Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Time to Read: Family Resources and Educational Outcomes in Britain*

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Time to Read: Family Resources and Educational Outcomes in Britain*

Article excerpt


Despite ambitious educational reforms since the second World War, educational inequalities continue to persist in most industrialized societies (Shavit and Blossfeld, 1993). Most research in this area has examined the effects of ascriptive characteristics such as class, gender and ethnicity on educational attainment (Kerckhoff and Trott, 1993; Shavit and Blossfeld, 1993; Jonsson and Mills, 1996; Heath and McMahon, 1997). Another approach places greater importance on the effects of family structure, birth order and number of siblings on children's education (Blake, 1981, 1985, 1989; Mauser and Sewell, 1985; van Eijck and De Graaf, 1995). More recently, researchers have increasingly leaned towards cultural and social explanations for educational differentials (DiMaggio 1982; De Graff, 1986; Lareau, 1987; Farkas et al., 1990; Farkas, 1996, Crook, 1997, De Graaf, De Graaf and Kraaykamp, 2000). There has been a relative dearth of research, however, on the relationships between cultural and social resources, family structure, and children's educational achievement.

Using graphical chain models and longitudinal data we assess the relative merits of the major explanations of the relationship between educational outcomes and the family. Our focus is on whether parents' cultural and social resources and family structure affect scholastic achievement, both directly and indirectly by influencing utilization of social resources by children. Rather than simply study family structure and composition, our emphasis is on the action of both parents and children in the family and the interaction between them. Using the National Child Development Study-an extensive panel study containing information collected at several times from birth to 33 years of age from a single British cohort-we track the relationship between the family and educational achievement from early childhood to adulthood. To our knowledge this is the first paper to examine the impact of parental social and cultural resources, children's social resources, and family structure, on educational achievement within a single model.

Cultural resources in the family

Bourdieu (1977) argues that not only are children from high status backgrounds endowed with more economic resources, but they also inherit higher levels of cultural capital. Pupils from privileged backgrounds are socialized to accumulate knowledge of, and to participate in, high culture such as classical music, theatre and museums. According to Bourdieu, this cultural capital provides a major advantage in gaining educational credentials because the educational curriculum tends to favour it despite that only a largely middle-class minority are familiar with it.

What exactly constitutes cultural capital, how to measure it, and whether it can explain educational differentials, is the subject of considerable debate (Goldthorpe, 2000). Some researchers operationalize cultural capital as knowledge of, and participation in, high culture (De Graaf, 1986; DiMaggio, 1982). Others (Bourdieu, 1977; Halsey et al., 1980) use parental education as a proxy for cultural capital. More recent work on cultural capital distinguishes 'beaux arts' culture from 'scholarly' culture (De Graaf, 1986; Evans and Kelley, 1995). Whilst 'beaux arts' culture pertains mainly to knowledge of formal art, 'scholarly' culture is related to interest and cognitive ability required for reading activities (De Graaf, 1986). In other words, scholarly capital is the cognitive capital that is most likely to influence academic performance. Following from this debate, we use measures of the 'scholarly' activities, such as reading habits, of both parents and children as measures of the cultural resources in the family.

The importance of social resources

For Coleman (1961), social capital consists of social norms and networks. It exists in the form of parental support, and within schools in the form of norms that promote academic success. …

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