Educational opportunities for all: are countries the same or different?

In the fourth episode of Series 2 of our Podcast looking at research from the Equal Lives project, we talk to Michael Grätz from the University of Lausanne and Swedish Institute for Social Research. He discusses research published in Demography involving Equal Lives team members Jani Erola and Aleksi Karhula which looks at siblings to to see whether educational opportunities are equal for all in and across 6 countries.




Christine Garrington  0:00  

Welcome to DIAL a podcast where we tune in to evidence on inequality over the life course. In series two we’re discussing emerging findings from DIAL’s Equal Lives project. For this episode, we’re talking to Michael Grätz from the University of Lausanne and Swedish Institute for Social Research about findings from research using siblings to see whether educational opportunities are equal for all in and across six countries. I started by asking him how studying the lives of siblings helps us to understand issues around equality of opportunity. 

Michael Grätz  0:30  

The simple argument of the study actually, of this approach of looking at the similarity of siblings in life outcomes is that this can be used as one measure of equality of opportunity. So equality of opportunity is something we’re interested in, which means that how much control people have over their chances in life. The traditional approach to measure equality of opportunity is you take some indicator of the parents like parental education and parental occupation, parental income and relate it to some indicator of the children like their educational attainment. And then you get some measure which which is which has something to do with the equality of opportunity. However, the problem of that approach is that we know that it’s going to overestimate equality and it’s going to underestimate inequality, because there are also factors affecting life chances, which are not observed parental characteristics. The idea of this using the similarity between between siblings and their education to measure equality of opportunity as some of these factors that are not observed are actually shared by siblings. So siblings do have the same parents, they live, they grew up in the same neighbourhood. They go to the same school often and all these factors influence their life chances and they are they are combined if we produce an estimate of the similarity of siblings and education as a measure of equality of opportunity. Now, I should also say that this is still not a perfect measure of equality of opportunity because we also know that there are factors that vary between siblings that influence their life chances, but still we know also from the empirical side, that using sibling similarity is a better measure of equality of opportunity than relating some kind of characteristic to the child characteristic, which is the most often used.

Christine Garrington  2:24  

Okay, understood. And so for this research then, Michael, what was it that you were looking at specifically and why?

Michael Grätz  2:29  

So the main thing we were interested in is the traditional question whether equality of opportunity varies across society. So we were producing estimates of sibling similarity in education for different countries. And then we were also interested in whether sibling similarity in education varies across different outcomes. So there are different educational outcomes that we were interested in, and we’re looking at three of them. So we’re looking at cognitive skills. We’re looking at school grades, and we’re looking at educational attainment. Of course, these three are related to each other, but still, they capture slightly different things. And it’s interesting to compare the cost and, and then the third thing we were interested in is whether they are some differences in sibling similarity across different social groups in society. So the idea is do the offspring of some sort of groups in society is more similar among each other than then the offspring of others. 

Christine Garrington  3:31  

Okay, took us through what you actually did to try to look at these, these issues then? 

Michael Grätz  3:35  

We asked the people we know to give us access to data and to produce these estimates. And this is really mainly a project where we produce comparative estimates of sibling similarity in education for different countries. So in our case, we have six countries. And then it’s mainly data work, where you have to put together all these datasets the different data sources we use for the different countries come up with different estimates, try to harmonise the data, which is a very challenging thing because we are talking about data which has been collected for different purposes with different strategies in different countries. And we want to have something comparable, and then you have challenges of making those data after it has been collected comparable to each other.

Christine Garrington  4:28  

Yeah, you talked about the data there. So where did that information come from and why were those data particularly good sources? For this type of research?

Michael Grätz  4:38  

There are two strategies you can have if you want to do a comparative research comparing different countries. So the one strategy is you use data sources which have been collected with the purpose of comparing them so collected in different countries. That’s, for instance, the PISA data that some of the listeners may know and the other approach is to use really what we think is the best data source for each country and compare them and it’s the second approach we have been taking in this paper. And one reason also we have to take these papers, because we were interested in siblings and siblings, information on siblings is not what is something that is often collected. So what we’re using in the data is really what we think are the best data source for each country. And this means that we’re using different data sources in different countries. So we using in Finland, Norway and Sweden using administrative data, because those countries have administrative data sets which can be used for research. In Germany, in the US and the UK we using a survey data sets – these are surveys that have been collected in those countries for a long time. And they are very large and they’re very reliable, and they have information on certain things.

Christine Garrington  5:48  

Fantastic. So time to dip into that data and talk a little bit about what you find. Let’s talk about cognitive, cognitive skills first. What were the key things to emerge in and across the countries that you looked at there? 

