It could be perceived that social status can be correlated with better life chances and educational achievements for children. But is it all about the social background and income of the parents, or should children’s own cognitive abilities be taken into account? Robert Erikson’s recent research in European Societies studies 4 key areas of parental social background against children’s cognitive ability to decipher their impact on educational outcomes.

Erikson examined the interplay between parental education, social class, social status and earnings in relation to children’s cognitive ability and educational outcomes. In 4 groups of people with shared characteristics, roughly 28,000 randomly selected 13 year old Swedish school children participated in tests to assess skills in verbal communication, spatial awareness and numerical reasoning. Findings indicating each child’s cognitive ability levels were then compared to their education levels ranging from elementary to university and post-graduate, taking into account vocational vs academic paths. Data was compared against parental education, occupation (from higher professional to unskilled manual), social standing and levels of income.

Significantly, analysis of each child’s social background showed all factors to have an independent influence on educational outcome. Parental education and class were shown to have the strongest correlations to good educational outcomes, while parental earnings had the weakest. More highly educated parents, it seems, influence their children’s educational aspirations, and are more able to support their studies and navigate their child through the education system. A professional parent may consider higher education a necessity, and may be more likely to have the means to cover educational costs and choose better schools.

However, Erikson’s study reports that only 30% of the effect of social background on educational attainment is channeled through cognitive ability, with the remaining 70% transmitted in other ways. This relatively low finding contrasts strongly to a previous study, which found the social class/attainment relationship to be greatly facilitated by ability.

Erikson concludes: “Most of the effects of these (social background) factors are transmitted via other mechanisms than cognitive ability. Cognitive ability is thus an important link between social background and educational attainment… [although it is] far from being the major mechanism behind the association.”