This is not a revelation, but social class and education is making the news again. 

Earlier this week, a report commissioned by the Sutton Trust, Education Mobility in England reported on the links between the educational levels of parents and the educational outcomes of their children. 

Photograph: Jimmy Sime/Getty Images

 The research findings did show, unsurprisingly, that social class matters.    

As an indicator of social class, John Ermisch and Emilia Del Bono, from the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Essex University, who carried out the research for the Sutton Trust, compared children of parents with a degree to those without.  According to their analysis, in 2006 children with parents who were educated to at least degree level were four times more likely to achieve 5 or more A*-C grades at GCSE than pupils who were not educated to this level.   As both the Guardian and the Independent reported, this gap is worse in England than in other countries, including the USA, Germany, and Australia. 

If you are concerned about the reproduction of social class inequalities through education this is not good news.   It clearly demonstrates the persistent influence of social class, and thus points to the maintainance of social class advantages by the educated middle classes.  

There are other important findings.  The attainment gap widens between the ages of 11 and 14, following transfer to secondary school.  The researchers highlighted the impact of the school, pointing to widening gaps in attainment amongst this age group being shaped by segregated secondary school admissions.  

If you read further down the reports in both the Guardian and the  Independent you will find some glimmer of hope.  The researchers did find some improvements, in that, for 11 and 16 year olds, the advantage of having a degree educated parent had diminished.  For the 11 year olds at least, they have been educated entirely under a Labour Government, and the report does suggest that education investments over the last decade may have contributed to a narrowing of the gap. They point to other research which indicated a widening gap in the early 1990’s. 

As a means of addressing this gap, the report recommends “more balanced intakes”  (p. 4)  into secondary schools. At present, intakes are not balanced. Phrases in popular discourses, such as ‘selection by mortgage’ indicate the ability of middle class parents to secure a place at their preferred school.  

Are the Conservative’s ‘free schools’ a solution?  In short, no.  They would further reproduce social inequalities.  An answer is to overhaul the secondary school admissions process.  But that would mean tampering with the concept of ‘parental choice’, even though this actually refers to the ability of middle class parents to maintain their class position through the education system. 

 You can download the report from the Sutton Trust here.


The Sutton Trust (2010) Education Mobility in England:The link between the education levels of parents and educational outcomes of teenagers, London: The Sutton Trust


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