Michael Grätz  5:59  

The main finding actually is that for cognitive skills, there isn’t very much variation across countries. So meaning that equality of opportunity with respect to cognitive skills, something that was sort of similar across countries. And what we also saw because for cognitive skills we had two data sets for the US which we could use and those two data that gave slightly different results. And we see that the these differences which we find between the two datasets for the same country, about the same size as differences that we find between countries, so meaning that it’s not necessarily easy to tell what the differences then across countries whether they are really there, or whether they are just due to the fact that we have used different data sources.

Christine Garrington  6:46  

Okay, now one of the other outcomes was school grades. What did you see there?

Michael Grätz  6:50  

So school grades was an interesting outcome because that’s actually the only outcome for which we find that sibling similarity is lower in the US than in the Scandinavian countries. Meaning that equality of opportunity and school grades is higher in the US than in Sweden and Norway, which are the other two countries for which we have taken this outcome. The differences are not really large, but still this is this is something which goes in a different direction of what you usually expect and what you also have found for educational attainment. 

Christine Garrington  7:21  

On that note that was going to be my next question to you, so what overall education attainment – what did you see?

Michael Grätz  7:27  

So I think educational attainment in some sense, it’s the outcome we care more about most of all, because this is really the final educational attainment that respondents have observed. And this is this is also the outcome where we find a pattern of growth across national variation which is aligned with what we usually think in both as scientists but also in the policy discourse. So meaning is that we find that sibling similarity in education is highest in Germany and in the US, meaning that equality of opportunity is lowest in these countries. On the other hand, sibling similarity in the education is lower in Norway, Sweden and the UK. So these three countries are both on the same level in that respect was maybe a bit surprising is that in Finland, sibling similarity in education is once more again much lower. So meaning that they also within the group of Scandinavian countries – Sweden, Norway and Finland – there’s some variation. And there’s more equality of opportunity in Finland with respect to educational attainment in Finland than Norway, and in Sweden.

Christine Garrington  8:36  

Did the siblings’ family background matter at all and if so, how does that sort of play out?

Michael Grätz  8:42  

So the idea was that it could be that especially socioeconomically advantaged families can invest resources in the way that they make sure that all their children are succeeding well in life and getting a high level of education. So this is why we were speculating that there could be more sibling similarity among socioeconomically advantaged families. However, our empirical results were not really in line with this finding. So we didn’t we didn’t find much variation in that and the variation that we found was not really very robust across the different outcomes.

Christine Garrington  9:17  

So when it came to the question of which countries were providing the highest level of inequality of opportunity, what did you see there?

Michael Grätz  9:24  

So one thing is that the finding is not totally the same if you understand education and different things. So if you’re looking at the use different outcomes, but if you focus on final educational attainment, so which is really the highest decree from school that children obtain, then inequality is highest in Germany and the US, equality is highest in Finland, which is which is a result of our study, which is also I think, in line with the general perception. However, there’s also still two points I think that I would like to emphasise. So the first one is there’s still a lot of variation within the Scandinavian countries. So there’s more equality in Finland than in Norway in Sweden, meaning that probably, we see that the way to get to high equality is not totally obvious when see these results because even within a lot of countries with similar educational systems, and similar features of society, there is still variation. And the second point is that is cross country differences are not that large, meaning that in all societies actually there is a lot of inequality of opportunity. And this is something which in the policy discourse in some countries get lost. So I’m from Germany, and I know the policy discourse in Germany quite well and I always get the impression that the ideas are that in Finland, there would be perfect equality, but that’s certainly not the case. So there’s still a very high level of sibling similarity in education also in Finland. So we’re talking about differences between countries – Yes, they are, they are there, but compared to the overall level how much similarity across siblings is there? In a society these cross-country differences are not that large.

Christine Garrington  11:07  

It is complex research. You know, you talked earlier about the harmonising of the data sets, etc. Really, really complex work with some complex results. But would you say for policymakers, particularly there are any clear messages or takeaways here around that policy discourse that you were alluding to?

Michael Grätz  11:24  

I think, probably the clearest message coming out from that results is that these simple ideas. And there are some simple ideas about around so for instance, this idea that inequality in education is largely related to income inequality in a country. The findings of our, our research, they are basically saying that these simple ideas don’t work in the sense that they may explain, they may be explaining something but they’re not going to explain everything. So there’s probably so there’s more inequality in education opportunity in countries where there is income inequality, but still, this doesn’t explain all the cross country variation. That’s what I wanted to say. The second point, I think, for policymakers is also to be aware of that in all countries, there is inequality in education. And that probably has to do with the fact that this is has also to do two processes happening outside of the school system. So this is why reforms of the educational system, they will never fully address equality of opportunity because there are processes occurring within families. They are also contributing to inequality of educational opportunity. And I think this is something that policymakers should be at least aware of.

Christine Garrington  12:37  

Sibling Similarity in Education Across and Within Societies is research published in Demography by Michael Grätz and colleagues as part of DIAL’s Equal Lives project. You can find out more on the project website at and about the wider DIAL programme at Thanks for listening to this episode of our podcast, which is presented and produced by me Chris Garrington.