The more the merrier? First born do better at school

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First born do better at school

Rebecca Smithers, education editor, Monday August 22, 2005 The Guardian.

This article highlights that younger children do less well in terms of overall educational attainment than their older brothers and sisters, regardless of family size or income. Futher, the impact of birth order was more pronounced in females in later life. This suggests that parents with limited financial resources may invest more time and money in the education of their eldest child.

The underlying data are based on the entire population of Norway aged 16-74, between the years 1986 and 2000. This unique data set collated using Norway's personal identity number system, allowed them to look across families and within families to distinguish the causal effect of family size on youngsters' education.

The authors comment that "there's a lot of psychological literature on why first-born children are most successful. The main suggestion is that the eldest child acts as a teacher for the younger children and learns how to organise information and present it to others." The research team followed the children through to adulthood and examined their earnings, full-time employment status and whether the individual had become a teenage parent. The findings are claimed to represent the first comprehensive analysis of the impact of family composition on educational achievement.

"In terms of educational attainment, if you are the fourth born instead of the first, you get almost one year less education, and that is quite a lot," Salvanes, the lead author, told Reuters. "And first-born children tend to weigh more at birth than their younger brothers and sisters, which is a good predictor for educational success. Children alone with two adults also tend to get more intellectual stimulation than children in large families who get less parental attention. First-born children seem to learn from teaching their younger siblings, contrary to the common notion that younger children benefit by learning from their elders", Salvanes said. So does that mean big sisters really are smarter? "Yes. It's hard to admit because I have older sisters," Salvanes said.

The research was carried out by Sandra Black and Paul Devereux in the Dept. of Economics at UCLA and Kjell Salvanes at the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration. It will be presented at the 2005 World Congress of the Econometric Society, and published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. For now, the original paper is available on-line.