Parents still hold the key

27th November 1998 at 00:00
Data from the world's industrialised countries puts the achievments of the UK's education system in perspective, writes David Budge.

Schools may like to think they can work miracles - but a 12-country study of adult literacy confirms that they are still unable to compensate for the disadvantage of having poorly-educated parents.

The problem is particularly noticeable in Poland where the son or daughter of well-educated parents is nearly six times as likely to obtain a tertiary qualification as the child of poorly-educated parents. And even in Australia, where the effect of parentage is most muted, having well-educated parents doubles your chances of achieving high-level qualifications.

The equivalent UK ratio, for people aged 16 to 65, is just under 3:1. And contrary to common belief, this ratio is not improving. In fact the OECD study revealed that the academic advantage of having well-educated parents was slightly greater for 26 to 35-year-olds in the UK than it had been for people aged 46 to 55.

The UK is not, however, the only country that appears to be regressing in this respect. The same trend was also identified in Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and Sweden. And, of course, similar patterns can be seen in the current school population.

The OECD's analysis of data collected by a second survey - the Third International Maths and Science study - shows the effect that social class has on nine-year-olds' performance in these subjects. Across OECD countries the average gap in mathematics achievement among pupils who reported having a dictionary, a study desk and a computer for their own use at home and those who reported having none, one or two of these resources was 26 points. That equated to half the progress that nine-year-olds typically make over a school year.

Children who spoke the language of the test at home had a similar advantage when compared to those who speak it at home only sometimes. Having one or more foreign-born parents or being born abroad conferred a similar disadvantage.

But the OECD report points out that socio-economic and ethnic differences had much more effect in some countries than others. "Much may be learned by investigating the strategies used by countries which show little disparity among students of heterogeneous backgrounds," the report concludes.

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