Did extending compulsory education in the 1950s improve cognitive and emotional outcomes?

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Extending compulsory education from 8 to 9 years had a postive effect on intelligence in our large study of boys exposed to a school reform in Sweden in the 1950s. Extending education benefited sons of farmers and workers most, reducing socioeconomic differences in intelligence. In contrast, the reform seems to have led to reduced emotional control, suggesting that for this outcome alternative activities (e.g. working or attending the old lower secondary school) was better.

Cognitive and non-cognitive skills are important for public health as well as for economic and social development, equality and sustainability. In an increasingly globalized economy, these skills are also expected to be more and more important. Modern jobs demand a highly skilled work-force. Promoting emotional and social skills could also help counteract darker sides of human behaviour such as bullying, aggression or violence.

We may expect education to promote the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience. We may also expect education to help promote self-confidence, sociability, trust in others, and the ability to overcome shyness and impulsiveness – not to mention the ability to organize and follow-through on tasks. After all, modern educational systems have at least ten years or so to achieve these cognitive and non-cognitive aims, and, indeed, modern curricula are filled with these and similar goals.

At the same time, we typically think of intelligence and personality as fixed, substantially heritable traits. According to an often cited definition intelligence involves the ”ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience”. Personality, in turn, is typically defined as a mix of 5 so-called traits: extraversion (e.g. sociability), agreeableness (e.g. trust in others), conscientiousness (e.g. being organized, thorough, having control over impulses), neuroticism (e.g. shyness, lack of self-confidence), and openness (e.g. curiousity).

Thus, the same skills are, on one hand, expected to be promoted in school, and on the other hand treated as non-malleable, heritable traits. Of course, this does not add up, and empirical investigations are often confounded by the clear link from base-line skills to length and tracking of one’s education.

In our recently published study, we drew on evidence from a Swedish reform extending compulsory schooling by one year, in an effort to inform this debate. The reform was designed as a quasi-experiment, i.e. the intervention was deliberately implemented in some school districts while others were kept as controls for the sake of evaluation. By linking place of residence at the time of the reform to results from millitary conscription we were able to study the consequences of an extra year in school in a near total sample of the male population. In Sweden, as in many other countries, the millitary are forerunners in the testing of intelligence, and we were also able to study one non-cognitive skill, which millitary psychologists themselves called emotional control (calm and efficient responses in various situations). Over and above the actual effect of education on skills, our study also touched upon such questions as the optimal length of education, the possibility of closing gaps between social groups, the effect of education vis-a-vis work, and the consequences of mixing children from different social groups. But in all of these areas, far more well-designed research is needed.

While the reform was linked to increased intelligence, our results suggest the effect on emotional control may have been negative. And even in regard to cognitive skills, we should be careful about assuming that better outcomes follow automatically from longer schooling. Since the 1950s compulsory schooling has effectively been extended once more in Sweden, but this time from 9 to 12 years: As jobs for 16-19-year-olds became increasingly scarce over the course of the financial crisis in the early 1990s, around 98-99 percent of each cohort now enrols in the 3 year senior secondary school after completing the 9 years of compulsory schooling. Yet less than 2/3 of students leave senior secondary school with a diploma. Thus, in every cohort of around 100 000 Swedish children, some 35 000 leave school after 12 years, without the expected formal qualifications for work or further studies. Sweden’s results inthe OECD’s PISA-study are on a downward trend, and average intelligence, as measured in repeated cross-sectional and/or conscription data seems to have peaked for cohorts born in the 1970s; in Sweden as well as in Norway, Denmark and Finland.

Unless we believe jobs for teenagers are coming back, and unless we are satisified with blaming these results on individuals, the educational system needs to step up its game. And there is, thankfully, increasing awareness of the need to act on available evidence for what actually works in schools; as for example in the meta-analyses on academic achievement compiled by Hattie, or in the experimental literature on social and emotional learning. If we believe cognitive and non-cognitive skills are as important as observational data suggests, these steps should be natural. Children are forced (by law and/or economic necessity) to attend school and it is society’s responsibility to provide them with an education that actually develops their skills. Social and emotional skills are far less studied over-all than their cognitive counterparts, even though social and emotional skills seem at least as important for health. Given the rather worrying results for emotional control in our study, one can hope that some extra attention is given to them.

Read more

Lager A, Seblova D, Falkstedt D, Lövdén M. Cognitive and Emotional Outcomes After Prolonged Education: A Quasi-Experiment on 320 182 Swedish Boys . Int. J. Epidemiol. 2016, DOI: 10.1093/ije/dyw093.


Anton Lager is a public health epidemiologist, Head of the unit for surveillance and analysis, Centre for epidemiology and community medicine, Stockholm County Council, and a researcher at Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden.

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