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The Complexity of Community and Family Influences on Children's Achievement in New Zealand: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES)

Publication Details

This report is one of a series of best evidence syntheses commissioned by the Ministry of Education. It is part of a commitment to strengthen the evidence base that informs education policy and practice in New Zealand . It aims to contribute to an ongoing evidence-based discourse amongst policy makers, educators, government agencies, researchers and communities.

Author(s): Fred Biddulph, Jeanne Biddulph and Chris Biddulph

Date Published: June 2003

 DOWNLOAD: The BES is available to download on this page under "Downloads/Links".

Contact us: For more information contact us at best.evidence@minedu.govt.nz or visit the BES home page. 

Executive Summary

The influences of families/whanau and communities are identified as key levers for high quality outcomes for diverse children. Outcomes include both social and academic achievement. The focus is on children from early childhood through to the end of secondary schooling. This best evidence synthesis, based on a wide range of New Zealand data (and cautiously informed by a number of overseas studies), has produced findings which have been summarised into four categories. These are family attributes, family processes, community factors, and centre/school, family and community partnerships. The findings are relatively complex. They endeavour to identify what applies to whom and in what circumstances.

1. Family attributes

  • Ethnicity and culture are linked to children’s achievement. Overall, Pakeha and Asian children have consistently higher achievement than Māori and Pasifika children. However, this finding is confounded by socioeconomic status (SES); the families of most Māori and Pasifika children occupy the lower levels of the SES scale (including the poverty level) and these children also make up a disproportionate number of those in low-decile schools.
  • The data clearly show that, overall, low SES children have significantly lower achievement than middle and high SES children. The evidence also suggests that parental income during the early years of childhood (0 – 5 years) can affect children’s achievement throughout their primary schooling. Children from low income families tend to score lower than other children on some competencies at age 10 years – regardless of whether the family income improves during the children’s primary school years. This lower level of achievement is related to various factors outlined below in this summary, but is not inevitable; it can be changed, especially if early support is available (see Category 4 below).
  • Levels of human and material resources available within families are also linked to children’s achievement. Overall, children who live in families (a) with high levels of parental (especially maternal) education, knowledge of appropriate pedagogy, and knowledge and ability to access other resources, and (b) which provide study facilities, computers and resources for wider educational experiences, have higher achievement than children whose families do not have these resources. However, the evidence also identifies alternative means of providing some of these resources. (See Categories 3 and 4 below.)
  • Home language is related to children’s achievement. Overall, children whose home language is English have higher achievement in institutions where English is the medium of communication than do children whose home language is other than English.
  • Family structure, and changes in family type, in themselves, do not necessarily have a significant impact on achievement. The quality of family ties, and the resources available to children and parents, are more important than family structure. Family structure is not as important as the effect of adverse outcomes when changes occur in family structure (e.g. separation, or death of a parent), which limit the ability of families to invest time and resources into their children’s development. Long-term adverse outcomes of separation/divorce apply to only a minority of children, but these children are twice as likely as their peers from intact families to experience a range of behavioural, medical and academic difficulties.
  • Frequent mobility may be detrimental to child outcomes, and children who have attended four or more schools by age 10 seem to achieve less well than others on some academic and social measures. New Zealand school child mobility is very high by international standards, with segments of the Māori population being especially mobile.
  • Low SES children are much more likely to experience chronic health problems and lower levels of well-being. Some of the legacies of family adversity (and negative parenting attitudes and practices) include emotional and psychological distress, behaviour disorders, cognitive disadvantage and delinquency. In terms of children’s physical health, there are very strong links between hearing loss and an individual child’s achievement, particularly with respect to social behaviour and language development.

