There were 7.7 million families with dependent children in the UK in 2012, 1 in 7 of which had three or more dependent children.
Married couples had a higher average number of dependent children in their family than other family types, at 1.8 children per family compared with 1.7 on average.
The UK has a higher percentage of households with three or more children than three-quarters of European Union countries.
Nearly 9 in 10 couple families with three or more dependent children had either one or both parents working.
This report analyses families in the UK by the number of dependent1 children they have, with a particular focus on those with three or more dependent children. It examines trends over time, where such families live and their economic activity. The statistics for 2012 were first published in November 2012, but this analysis is new.
The statistics are used to help the public, government and researchers understand how many children families have living with them and the possible reasons behind the current trends.
The graphic shows the percentage of families in the UK with one, two or ‘three or more’ dependent children in 1996 and 2012. These are the earliest and latest years for which comparable figures are available. In 2012 there were 7.7 million families with dependent children. The most common number of children was one (3.7 million families), while 3.0 million had two dependent children and 1.1 million had three or more.
It appears that families are getting smaller as the percentage of families who have one dependent child has increased by five percentage points, from 42% in 1996 to 47% in 2012. Meanwhile the percentage of families with three or more has decreased by three percentage points to 14%.
It is important to note that these figures represent the current situation of families at a snapshot in time. Families may go on to have more children later, may have non-dependent (adult) children living in the household, or may have children living elsewhere. For example, a family may have one dependent child aged 15, and a non-dependent (adult) child aged 19 living with them, so they would be counted as a family with one dependent child here.
The graphic also shows the average number of dependent children different types of families had. Married or civil partnered couples had a higher average number of dependent children in their families than other family types, at 1.791 dependent children per family compared with 1.71 for all families. Meanwhile lone parent families had 1.59 dependent children on average, lower than other family types, and cohabiting couples had an average of 1.62. These patterns are likely to reflect whether there is a partner living in the household and the stability of parental partnerships. Previous research has indicated that marital partnerships are more stable than cohabiting partnerships2.
The age of parents is also a factor as previous analysis3 has shown that married couples tend to be older on average than cohabiting couples so are more likely to have finished having children. This is partly because some couples cohabit, have children and then marry when children are older. Similarly, lone parents may move into a cohabiting relationship, and then marry, having more children at either of these latter stages.
A different source of data, the General Lifestyle Survey, which provides a longer time series, shows that families with dependent children in Great Britain had 2.0 children on average in 1971. Although not directly comparable with the UK figure of 1.7 for 2012 and 1.8 for 1996, this suggests the average number of dependent children per family has fallen by around 0.3 since 1971.
The map shows the percentage of families with dependent children who have three or more dependent children in local authorities in England and Wales according to the 2011 Census. Across England and Wales as a whole, 16% of families with dependent children had three or more. Higher proportions of families with three or more children can be found in London, parts of the West Midlands, including Birmingham, and parts of the North West, including Bradford.
This may be related to the ethnicities of people living in these areas, as previous research1 has shown that fertility rates in the UK are higher among women born in Bangladesh and Pakistan than women born in the UK.
The local authorities with the three highest percentages of families with three or more dependent children (Tower Hamlets, Newham and Birmingham) are also local authorities with high percentages of people of Pakistani or Bangladeshi ethnicity2. For example in Tower Hamlets, 28% of families with dependent children had three or more, and here a third of people had Pakistani or Bangladeshi ethnicity – the highest percentage of all local authorities in England and Wales. For comparison, across England and Wales, 3% of people had Bangladeshi or Pakistani ethnicity.
Aside from the City of London and Isles of Scilly, which have small numbers of families, the local authorities with the lowest percentages of families with three or more children are North Tyneside, South Tyneside and County Durham.
The graphic shows that in 2012, 95% of couple families with one or two dependent children had one or both parents1 working, compared with 87% of couple families with three or more dependent children. Similarly, 62% of lone parents with one or two dependent children were working compared with 38% of lone parents with three or more dependent children. So families with one or two dependent children are more likely to have at least one employed parent than those with three or more dependent children. This illustrates the greater challenge of combining work with childcare with three or more children compared with one or two.
The graphic also shows that living with a partner makes it easier to work and to share childcare responsibilities. 62% of lone parents with one or two children were employed in 2012, whereas 95% of couple families with one or two dependent children have at least one parent in employment. Previous research2 has shown that as the age of the youngest child in the family increases, so does the opportunity for the mother in the family to be in work and the gap narrows between the employment rates for mothers with a partner living in the household, and those without a partner.
Comparisons with other countries are not straight forward due to different definitions of children but provide an indication of how the UK compares internationally. The chart shows the percentage of households which contain three or more children. Using this source of data, dependent children are those aged less than 18, plus economically inactive 18-24 year olds living with at least one parent. This definition is slightly wider than that used in the rest of this report1.
The graph indicates that around 15% of households with dependent children in the UK contain three or more children, compared with a European average of 11%. In fact around three-quarters of European Union countries have a lower proportion of three or more dependent children than the UK and those countries with higher proportions are predominantly in north western Europe. The patterns in the chart are consistent with current fertility levels which are generally lower in southern, central and eastern Europe.
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