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.

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