Social-Class Inequality in Educational Attainment and Participation in England

  • Mary Bourne

Student thesis: Phd


The University of ManchesterMary Joan Ryan BourneDoctor of PhilosophySocial Class Inequality in Educational Attainment and Participation in England15 September 2015This thesis examines social-class inequalities in educational attainment. The central aims of the thesis are to assess the applicability of Bourdieu's cultural reproduction theory and Goldthorpe's rational choice theory. Drawing on the Millennium Cohort Study and the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England, the thesis conducts rigorous analyses on class differences in educational attainment (termed 'primary effects') and in educational decision making, controlling for previous attainment (termed 'secondary effects'). The analyses find support for Bourdieu's notion that cultural competence and particular class-characterised dispositions can generate educational advantage. For young children, however, these are not found to mediate the link between class and cognitive performance substantially, and are unable to account for the growing divergences that occur in the first few years of compulsory schooling. For older children, these are shown to be the main mechanism through which those from advantaged homes realise educational success. The thesis also examines trends in continuation in post-compulsory academic study and evaluates the usefulness of rational action theory for understanding the secondary effects of social class. Choice-based differences are shown to be of little importance for understanding the further disadvantage some pupils face once attainment has been controlled for. However, this finding is subject to the important caveat that the secondary effects of social class differ for white and non-white pupils. The thesis considers the implications of this finding for the Breen-Goldthorpe (1997) model of educational decision making and suggests the important assumption of relative risk aversion may not be appropriate for non-white groups. A range of statistical methods are used in this thesis, including some advanced techniques such as multilevel growth curve modelling. The thesis also makes a series of methodological recommendations for future studies. Finally, the analyses in this thesis show the overriding importance of parents' education for children's cognitive and educational attainment. This is demonstrably the most influential way in which social origin perpetuates differences between the advantaged and disadvantaged, at all stages of pupils' educational careers. This thesis contributes to existing knowledge in this field in the theoretical, substantive and methodological domains.
Date of Award31 Dec 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorYaojun Li (Supervisor) & Ian Plewis (Supervisor)

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