What schools offer has begun to diverge under the impact of national policy, according to Gwen Wallace of the University of Derby.
She and two other researchers who followed three classes of pupils in three schools from Years 8 to 11 concluded that by Year 9 the combination of the national curriculum, key stage tests, league tables and declining budgets had reduced options and increased testing.
Differences between schools were also beginning to emerge. The most "up-market" of the three schools was using sets earlier and for more subjects than the other two, which were still concerned not to "label" students too soon. One school was trying to develop a niche in business studies and languages, while the school with the most deprived intake offered a relatively narrow curriculum with a stress on media studies and the arts.
Some GCSE subjects were regarded as more likely to appeal to parents than others.
Pupils were also taking divergent paths to work experience in Year 10. One school had asked an outside agency to arrange its work experience while the other two organised their own. In one school a family was able to send a child to London to take up a placement on a magazine, while the majority found themselves failing to get even their third option of "job" and ended up filling shelves in shops. Work experience was heavily stereotyped by gender, with girls going into hairdressing and child-care, boys into factory and mechanical jobs.
"What we have seen over the past 25 years is a swing from a system based on personal and social self-development to one based on the 'realities' of a rigged market in which losers can go to the wall," the paper concluded.
"Neither approach provides a coherent purpose around which to shape a vision of society in the 21st century. A new debate on the social purpose of schooling is overdue."
Changing structure, changing experiences: How policy effects reverberate through secondary school students' life-chances, Gwen Wallace, University of Derby, Julia Day and Jean Rudduck, Homerton College, Cambridge.