April 6, 2022 - 7:15am

A new study published by Demographic Research has found that parental divorce had a larger impact than parental death on youth educational attainment.

Based on data drawn from 17 countries, the study shows that the negative effect of parental divorce on educational attainment appears to be stronger for the children of higher-educated parents. Why? Experiencing divorce may have a stronger impact on these children, as they have more to lose in terms of both financial and non-financial resources.

Meanwhile, lower-educated parents traditionally have relatively low “parental resources” to begin with, meaning the “drop-off” in resources resulting from divorce is less steep — the so-called “floor effect“.

These findings are especially important considering the revolution that in family structure has taken place in the UK over the last few decades. This was recognised by last year’s Sewell report authored by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED):

More accepting attitudes towards divorce and more autonomy for women has increased human freedom
 However, as these freedoms have grown, there is also greater stress on families and the prevalence of breakdown has increased.
- Sewell Report

In recent times, there has been a surge in divorces in modern-day Britain. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that in England and Wales, there was a total of 107,599 opposite-sex divorces in 2019 — an increase of 18.4% from the 2018 figure of 90,871. Divorce enquiries to British legal firms soared during the Covid-19 pandemic, with lockdowns and social distancing ending previous ‘separate’ routines and external leisure activities that served to mask underlying marital problems.

With family courts suspending operations over the course of the pandemic, Britain could be on the verge of a post-Covid divorce explosion — especially with the liberalising reforms on the horizon; in the biggest shake-up of England’s divorce laws for nearly half a century, no-fault divorces will come into force from today.

So there is a debate to be had over what the institution of marriage means to different sections of British society. Have the forces of market individualism reshaped the reality of marriage in Britain today? Individual freedom and personal self-interest can be very much at odds with more traditional understandings of marriage which are ultimately rooted in the value of self-sacrifice and the parental nurturing of the next generation. While these collectivistic framings of marriage continue to endure in some of Britain’s ethnic and religious minorities, they have been steadily eroded in the relatively secularised and atomised mainstream.

For decades that mainstream has consistently undervalued the negative impacts of divorce. The Demographic Research study confirms that parental divorce can be an incredibly traumatic experience for children. While it is admittedly sensitive territory, there now needs to be a frank national conversation on the risks of marital breakdown and the degree of public respect for marriage as a social institution with moral obligations.

Dr Rakib Ehsan is a researcher specialising in British ethnic minority socio-political attitudes, with a particular focus on the effects of social integration and intergroup relations.