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Subjects have a greater impact on social mobility than school type, study says

What subjects you study can have more of an effect on your career than whether you went to private or state school, a new study has found.

The research from Edinburgh University took a sample of 10,500 people who attended secondary school between 1969 and 1976 and looked into what type of jobs they had at the ages of 23, 33 and 42.

The study found that studying a greater number of courses in languages, English, maths and science had a greater impact on whether individuals were in professional jobs at the age of 33 than what type of school they attended.

Cristina Iannelli, a senior lecturer at the university’s Moray House School of Education and author of the report, said: “There is a small advantage linked to the school you attend. But the advantages these schools give are mostly linked to the curriculum.”

To study the impact of school type and curricula on social mobility, Dr Iannelli looked at all those students who had parents in a professional occupation and analysed the outcomes at age 33.

She found about 8 per cent of the advantage transmitted by having middle-class parents was due to the type of school attended, but 23 per cent was down to the curricula studied.

When she looked at all those whose parents had a degree, about 16 per cent of the advantage was linked to the school type, but 29 per cent was linked to the curricula studied.

By the age of 42, the effect of having attended different school types had diminished but the positive effect of having studied certain key subjects persisted, the research showed.

“It is what you do in school that matters rather than the structure of the school you are in," Dr Iannelli said.

"Middle class parents know perfectly well what kind of subjects can promote the acquisition of higher class occupations and higher education. But do people from working class backgrounds have this knowledge and understanding?

And she added: "Schools should do more to promote these subjects. I know some people say they are not good at these subjects, but I think we should find pedagogies which are inclusive enough to teach them to all.”

The Department for Education said the research supported its own policies, such as the introduction of the English Baccalaureate. 

Education minister Elizabeth Truss said: “This report shows that young people have the best of succeeding in life and in moving up the social ladder if they study the key academic subjects – and it undermines those who claim otherwise.

 “We introduced the EBacc to encourage more pupils to take these rigorous subjects because we know these are the ones most valued by universities and employers.”

The study was published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education.


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