2. Family processes

  • Regardless of ethnic or SES background, families with high levels of educational expectations have the most positive effects on their children’s achievement at senior school level. The evidence indicates that most parents are prepared to help their children as well as their resources permit.
  • Parental choice of school for their child(ren) – with the possible exception of parents choosing to send their child(ren) to a kura kaupapa Māori school – does not seem to be linked to children’s achievement, although there is some evidence to suggest that when low SES children attend a school in a high SES area, they achieve at a higher level than they would if they attended a school in a low SES neighbourhood. This seems to be partly a function of teacher expectations rather than SES location. However, the evidence indicates that some schools in low SES neighbourhoods can facilitate high achievement.
  • Dysfunctional family processes (e.g. conflict, substance abuse, child abuse, negative modelling, disturbed parent-child relationships, deprivation of stimulation and affection) can affect children’s performance and behaviour. Children in such family circumstances are at increased risk of hyperactivity, truancy, mental health disorders (and suicide), delinquency, and low levels of literacy and self-esteem. There is some evidence that by age 15 years about 20% of New Zealand children have experienced some kind of mental health disorder. The data also show that the youth suicide rate in New Zealand is 2.5 times greater for Māori than non-Māori.
  • With respect to television viewing, the synthesis provides two main findings. Children aged 5-16 years who watch television for less than 3-4 hours daily have significantly higher achievement than children whose viewing exceeds this. Moderate amounts of viewing can have positive influences on children’s development in terms of stimulation of curiosity, creativity and language development, particularly if constructive interaction occurs with parents or significant others during the viewing.
  • Rich home learning environments (including positive contact and interaction with extended family/whanau), and especially varied language and literacy experiences (oral and written), together with meaningful mathematics experiences, are associated with higher achievement.

3. Community factors

  • Social networks (e.g. Pasifika church connections, Māori cultural connections) provide important opportunities for children’s further learning, particularly the development of cultural identity and sense of belonging that contributes to children’s feelings of well-being. Social networks also provide crucial support for parents as they endeavour to increase the family’s cultural capital (e.g. by adding further pedagogical strategies to their repertoire – see Category 4 below) in order to raise their children’s achievement.
  • Peer groups, especially at secondary school level, can profoundly influence children’s achievement. They can do so in positive ways, or in negative ways. Their influence can override parental expectations, and can also promote mediocre educational norms.
  • When parents and children can access local community institutions (e.g. libraries, medical facilities) and social agencies (e.g. to receive income entitlements) children’s achievement can be enhanced beyond the level which schools alone can accomplish.
  • The synthesis yields two additional findings relating to the influence of the media. Firstly, the evidence is inconclusive about the effects of viewing violence on television and in video games. Secondly, popular culture in the form of radio, television and video programmes, and films results in the development of shared scripts across the cultures that constitute New Zealand society. These scripts can provide a meaningful basis for enhancing children’s achievement. The evidence indicates that the full potential of television and video for children’s educational development is yet to be realised.
  • Community messages about gender can have positive or negative effects depending on the ways in which they are played out (e.g. they can contribute to positive gender identity, but they can also result in boys avoiding subjects perceived by them as ‘feminine’, such as literature, music and drama).
  • The use of meaningful community contexts and resources to enhance achievement remains to be investigated.

4. Centre/school, family and community partnerships

  • Integrated or comprehensive programmes that address the real needs of parents and children, especially in children’s early years (0 – 5 years), can significantly improve children’s achievement. Such programmes may be offered through a local centre, or in the home, or both.
  • Incorporating school-like activities into family activities, through providing parents with access to both additional pedagogical knowledge and information about finding and using local educational resources, can have dramatic and positive impacts on children’s achievement.
  • Genuine home/school collaboration can also lift children’s achievement significantly. The evidence shows effective ways in which schools can initiate such collaborative partnerships.
  • The provision of additional educational resources (such as children’s books) to families is also associated with greater achievement.
  • There is clear evidence that programmes such as those listed above depend for their success on families being treated with dignity and respect, on the programmes adding to family practices (not undermining them), on structured, specific suggestions rather than general advice, and on supportive group opportunities as well as opportunities for one-to-one contact (especially informal contact).

Related Pages on Education Counts

See BES (Iterative Best Evidence Synthesis) publication home page.

The BES (Iterative Best Evidence Synthesis) Programme home page provides detailed information about BES as well as links to national and international sites of interest. 

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