Surging numbers of first-generation learners at risk of being left behind in education systems worldwide

  A classroom in Ethiopia  Credit: UNICEF

‘First-generation learners’ – a substantial number of pupils around the world who represent the first generation in their families to receive an education – are also significantly more likely to leave school without basic literacy or numeracy skills, a study suggests.

Research by academics at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, Addis Ababa University and the Ethiopian Policy Studies Institute, examined the progress of thousands of students in Ethiopia, including a large number of ‘first-generation learners’: children whose parents never went to school.

The numbers of such pupils have soared in many low and middle-income countries in recent decades, as access to education has widened. Primary school enrolment in Ethiopia, for example, has more than doubled since 2000, thanks to a wave of government education investment and reforms.

But the new study found that first-generation learners are much more likely to underperform in Maths and English, and that many struggle to progress through the school system.

The findings, published in the Oxford Review of Education, suggest that systems like Ethiopia’s – which a generation ago catered mainly to the children of an elite minority – urgently need to adapt to prioritise the needs of first-generation learners, who often face greater disadvantages than their contemporaries.

Professor Pauline Rose, Director of the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre in the Faculty of Education, and one of the paper’s authors, said: “The experience of first-generation learners has largely gone under the radar. We know that high levels of parental education often benefit children, but we have considered far less how its absence is a disadvantage.”

“Children from these backgrounds may, for example, have grown up without reading materials at home. Our research indicates that being a first-generation learner puts you at a disadvantage over and above being poor. New strategies are needed to prioritise these students if we really want to promote quality education for all.”

The study used data from Young Lives, an international project studying childhood poverty, to assess whether there was a measurable relationship between being a first-generation learner and children’s learning outcomes.

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Image: A classroom in Ethiopia

Credit: UNICEF

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge


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