Getting the Balance Right
Introduction Governments around the world are eager to plough investment into education, both because of the importance of education to individuals and because of its role in national economic welfare. But has the emphasis on education meant that other important factors in childhood development been ignored? Leon Feinstein, a member of the Centre for Economic Performance based at the London School of Economics and Political Science, argues that it is crucial to get the balance right. The early psychological development of children has as much bearing on later productivity as their academic ability.
The Blair Government is understandably concerned to increase the literacy and numeracy of British children. There is a growing worldwide appreciation that education is important in itself and also as a way of enhancing children's life chances and the economic growth prospects of nations as a whole. But is the drive to improve educational standards leading to the neglect of other factors which can also affect employability, earnings and economic success?
The answer seems to be yes. Take two examples. There is now clear evidence that children with higher self-esteem at age ten get as much of a kick to their adult earning power as those with equivalently higher maths or reading ability. And better performance in tests of other aspects of psychological development are also well correlated with reduced risk of unemployment. These are two striking results from new research which has made use of British data to examine how the scores of psychological and behavioural ability at the age of ten can predict what happens when a child grows up and enters the labour market.Psychological development matters
Popular demands for improving education standards are widespread. Some people advocate the extension of the school-leaving age; others argue for a reduction in class sizes. In many cases, proponents of more spending on education believe that such investment is worthwhile because education is a good thing in itself. But while they might not gain such widespread popular support, similar claims could be made about psychological development. Self-esteem, for example, is presumably a good thing in itself, provided that it is tempered by a realistic or balanced view of one's own attributes. Of course, the proponents of higher-education spending can also point to research showing that it brings wider economic benefits. What has been less clear until now is whether differences in individuals' psychological development have similar implications for productivity.
Our findings reveal that they do. The early psychological development of children has as much bearing as their academic ability on their later productivity: so much so that there may be grounds for arguing that school performance should be assessed not only in terms of maths, reading or science scores but also in terms of the success or failure in helping children to develop in other ways. There is as much of an economic or investment argument for helping children develop psychologically as there is for helping them develop academically. Indeed, there are important interactions between the two, and the fact that children are failing psychologically might in many cases have negative effects on their academic development.
Measuring psychological development
Self-esteem may be derived from awareness of genuine ability. Children with higher maths scores, for example, also have higher self-esteem. Nonetheless, there are children with high maths or reading ability and low self-esteem. It is these children that we focused on. Self-esteem is strongly associated with social class. Children from wealthier, more educated families have higher self-esteem. We sought to compare children from families with the same level of wealth and education. We found that in the case of two children from families with the same low level of income and with parents who left school at the minimum leaving age, the child with the higher self-esteem at age ten will earn more at age 26, even if the two children also have the same scores in maths and reading.
It is perhaps worth remembering at this point that these scores are proxies for features of personality which might be important. Our findings indicate a clear link between the test scores at age ten and subsequent performance in the labour market. They do not address problems associated with the tests themselves.
Another striking finding is that while girls do better than boys in the test of anti-social behaviour, they have lower self-esteem. These psychological/behavioural gender differences are stronger than the differences in academic abilities. The biggest gender difference is for attentiveness at the age of ten where boys do particularly badly.
Children with good academic scores tend to score highly on self-esteem, but it is not unusual to have high academic ability and low self-esteem. Self-esteem and locus of control, however, are strongly correlated, although, again, a significant proportion of children have high self-esteem and a low locus-of-control score, suggesting, perhaps, that their self-esteem is not well founded. Similarly there are children with low self-esteem and a high locus-of-control score, suggesting that they have psychological attributes that they don't value as much as they might.
The link with the labour market
Attentiveness and anti-social
Perhaps the most striking of our findings was the extent to which families rather than institutions seem to make the difference in influencing age-ten psychological and behavioural scores. This has clear implications for those who would wish to help people develop the childhood attributes which will help them in later life. Schools are generally large and imposing buildings where pupils are taught in one-year cohorts with classes of around 30. Schools are necessarily geared to helping pupils achieve good key stage and exam scores, and although this requires the development of ethical or moral attributes, they are not institutions created to help individual children achieve psychological growth. This has traditionally been the role of the family.
We found that children whose fathers are in manual, unskilled occupations have on average, low self-esteem, low locus of control, exhibit a high degree of anti-social behaviour and are inattentive even by age ten. Children in this group also have worse labour-market outcomes than other children; but their difficulties are made worse by their development up to age ten. It is not only social class of itself that causes these outcomes, but rather what comes with such categorisation in terms of parental education, income, housing, schooling and family size.
More important even than these general aspects of family upbringing, however, is the nature of the relationships between parents and children. In the questionnaire given to them as part of this study, teachers were asked to make two judgements about parental attitudes to the children: their interest in the education of the child and whether they exhibited any hostility to the child. Both variables are hugely important in influencing the age-ten scores. The effect of parental hostility on self-esteem and anti-social behaviour is overwhelming, much more important than even the absence of a parent, the nature of the school or the parents' social class.
It is also interesting that fathers' hostility is as important in influencing the age-ten maths scores as fathers' interest in education. We found both to be substantially more important than fathers' own education or than the type of school that the child attended. This shows how important the psychological background of the child is in helping them learn academic skills as well as psychological or behavioural ones.
Of course, our findings don't enable us to say anything about the nature of this parental hostility or low level of interest. It is possible that they are proxies for the stress of poor material circumstances in the home, though this is unlikely because the results already take income into account. It is also possible that teachers don't really observe these parental attitudes but assume them from the children's behaviour. Again, this isn't altogether a compelling argument. The most likely explanation is that it is the quality of the relationships formed by and with children that help them in developing the psychological attributes which help them achieve successful and productive economic lives.
The question for policy-makers is how to help children develop these attributes. Clearly, policies which help families are crucial: for example, support for parental leave, better post-natal or subsequent health and educational support for parents and finding new ways of involving parents in the education of their children. Our findings suggest that that there are economic as well as ethical rewards for such endeavours.
article is taken from CentrePiece magazine published by the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE. Copyright The
London School of Economics and Political Science.