Keeping it in the family: how parents’ education shapes their children’s schooling

dingSome time ago I bookmarked a paper by Ruichang Ding, a researcher from Beijing Normal University. Applying advanced statistical methods to data from the OECD’s survey of adult skills, Ding tried to find out how far people’s success in education reflected the attainment levels of their parents.

Before summarising Ding’s findings, I want to make a point about method. In order to measure educational level, Ding had to resort to formal qualifications; while we have additional data for those who took part in the survey, there is no alternative when it comes to the parents. And while qualifications systems vary widely, the OECD surveyed adults aged 16-65 in 24 countries. In order to compare the results across countries, then, we have to use a standardised way of comparing qualifications, and Ding – reasonably enough – adopted the OECD’s own standard classification.

All that said, Ding’s findings are easy to summarise. First, as expected, he found that in all countries, today’s adults have better average qualifications than their parents. However, this gap varies considerably between different countries: the educational gap between generations is very low in Sweden and Finland, and very high in Spain and the Czech Republic, with England/Northern Ireland (Wales and Scotland chose not to join the survey) coming in above the average.

Second, he shows that in each case, the parents’ qualification levels are on average closely related to those of today’s adults. Once more, though, there are differences between nations. The relationship is closest in Slovakia and the USA, and weakest in Finland; the UK is among a group of countries (Ireland, France, Italy, Poland) that are clustered above average. Ding concludes from this that ‘intergenerational educational mobility in Finland would be relatively larger’, and correspondingly that it is rather low in the USA.

Third, and from my standpoint most interestingly, income inequality seems to be an important factor in explaining these patterns. Ding tests for other factors including poverty levels, levels of public spending on education, and average levels of wealth, and found no evidence of any correlation with intergenerational educational transmission. In the case of income inequality, Ding finds a very clear correlation: ‘countries with the high level of inequality had some of the lowest mobility’. Here, the UK and USA are marked by very high levels of income inequality and low levels of educational mobility.

I think this is an important paper which contributes to our understanding of social mobility and its constraints. The main findings support the argument of English researcher Andy Green, who with his colleagues has used different techniques to analyse the OECD survey data, coming to similar conclusions about educational inequalities. If we are to tackle these blockages to social mobility, then these findings suggest to me that investing in family learning for the least advantaged really should be a much higher priority than it is at present.


4 thoughts on “Keeping it in the family: how parents’ education shapes their children’s schooling

  1. Thinking of the impact of adult learning on the least mobile in the UK – say19+ – including ‘vocational’ and or ‘family’ learning or any other definable categorisations – are there any recent studies of impact on econ and social mobility? I wonder if the OECD stats could be used to examine this? I guess I’m thinking of those who are least mobile and any impact of adult learning post 19 on their econ and social mobility?

    • I don’t think that the OECD survey is a good source for any such study of contemporary trends. As the survey covered adults of working age, and includes information about their parents, it can only tell us about mobility rates for those who are adults now. In other words, the findings are about how educational transmission (or reproduction) occurred in the past.

      What I would love to see is an analysis of variation over time. Ding analysed the aggregate levels of educational mobility – but wouldn’t it be interesting to know whether mobility rates were higher among younger cohorts than for older age groups?

      • It would indeed. I guess I am thinking what sources of reputable data are there out there already that could be used to find out. I suspect none in the UK but I could well be wrong. Given the interest in mobility or lack of it and the hoped for benefit in England of Apprenticeships for economic mobility (and via Higher Apprenticeships into degree programmes, educational mobility) there are opportunities to find out. I can think of two large scale contexts where there may be political interest. But as I say, maybe there is work going on that I’m unaware of. As for Family Learning and other categories of adult learning, I did have a niace study quoted at me recently which claimed upward economic mobility for adults learning after compulsory education. There is scope here though I think for a larger study.

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