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Multigenerational disadvantage in Australia

Kirsten Hancock standing in Telethon Kids' Atrium

Kirsten Hancock, Human Capability Team, Telethon Kids Institute

What did this project aim to find out?

We know that child outcomes are strongly tied to parents’ resources, whether they are financial, social, psychological resources, amongst others. For example, the chances of a person completing high school are much higher if their parents also did the same. We wanted to know how the transfer of resources can play out over several generations, and we started by looking at education outcomes. Is grandparent educational attainment linked to their grandchild’s NAPLAN scores? If so, does this happen only because of the educational attainment of parents, or can grandparents affect grandchildren in other ways?

Why is this issue important for early childhood?

Parents are critical for child development, of course, but sometimes we forget about the other people that are important to children. Grandparents and other extended family members can also have a large influence on children as they develop, both in early childhood and throughout the life course. Their influence might occur through the direct interactions they have with a child, but there are other ways this might happen too.

What is significant about your research?

We found that grandparents with higher levels of education had grandchildren with higher NAPLAN scores in Year 3. Most of this relationship could be explained by the fact that parents would also have higher levels of education, as we would expect, but grandparents still had a small effect over and above the influence of parents.

What was interesting about our study was the way that the effects of educational advantage added up in families over generations. We found that if a grandparent had high attainment, the parent was more likely to have a university degree, but they were also more likely to partner with someone who had the same. Because of the way that people meet, partner up and have families, educational resources tend to get concentrated in a small number of families. This turns out to be very good for the grandchildren in these families – the more people in their family with higher qualifications, the better they do on NAPLAN tests. By Year 3, children with four or more highly educated family members (that is, both parents and grandparents) were about 1 year ahead of children with two or three highly educated family members (parents only), and two years ahead of children without any highly qualified family members.

These results make it clear that schools have a really hard task ahead of them when it comes to reducing the gaps between low and high achieving children. Our study shows that children bring a lot of family history with them into the classroom. Schools do their best to help children overcome disadvantaged circumstances, but there’s a lot of ground to make up. It’s a hard job, but it’s really important because what happens at school can have lasting impacts over generations.

What are the implications of your research?

  • For parents/families:

Parents can’t change their history, but they can help their child to do their best at school, and to have high aspirations for their educational futures.

  • For policymakers?

There’s a big achievement gap to overcome, and the gaps emerge long before children enter school. Given the long family histories and intergenerational effects, reducing the gap between low and high achievers will take sustained investment over a long period of time, not just an election cycle.

  • For educators/practitioners?

We need the best supports for educationally disadvantaged children. If we think about all of the help that educationally advantaged students have, through their family history and parental support, what kind of education needs to be delivered to overcome the differences that children receive at home?

What are the priorities for future research in this area?

We’ve looked at outcomes in Year 3, but we’d like to see what these gaps look like in earlier years, and how the gaps change as children progress through school.

We’re looking at what else grandparents do to ‘invest’ in grandchildren. For example, do intergenerational relationships only happen when grandparents spend a lot of time with grandchildren? Some of our preliminary work suggests that irrespective of parental education, children with high-attainment grandparents have stronger home education environments in the early years.

So far our research has looked at multiple generations of joblessness, mental health problems, and low educational attainment. In future we’ll be looking how children are tracking across a number of wellbeing indicators when their families experience multiple types of disadvantage.