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Big sisters do better - new study of siblings finds eldest girls have the edge

A new ISER study reveals that oldest children are the most ambitious, especially girls, and a wider gap between siblings increases the chances of children achieving higher levels of qualifications.


The study by Feifei Bu looked at the impact of sibling structures on children’s aspirations. Previous studies, particularly in Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands have revealed that first born children are more likely to achieve higher qualifications but the new ISER research has found that this could be partially explained by the fact that they are statistically likely to be more ambitious than their younger brothers and sisters.

Sibling Configurations, Educational Aspiration and Attainment followed 1503 sibling groups and 3532 individuals through the British Household Panel Study and its successor UK panel study, Understanding Society.

The research found that the firstborn superiority which means firstborns are more likely to achieve better educational outcomes, could be down to a pronounced higher level of ambition which pushes them forward. Controlling for parents’ levels of education and professional status, the research found first born children were 7 per cent more likely to aspire to stay on in education than their later-born siblings. Girls were 13 per cent more ambitious than boys. The probability of attending further education for firstborns is 16 per cent higher than their later-born siblings. (Girls are 4 per cent more likely to have further education qualifications.)

The study also looked at gender mix amongst siblings and size of families (excluding twins and only children) and found that this had no bearing on their ambitions or achievements later in life. However, a bigger gap between brothers and sisters did make a difference on educational attainment.

Researcher Feifei Bu said:

“Educational disparities exist not only between families but also within families. It is interesting that we observe a distinct firstborn advantage in education even though parents in modern society are more likely to be egalitarian in treating their children.”

Read coverage of this research in The Observer