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Research project

ERESS - Educational choices and social interactions - Reassessing Educational Strategies in a divided Society

Project overview

Parental socio-economic status (SES) continues to have a substantial impact on educational transitions in the UK despite educational reforms, and even when taking prior educational achievement into account. Previous research showed that there are substantial SES differentials in subject choice at GCSE examinations and in the decision to continue to A-level qualifications and university. Those have profound implications for social mobility and labour market prospects, yet the mechanisms explaining social class differentials at those branching points of the educational career are under-researched. This project contributes to this literature by proposing an analysis of the decision processes accounting for those differentials. Our study adopts an extended notion of expected returns including both social, i.e. conformity with peers, and economic, i.e. labour market, outcomes to shed light on the class differentials in educational choices. For disadvantaged children, the pursuit of English Baccalaureate (EBacc)-eligible GCSE subjects, A-levels or university is more likely to involve a trade-off between social returns and the expected positive economic returns, whilst for advantaged children social and economic goals can be pursued simultaneously. These mechanisms, we hypothesise, are responsible for some of the class differentials in educational choices that prior research has found.

The analysis seeks to address the following questions:

1) Do the expected economic and social returns to education account for GCSE subject choice (EBacc-eligible, demanding and applied subjects in year 9), choice of post-16 education (A-levels as opposed to vocational qualifications or leaving education after year 11) and the decision to go to university?

2) To what extent do expected social and economic returns mediate the effect of socio-economic background on educational choices? We expect that if such expected returns indeed show a mediating effect, students of various social backgrounds will differ in their social and economic expected returns and these differences in turn will account for class differentials in educational choices.

3) Is the level of school segregation related to the cost of making non-conformist choices? If yes, what level of school segregation contributes to choose in conformity with peers, thus perpetuating segregation?

We use secondary data from Next Steps, which follows a cohort of around 16,000 English children born in 1989/1990 throughout eight waves up to age 25, in combination with linked administrative education records (the National Pupil Database (NPD)) on educational attainment, pupil’s socio-economic circumstances and school’s characteristics.

We will statistically quantify the role social and economic returns in influencing educational decisions. We will also quantify the extent to which social and economic returns mediate the impact of socio-economic background on educational choices.

This interdisciplinary project will enhance our understanding of processes of educational attainment and will shed light on how class inequalities shape those processes and reduce the potential for social mobility. We expect that our results will be of interest to policy makers and practitioners who want to know how educational choices relate to school segregation and educational inequalities with respect to social origins.


Lead researcher

Doctor Nicola Pensiero


Research interests

  • Educational inequalities
  • Social stratification

Connect with Nicola

Collaborating research institutes, centres and groups

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