Children of single parents ‘marginalised’ in higher education

Offspring of lone parents are an overlooked group in widening participation, study suggests

April 7, 2016
Person laden with children's presents, Westfield shopping centre
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The children of single parents are marginalised and must overcome expectations of failure to succeed in higher education, according to a study.

Research by Jessica Gagnon, who recently completed a PhD at the University of Sussex, suggests that the offspring of lone parents are an overlooked group in widening participation and student support.

While US studies have found that such children are less likely to enter higher education and to gain a degree, few quantitative studies of this kind have been carried out in the UK.

At the conference of the British Sociological Association on 7 April, Dr Gagnon was due to present the results of interviews with 26 daughters of single mothers, which suggest that similar challenges may exist in the UK.

When Dr Gagnon asked her interviewees what they thought society expected of the daughters of single mothers, the typical response tended to follow negative stereotypes: that they would become single mothers themselves, be unemployed and have children by different fathers.

“It does have an impact, because if…the media says that you’re a scrounger and you’re no good, then you can…take that on board,” one interviewee told Dr Gagnon, who is herself the daughter of a single mother.

This view was widely held despite Dr Gagnon’s subjects becoming children of single parents by a variety of routes, including the death of a father.

It was a “big accomplishment” for the daughters of single mothers simply to enter university, Dr Gagnon told Times Higher Education.

“It’s hard to develop aspirations for higher education if people think you are going to be unemployed,” she said.

Dr Gagnon argued that obstacles remain when daughters of single mothers do make it into higher education, with some of her interviewees describing their reluctance to tell peers about their background in an environment that was regarded as a “middle class thing” for people “from a nuclear family”.

When classmates did find out that Dr Gagnon’s subjects were from single parent families, the reaction was often one of surprise.

“They’re like: ‘Oh, I didn’t realise. You don’t seem…messed up. You don’t seem damaged’,” one interviewee said.

Dr Gagnon argued that the daughters of single mothers felt pressure to succeed for the sake of other students from a similar background.

“There is an extra burden for them to prove themselves worthy of higher education and to prove that their background is not as relevant as people seem to think,” she said. “That extra pressure can be a driving force for some but can be limiting for some.”

In the UK, widening participation and student support efforts, such as mentoring and additional induction arrangements, tend to focus on social class, ethnicity and disability. But Dr Gagnon argued that the children of single parents should be considered too, especially as they represent one in four under-18s.

“We need to recognise that there are certain students coming to university without the same choices and understanding as their peers,” she said. “Trying to level that playing field so they have an equal experience and can finish their degree should not be a hard ask.”

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