Report shows extent to which social background matters for academic success

17 October 2013

Children of similar intelligence have very different levels of educational attainment depending on their social backgrounds, says a large-scale study led by Oxford University researchers. The research team studied cohorts of children born in Britain and Sweden from the 1940s to the 1970s. They found that bright children from advantaged social backgrounds were twice as likely to achieve A-levels as similarly able children from the least advantaged social backgrounds.

The researchers from the University’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention, and the Swedish Institute for Social Research, Stockholm, studied the test scores measuring cognitive ability of children aged between 10 and 13, and found they had a strong effect on a child’s subsequent educational performance. However, a child’s social background was also found to have a strong effect over and above that of ability, with the parents’ education being more important than their social status and social class, though the latter also count. The study finds that the effect of a child’s social background on their attainment levels is not declining in Britain or Sweden, despite the introduction of policies over the years to promote a greater equality of educational opportunity.

The effects of social origins prove to be just as strong – if not stronger – for the brightest children as for those with lower ability, says the study. Thus, for children born in Britain in 1970 who were in the top fifth in terms of ability but from least advantaged social backgrounds, their chance of achieving A-levels (or equivalents) was only around 40%, while the chance of similarly able children from most advantaged backgrounds was around 80%.

The researchers point to two major implications of their findings. First, even if variation in intelligence is taken to be largely genetically determined – which they argue is increasingly disputable – it still remains the case that children’s family environments and resources are major factors in how well they do academically at school. Second, the fact that children of high ability but from disadvantaged social backgrounds are unable to fully realise their academic potential indicates a substantial wastage of human resources, the study concludes.

Lead author Dr Erzsébet Bukodi said: ‘Whether a child’s parents were educated to a higher level appears to be the strongest determinant for how that child performs at school in later years. This appears to have a bigger effect than the parent’s class or status, or indeed whether that child is academically bright as measured in cognitive ability tests. We see that in both the British and Swedish educational systems, even the very brightest children are hampered if they come from a disadvantaged background. It is possible of course that clever individuals choose other ways of getting on in the world than through education, but the fact remains that many children in British and Swedish schools do not appear to fulfil their academic potential.

Professor John Goldthorpe said: ‘If we compare the two countries, we see that at the secondary level in Sweden, the educational prospects of bright children who are also from advantaged backgrounds are not boosted as much as in Britain. However, the British system does less to compensate children of low ability from advantaged backgrounds. The two educational systems in a way cancel out each other, suggesting that Sweden is not significantly ahead of Britain in providing opportunity for children of different social backgrounds. This study raises the question of how far it is possible for educational policies alone to promote greater social mobility.

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Notes for Editors:

  • The study, ‘The effects of social origins and cognitive ability on educational attainment: Evidence from Britain and Sweden’, appears in the series of Barnett Papers in Social Research.
  • About the data used:
    The data for Britain comes from three birth cohort studies: the Medical Research Council Survey of Health and Development, the National Child Development Study and the British Cohort Study, which aim to follow through their life-courses children born in Britain in one week in 1946, 1958 and 1970, respectively (more information about the data can be found: http://www.nshd.mrc.ac.uk and http://www.cls.ioe.ac.uk).

    The data for Sweden relates to four cohorts of pupils in Swedish schools born in 1948, 1953, 1967 and 1972 who were the subjects of research by the Department of Education at Gothenberg University. Data on the education and occupations of these pupils’ parents were then taken from Censuses between 1960 and 1990 and from an Education Register that started in 1985, and data on pupils’ own subsequent educational attainment were also obtained from this Register.

    The dependent variable of the analyses is the highest level of educational attainment of members of the cohorts studied.

    The independent variables of our analyses are parental class, parental status and parental education plus cognitive ability – all referring to members of the British cohorts at age 10-11 and to members of the Swedish cohorts at age 12-13.

    The full report will go live tomorrow on the Department of Social Policy and Intervention website. See: http://www.spi.ox.ac.uk/