Cognitive achievement of second generation immigrants less likely to be restricted by social disadvantage nowadays, study finds

18 October 2018

Children born to immigrant parents tended to trail behind their peers in reading and maths in the 1970s and 1980s, largely due to their social background.

But since the turn of the century, social circumstances have played less of a role in the educational attainment of second generation immigrants.

Researchers from the University of California and UCL Institute of Education (IOE) analysed data on more than 8,000 children born in England, Scotland and Wales in 1970, who are taking part in the 1970 British Cohort Study, and more than 8,000 children born in the UK in 2000-01, who are part of the Millennium Cohort Study.

The research looked at reading and maths assessment scores for the older generation when they were aged 5 and 10. For the millennium children, the researchers analysed word activity and reading test scores at ages 3, 5, 7, 11 and 14, and assessment scores for number, memory recall and problem-solving activities up to age 11.

At age 5, children born in 1970 to two immigrant parents were, on average, 8 points behind in reading compared to those whose parents were both born in Britain. By age 10, the gap in reading scores had narrowed to 3 points. In maths assessments, children of immigrants scored 3 points lower than children from British homes at both ages 5 and 10.

However, the attainment gap disappeared when the researchers took into account the children’s social circumstances, including family structure, household income, parents’ occupations, and languages spoken at home. Once their social background was considered, children of immigrants performed, on average, at least 3 points better than their peers in reading tests at age 10, and no different in maths.

Children born at the turn of the millennium to immigrant parents were, on average, 12 points behind those with UK-born parents in reading tests at age 3, but they had managed to close this gap by age 14 even before their social circumstances were taken into account. In maths, children of immigrants gained slightly lower scores than their peers at age 3, with the gap widening to 1.7 points by age 11.

After accounting for social factors, second generation immigrants scored, on average, 2 points higher than those from UK families in reading tests at age 11, and no worse in maths assessments.

Nathan Hoffmann, the study’s author, said: “This article presents a generally positive report card for the education of children of immigrants over the past 30 years. Overall, the educational situation for children of immigrants since 1980 seems to have changed for the better.”

He noted that the millennium generation may have benefitted from education policy reforms, but that it is also possible that children of immigrants today are a much different to those 30 years ago due to changes in immigration policy. Hoffman also stressed that “equality in the classroom does not necessarily translate into equality in the labour market or freedom from racism and xenophobia.”

Read the full paper

‘Cognitive achievement of children of immigrants: Evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study and the 1970 British Cohort Study’ by Nathan I.Hoffmann is published in the British Educational Research Journal.

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