In the past few weeks both CentreForum (in conjunction with our very own Mike Treadaway) and the Social Market Foundation have published reports on education. Both reports discuss gaps in attainment between pupils from different family backgrounds, drawing attention to the importance of education for social mobility.
Education is usually seen as an important factor in social mobility because it has largely similar benefits for children regardless of their family background.
But children from better-off families tend to do better at school than those from less well-off families. Consequently, changes in education policy have a fairly weak effect on social mobility – simply because children’s family background is far more important for their education than which school they go to.
A large number of studies have tried to explain what factors link children’s family background to their educational outcomes. The results of these studies show that differences in aspirations are part of the reason why young people from better-off families do better at school than those from less well-off families.
Differences in educational attainment, it is argued, reflect the greater emphasis placed on education in better-off families, which is assumed to raise young people’s aspirations and provide the motivation needed to be academically successful at school.
Lower aspirations and lower attainment
In recent work I have been using data from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England to look at the relationship between young people’s aspirations over time and their educational attainment.
Between ages 13 and 16, the young people taking part in the study were asked each year to rate whether it was likely that they would ever apply to university, with four response options ranging from ‘very likely’ to ‘not at all likely’.
Analysing this data, children can be grouped into six clusters. These range from those with very high aspirations who always wanted to go to university (‘stable high’ aspirations), to the group with the lowest aspirations who never thought of going to university (‘stable low’ aspirations).
We can then plot the mean level of standardised achievement in Key Stage 2, 3 and 4 tests for young people from these different groups.
As would be expected, those groups with higher aspirations show higher levels of achievement.
Interestingly, though, the gap in achievement between the different groups can be observed to increase over time, The standardised test scores of young people in the groups with ‘stable high’ and ‘rising’ aspirations increases between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4, while for those young people in groups with lower aspirations on average it decreases over the period.
Aspirations and attainment seem therefore to work together in a circular manner with attainment influencing aspirations but aspirations also influencing attainment in a cumulative fashion.
The results from a series of regression models confirms that aspirations are an important pathway through which factors such as gender and ethnicity influence educational attainment. The association between child and family characteristics and attainment is significantly reduced by controlling for trajectories in aspirations, although aspirations do not completely explain the observed differences in educational attainment between young people from different backgrounds.
The implications of this for policies which aim to reduce social inequalities in education are not very positive. Coming from a poor family does not doom a child to educational failure but it does make it harder for them to be successful at school. And because the main factors in achievement are within the family, changes in education policy should not be expected on their own to significantly reduce gaps in attainment between young people from different family backgrounds, or increase levels of social mobility.