03 September 2009

Children are focus of major new study

Colchester Campus

Academics at the Institute for Social and Economioc Research (ISER) are playing a key role in a major new study that will explore the differences in opportunities and achievements between children of well off and disadvantaged parents.

The cross-national study hopes to provide a better understanding of how family resources impact on a child’s life from a young age through early childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and adulthood. Ultimately it aims to provide useful clues about the structural differences between countries that impact on the relationship between how well off parents are and how well their children do.

The Russell Sage Study is the idea of three leading academics including ISER’s Professor John Ermisch and will receive a total of $900,000 in funding (from the Russell Sage Foundation, The Sutton Trust and The Pew Charitable Trusts). He said: “Many people believe that substantial inequalities in life’s outcomes are entirely acceptable, so long as every individual has an equal opportunity to succeed. But those who hold this view often overlook the possibility that inequality of outcomes in one generation may lead to inequality of opportunity in the next. Wealthy families can obviously afford to invest more in their children than poor families, and many of these investments – books, computers, private tutorials, trips, quality education from pre-school to graduate school – may enhance the development of skills that lead to future success in an increasingly competitive world. In these, and countless other ways, well off parents seek to transmit their advantages to their children. And, the greater the disparity between rich and poor, the greater the inequality in the advantages enjoyed by their children.”

The study, which involves 14 separate projects looking at ten different countries (see below), will fall into three categories. The first will analyse cross-national data collected on results in maths, science and reading tests at different ages; the second involves cross-country comparisons at a single developmental stage and the third is largely national in focus and will examine the link between the family background of parents compared with the skills their children have that will enable them to get on.

One of the 14 projects, funded by the Sutton Trust, will be undertaken by Dr Emilia Del Bono at ISER. Inequality in Achievements during Adolescence will look at the lives and educational achievements of children born 1989-90 and measure the differences between children from different social and economic backgrounds. Dr Del Bono said: “In relation to this first part of the project, the particular question we will be asking is if the differences in achievement between children from rich and poor backgrounds widen or stay the same as they move through secondary school.”

A second aspect of the project will look at the association between family background and achievements in maths and science in teenagers across a large number of developed countries. Here the research will focus on the association between indications of family background such as books in the home and maths and science scores for children aged around 13. It will compare across a range of countries but also across time by using longitudinal data from 2003 and 2007 and comparing with 1995 and 1999.

The ISER project will lead to the production of a policy paper for the Sutton Trust, which promotes social mobility through education and whose aim is to challenge educational inequality and prevent waste of talent. It will also feed into the larger Russell Stage Study, which will take 18 months to complete and result in a book to be edited by John Ermisch in collaboration with Tim Smeeding and Markus Jantii.

The ten countries are the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Italy, France, Germany, Finland, Denmark and Sweden.

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