Migrant students in Australia inheriting parents' education struggle

Students with migrant parents from countries where gender is a barrier to high school education perform worse at standardised tests, according to new research.

Curtin University researchers set out to test the theory that girls - even those born in Australia - performed worse in academic tests if their parents migrated from a country where women had limited access to high school education.

Mike Dockery, who was the lead author from the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, said their findings successfully proved the link.

"Where the parents were born, that does have an impact on how girls perform on these tests in science, reading and mathematics," Dr Dockery said.

What he didn't expect to find was an even stronger correlation for boys.

"When we played around and tested different specifications, what we actually found was that for girls it's the mother's country of origin that matters and for boys it's the father's country of origin that matters most, that affects their performance," he said. 

Dr Dockery said the results suggested cultural attitudes and norms are passed down by gender role models within a family.

"Boys look at their fathers and their uncles and what they do in their family networks, and girls look to their mother and they're sort of conditioned by what they see their mothers doing."

He said it's difficult to determine whether parents actively communicate these cultural norms to their children, or if they are picked up unconsciously.

Somalia, Central African Republic, South Sudan and Zambia are among the countries where girls have half the access to high school education as boys.

While boys are less likely to attend high school in countries such as South Africa, Libya, Kuwait and Tuvalu.

Sara Aurorae is the program lead for the Refugee Education Support Program at the Centre for Multicultural Youth.

She said she believes engaging students in school is the best way to break the cycle of educational disadvantage.

"It all starts in the school," Ms Aurorae said. 

"It's a matter of being able to enable young people to continue and remain within that academic environment, without falling through the cracks within the school.

"Ultimately it's about knowing the refugee and migrant young people and their needs."

The study examined the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test scores of 12,000 non-migrant, first-generation and second-generation migrant children in Australia.

Among other findings, the study showed that, on average, first and second generation migrant students performed better in all three subject areas - science, mathematics and reading - than non-migrant students.

"That's typically attributed to our migration system very much favouring, through the skilled migration programs, families who put a high emphasis on education or are highly educated," Dr Dockery said.

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