Parental socio-economic background and children’s school-level GCSE attainment
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date06/07/2021
The principal aim of this thesis is to better understand the contemporary relationship between parental socio-economic background and children’s General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) attainment. Previous empirical research has demonstrated that there is a strong, persisting association between parental socioeconomic background and educational outcomes, and specifically school GCSE attainment. This thesis directly contributes to the sociology of education in two main ways. First, it presents new empirical evidence about the nature of socio-economic inequalities in young people’s GCSE attainment in England over the course of the 1990s and early 2010s. Second, it builds on previous empirical work and develops a more comprehensive understanding of the effects of socio-economic background on educational outcomes. Developing a better understanding of why, or how, those from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds achieve more favourable educational outcomes by the end of compulsory schooling is important to enable young people, parents, teachers, schools, and policymakers to help to address the persisting attainment gap observed in school-level qualifications. The thesis is organised into two parts. Part 1 examines the nature of the relationship between parental socio-economic background and children’s school GCSE attainment for synthetic cohorts of English Year 12 pupils (i.e. aged 16 and 17). The analyses examine the role of parental socio-economic background in GCSE attainment using the British Household Panel Survey for young people taking their GCSE examinations in the 1990s and 2000s. A key methodological aspect of this work is sensitivity analyses of the independent variables (i.e. socio-economic background measures) and the functional form of the outcome variable (i.e. GCSE attainment). Particular attention is paid to checking the robustness of results using alternative measures and alternative statistical model specifications. The analyses are replicated using the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS, also known as Understanding Society). Analyses of the UKHLS dataset represent more contemporary cohorts of young people taking their GCSE examinations in the early 2010s. The final section of Part 1 addresses the methodological challenge of missing data in social surveys. It takes a series of principled statistical approaches to help to address the potential distortions caused by missing data in the synthetic cohort analyses. Part 2 of this thesis investigates the relationship between parental socio-economic background and children’s school GCSE attainment in greater depth. The analyses in Part 2 empirically explore three potential explanations for the enduring socioeconomic inequalities observed in educational outcomes. The first set of analyses examine the extent to which inequalities in GCSE attainment can be accounted for by prior academic attainment, for example, attainment at age 11. Cognitive and educational outcomes at earlier stages of schooling are stratified by parental socioeconomic background, and therefore the inequalities observed at GCSE level may be a continuation of inequalities observed at earlier stages of a young person’s schooling. Path analysis models are used to decompose the effects of parental education and parental social class on attainment at the end of compulsory secondary school. The next set of analyses investigate the role of cultural capital in educational inequalities. The concept of cultural capital is a prominent sociological explanation for persisting educational inequalities. Developing theoretically informed measures of cultural capital using social survey data is especially challenging because there are no clear prescriptions of how to operationalise these measures. A key aspect of this work is the attention to sensitivity analyses of alternative measures. The candidate measures are compared and contrasted within a series of analyses, with particular attention paid to the effect such measures have on understanding the relationship between parental socio-economic background and GCSE attainment. The final set of analyses explore the role of educational aspirations in educational inequalities. ‘Raising aspirations’ has been at the core of recent UK government rhetoric to help to address the attainment gap between the most disadvantaged and more advantaged young people. The overarching government position has been that the attainment gap has been, in part, attributed to the ‘low’ aspirations held by young people and their parents. The analyses explore the socio-economic gradient to young people’s aspirations over the course of their secondary school years, before examining the influence of the educational aspirations of young people and their parents on GCSE attainment.