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Generation 'why not?'

Australia's immigrant children are outperforming their parents by finishing school and going on to university at surprising rates, and are doing better than the children of Australian-born parents, a new study has found.

Second-generation children from migrant families, including those from non-English-speaking homes, have made astonishing educational progress, refuting the myth that they comprise an underclass disadvantaged by barriers such as language and culture.

Indeed, a report of the study says that cultural differences may have actually insulated migrant children from "the distractions of mainstream youth peer culture and the more casual Australian attitudes to education".

The research found that a higher proportion of second-generation southern and eastern Europeans have now obtained degrees than those with Australian or British-born fathers. These educational achievements are being translated into high-status employment, with more young people from these backgrounds occupying managerial and professional occupations than similar-aged people with Australian or western European fathers.

"This is despite the latter's advantage in English language proficiency and the class-origin advantage they enjoyed relative to their Italian, Greek, and Yugoslav counterparts," said Dr Bob Birrell, co-author of the report.

Moreover, young women from the same backgrounds have done just as well as the young men, dispelling beliefs that such women are held back in favour of their brothers, Dr Birrell says.

By previous Australian standards, Dr Birrell says it has required an unprecedented degree of social mobility for young people to move from working-class family origins to upper-middle-class positions in one generation.

He says youngsters from non-English-speaking origins appear to be unique within Australia's blue-collar communities in their capacity to overcome (in significant numbers) the handicap of class in achieving educational and occupational advancement.

The progress of children from these backgrounds is grounded in much higher retention rates at secondary school than is the case for those with Australian and western European-born fathers. Overall, up to twice the proportion of children from southern and eastern European migrants stay on at school past the age of 16.

Surprisingly, too, the children of southern and eastern European migrants surpassed the second generation of German and Dutchorigin.

Dr Birrell believes that this may be because German and Dutch immigrants integrate more fully into Australian life and adoptthe norms prevalent in the host country.

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