Of the 30 per cent or so of parents who felt their children had been affected, resident parents were more likely than non-resident parents to feel that the marriage breakdown had actually benefitted their daughters' school level, interest, competence and opportunities. Non- resident parents were likely to feel that their sons' interest in school had declined and that the competence of both sons and daughters had suffered.

The overall trend was for there to be more concern about the effects of marriage breakdown on boys', rather than girls' education. Both resident and non-resident parents rated girls' school performance higher than boys'. An important question, though, is whether or not parents also do this in 'intact' families. It is not possible to conclude, at this stage, that parents' differing views stem from the marriage breakdown. However, these preliminary findings do appear to support Kaye's (1989) finding that only boys' performance levels were still suffering five years after parental separation.


The majority of parents felt that marriage breakdown had not affected their children's education. Of those who noted effects, non-resident parents were more worried about type and level of school, interest, competence and opportunities than were resident parents. The latter, however, were more concerned about financing education, especially where no maintenance arrangements existed. On the whole, there was a lot of uncertainty about future financial support. Regular contact with the non-resident parent seemed to promote positive views about the children's education. Finally, parents were mainly pleased with school performance, but rated the performance of their daughters higher than that of their sons.


  • Amato, P. (1988), 'Long-term implications of parental divorce for adult self-concept', Journal of Family Issues, Vol.9, No.2, June.
  • Bisnaire, L., Firestone, P. and Rynard, D. (1990), 'Factors associated with academic achievement in children following parental separation', American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol.60, No.1, January.
  • Connell, R. (1982), Making the Difference, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.
  • Funder, K. (1989), 'Financial support and relationships with children', Child Support Evaluation Scheme Study Report No.6, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne, August.
  • Harrison, M. and McDonald, P. (1988), 'Parents and children after marriage breakdown: the price of child maintenance', Bicentenary Family Law Conference, Business Law Education Centre.
  • Kaye, S. (1989), 'The impact of divorce on children's academic performance', Journal of Divorce, Vol.12, No.3.
  • Keith, V. and Finlay, B. (1988), 'The impact of parental divorce on children's educational attainment, marital timing, and likelihood of divorce', Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol.50, August.
  • Kilmartin, C. and Wulff, M. (1984), 'Educational and labour force participation of Australian young people living in two- and one-parent families', Journal of the Australian Population Association, Vol.1, Spring.
  • Nock, S. (1988), 'The family and hierarchy', Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol.50, November.
  • Weston, R. (1989), 'After separation: financial wellbeing of children and parents', Family Matters, Australian Institute of Family Studies, No.26, April, pp.25-27.