Ireland’s great recession had detrimental effect on junior certificate results

Psycho-social factors are just as important as parental investments in explaining the effects of recession and economic strain

New research from Trinity College Dublin has shown, for the first time, that the economic strain experience by families during Ireland’s great recession between 2009 and 2014 had a detrimental impact on young people’s performance in state exams at the age of 15. The research, conducted by Richard Layte, Professor of Sociology at Trinity, has recently been published in the journal, European Sociological Review.

Social scientists have for some time examined the association between parental education and income and the educational achievement of their children. However, there is less evidence on exactly how social disadvantage and adverse environments shape educational outcomes.

Using Ireland’s recession between 2009 and 2014 as a ‘natural experiment’ and drawing on data from the Growing Up in Ireland longitudinal study the research showed that a family’s experience of economic strain can significantly reduce child attainment in state exams at the age 15.

The research was based on interviews with the families and teachers of 4,955 young people aged 13 in 2007 and follow up interviews four years later. This period coincided with the onset of the recession in Ireland and deep cuts in public services, social protection and salaries.

The recession impacted on the majority of families in Ireland including those with higher income and occupational circumstances. The study showed that increased economic strain experienced by young people during the great recession when they were aged between 9 and 13 decreased performance in state examinations by approximately one point for every unit increase in economic strain.

This, according to Professor Layte, has the potential to have a long-term impact on the educational development of the young person if it causes a move to less academic tracks for the senior cycle examinations or changes the young person’s perception of their own abilities, lessening their effort in school. The Irish educational system, the paper notes, does not easily facilitate those who wish to return and improve their exam results.

The study involved an assessment of performance at the age of 15 in the Junior Certificate exam along with a measurement of families’ exposure to economic recession. It also took into account the experience of parental depression, the child’s emotional and behavioural health and the level of parental investment in education.

The study, according to the author, also adds to mounting evidence that psycho-social factors are at least as important if not more important than effects of parental investments in their children in explaining the effects of recession and economic strain.

Richard Layte, Professor of Sociology, said:

“We used the great recession in Ireland as a ‘natural experiment’ to help us understand why low income and economic strain are often associated with worse behaviour and development in school and worse educational outcomes overall such as worse junior and leaving cert grades and fewer transitions to third level.”

“Growing Up in Ireland, the Irish Longitudinal Study of Children, allows us to follow children from infancy so we can look at how their environment influences them. The great recession produced a situation where well educated, middle class families also experienced economic strain and we could see what effect this had on the parents and their children.”

“By matching people in terms of their likelihood of experiencing recession but who nonetheless varied in terms of their actual experience of recession we were able to show that recession itself lowered their exam performance. Moreover, we could also show that it was not the withdrawal of access to books, grinds or educational experiences that did this, but instead the effect of economic strain on the mental health of parents and the spill over from this onto their child.”

The paper, entitled ‘Does Family Economic Strain Reduce Child Educational Achievement? A Longitudinal Assessment Using the Great Recession in Ireland’, was published in the European Sociological Review.