The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Surely it should be amply clear now that a mother's educational attainment is a direct predictor of her child's educational prospects. The spectre of an underclass of undereducated citizens looms before us that leads ineluctably to continued deprivation and poverty among its descendants. Along the lines of generations so dependent on benefit handouts that they cannot countenance employment, we face a situation where backward families continue to propagate illiteracy and innumeracy to their children.

Evidently, I'm on a bit of an educational tirade.

One reason for the underachievement for children of Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnicity in Britain is that their mothers - more often than not imported from illiterate backgrounds in their ancestral villages - do not speak English, cannot understand the educational system, and are unable to provide any support at all at homework, school projects, or parent-teacher meetings. This has little to do with poverty! For other ethnic groups in Britain, poverty is the main indicator of educational underperformance. In the case of the Afro-Caribbeans or poor Whites, broken families, the necessity for single mothers to hang on to multiple jobs to make ends meet, and peer-pressure against perceived nerdiness all combine to reduce the capacity of the children to succeed at school. (See figure.)

A more nuanced explanation is that a mother's familiarity with the educational system is a good predictor of a child's attainment. This implies that providing better information to migrant parents on the native education system may help to fight the often disadvantaged educational attainment of immigrant children.

I took the above quote from a recent paper by J.C. van Ours and J. Veenman. They observed a 'natural' experiment that unfolded in the Netherlands over the past 50 years. After Indonesian independence from the Dutch, the islanders of the Moluccas (who fought on the Dutch side in the wars for freedom) found themselves unable to continue in the new federation, and several thousands of them - all from roughly identical socio-economic backgrounds - were allowed to settle down in various parts of Holland. Over the ensuing half-century, three-quarters of them remained in the towns of first arrival, where they formed new communities. Several married into the native Dutch population, whereas others married within their own Moluccan ethnicity. Interestingly, across the various municipalities, the incidence of interethnic marriages varied widely - as low as 6% in one to 70% in another (which didn't have a Moluccan quarter). The researchers studied the educational attainment of the children of these marriages, and showed that children from Moluccan fathers and native mothers have a higher educational attainment than children from ethnic homogeneous Moluccan couples or children from a Moluccan mother and a native father.

They explain their findings as follows. They demonstrate that there is no statistical relation between the municipality and educational level. Next, they point out that levels of integration into the larger Dutch community are correlated with educational level. They show that educational attainment in children of a Moluccan family is a function of the educational attainment of the mother, because the mother is dominant in child raising. Children whose mothers are native Dutch are able to leverage their mothers' familiarity with the educational system, and make use of the fact that these Dutchwomen were to a large part well-educated.


C K said...

I have to agree with you on this issue. I recalled that my mum used to read alongside with me when I was a kid and as a result, I was a bit ahead of the rest when I was in school.... that was until I turned rebellious.

Anyway, the Singapore government tried to encourage educated mothers (with an academic degree) to give birth to more children and there was a huge backlash from people with only secondaray education (and lower).

But it's not only academic attainment, it's also the outlook in life, the habits that a kid pick up along the way. How educated the mothers are is a huge factor indeed.

C K said...

Oh... anyway, have added your blog to my blogroll. Just to remind myself to drop by your site every now and then. Looking forward to many more fantastic posts.


Fëanor said...

C K: Thanks for stopping by and the kind words. The view of Singapore that we get here is that your public school system is excellent. I would surmise that the Asian respect for education and regard for elders is one strong reason for this. What do you think?

Shefaly said...


Good post. I think the mother factor reported in isolation in research may be exaggerated. Esp if other factors are not equally taken into account.

Educated mothers are highly unlikely to have married uneducated men. So the domestic environment is likely to be more conducive to the effort needed for attainment as well as emphasising attainment, than, say, in a family with uneducated parents, who may not (they may, of course, but that is a different discussion) appreciate the importance of studying.

Educated women also have fewer children (lots of evidence). The scarce resources - money, attention etc. - are therefore distributed into fewer clamouring parties, and may make a positive difference to the child's attainment.

That said, I have noticed many PE guys or I-bankers have portfolios of children. Their wives may be full time alpha moms or have careers, but they do seem to have bet on a diversification strategy. What do you think about that? I could name names but will be quiet in the public domain ;-)

Fëanor said...

Shefaly: I agree with your analysis on educated mothers and smaller families. But as I mentioned in our email, I don't think rich people with large families are doing their kids any favours. So not sure what diversification they expect! What they should do, if they want a true survival of the fittest situation, is what the Ottomans did. Do not declare an heir, and ensure a bloody war of succession upon the patriarch's (or matriarch's) death.

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