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For all the talk of ‘opportunity’ at the various party conferences, let’s not forget that Britain has one of the very lowest rates of social mobility anywhere in the western world. If you are born poor in this country, then compared to our European neighbours, you are more likely to stay poor.

But why? What drives the transmission of poverty from generation to generation? A recent report from the Office for National Statistics, provides some important evidence – by statistically untangling the individual contributions of the different causal factors.

Of those that were assessed, educational failure comes at the top the list:

“Educational attainment has the largest impact on the likelihood of being in poverty and severely materially deprived as an adult, both in the UK and the other EU countries studied. Holding all else equal, in the UK, those with a low level of educational attainment are almost five times as likely to be in poverty now and 11 times as likely to be severely materially deprived as those with a high level of education.”

But what about other childhood factors such as the impact of growing up in a workless or materially deprived household?

“Growing up in a workless household also appears to have an impact on future poverty in the UK. Holding all else equal, those who lived in a workless household at age 14 are around 1.5 times as likely to be in poverty compared with those where one adult was working.”

However, childhood experience of poverty (of the financial variety) does not, of itself, appear to be a driver of poverty in later life:

“An individual’s assessment of their childhood household financial situation is not a significant predictor of poverty and material deprivation in the UK once educational attainment is accounted for. This suggests that household income during childhood mainly impacts future life chances through the educational attainment of the child.”

So, if it is mainly about educational failure, then what accounts for that? Again, the ONS crunched the numbers and found that the factor most associated with low educational attainment in children is low educational attainment among their parents – especially their fathers:

“The father’s level of education has the largest impact on the likelihood of low educational attainment in the UK out of the factors examined. Holding all else equal, people are 7.5 times more likely to have a low educational outcome themselves if their father had a low level of education, compared with having a highly educated father.”

The impact here was many times greater than the impact of household finances. Therefore, in trying to break the cycle of deprivation we need to remember that it isn’t financial poverty being transmitted from generation to generation, but educational failure:

“Across the EU as a whole, there is a high degree of persistence of educational attainment between generations. In 2011, among those aged 25-59 whose parents had a low level of education, 34% had a low level themselves. By comparison, 8% of those whose parents had a medium level of education and 3% of those whose parents had a high level of education had a low level themselves…”

In a way, that 34 per cent figure is encouraging. It suggests that the transmission of educational failure, though of huge significance, is not inevitable.

Yesterday, in Birmingham Nicky Morgan’s speech contained some material on what the Government has done to improve educational outcomes for the poorest children. However, after George Osborne’s harsh rhetoric on benefits, an opportunity was missed to make the education agenda the centrepiece of a new crusade against poverty.

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