Scottish Longitudinal Study
Development & Support Unit

Current Projects

Project Title:

Education and Social Stratification: The role of subject choices in secondary education on further education studies and labour market outcomes [EXTENDED]

Project Number:



Cristina Iannelli (University of Edinburgh)
Markus Klein (University of Edinburgh; Original project)
Adriana Duta (University of Edinburgh; Extension)

Start Date:

1 October 2013; 15 February 2016


Social stratification research has shown that social inequalities continue to be reproduced in education (Shavit and Blossfeld, 1993; Heath, 2000; Raffe et al., 2006; Iannelli, 2007) and this hinders social mobility (Breen, 2004; Iannelli and Paterson, 2007). A series of factors have been identified to explain the persistence of these inequalities: among them, inherited advantages (i.e. the different amount of cultural, social and economic capital which families transmit to their offspring) (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977; Coleman, 1988), structural education factors (e.g. institutions, curricula, ability grouping) (Kerckhof, 1993, 1996; Gamoran, 1996; Sullivan and Heath, 2002; Boliver and Swift, 2011), and labour market characteristics (e.g. employment regulations and practices, more or less tight links with the education system) (Hannan et al., 1996; Shavit and Müller, 1998)

The research carried out by the AQMeN Education and Social Stratification researchers will extend further the existing knowledge in the above research areas by providing an in-depth analysis of individuals’ educational and labour market trajectories and by analysising how educational differentiation of curriculum and status shapes individuals’ life chances. Most of the literature on curriculum differentiation has focused on the role of tracking and the distinction between vocational and academic curricula (Oakes, 1985; Kerckhoff, 1986; Gamoran and Mare 1989; Arum and Shavit, 1995). Very few studies in social stratification (Van de Werfhorst et al., 2003; Ayalon, 2006) (and to our knowledge, none in Scotland) have gone beyond the distinction between academic and vocational tracks in secondary education and analysed in more detail the role of school subjects in the reproduction of social inequalities in HE entry and participation and in labour market outcomes. We will investigate the extent to which secondary school curricula account for social class differences in the chances of entering HE, of choosing more or less prestigious fields of study and institutions and in the chances of entering different types of occupations.

In this study, we intend to assess the impact of social class origin on choosing different subjects at secondary school and how subject choices in turns affect the choice of the field of study at university. Access to prestigious courses at universities, particularly Russell Group universities, not only depends on grades but also requires having achieved Highers in specific subjects. As parents from higher social origin are more familiar with the educational system and its changes, students from higher social origin may more frequently choose ‘facilitating’ subjects which enable access to higher education (HE) and to more prestigious institutions and programs than their counterparts from lower class origin. Therefore, we expect that social class variation in ‘qualitative’ differences within the HE sector is mediated by subject choices prior to HE entrance.

A preliminary study will involve analysing the effect of social background factors on the attainment of Highers in different subjects. When further data will be available (from HESA and Census 2011), we will continue our analysis by investigating the relationship between the achievement of Highers in different subjects and the decision to enter HE and to choose certain HE institutions and fields of study. For those people in the sample who decided to leave education, the role of school achievement in different subjects on their labour market outcomes will be investigated.


Updated Background/Aims

After assessing the impact of social class origin on choosing different subjects at secondary school, this project aims to further investigate the association between social inequalities in attainment and subject choices in secondary school and early labour market outcomes. This part of the project was already mentioned in our original proposal. More specifically, we seek to investigate first whether there are any differences by parental background in the activity status (i.e. in education, in employment or unemployed/inactive) of the SLS members included in the initial sample. If they are employed, we are interested in exploring the type of occupation they entered. Second, a key research question for the project is to what extent the potential parental background differences in school leavers’ destinations (i.e. measured as their activity status in 2011) are explained by attainment and subject choices in secondary school.

In order to understand how social inequalities in the labour market operate, we also need to look at whether the school leavers in the SLS study live in their parental home and if yes, we are interested in exploring other family background characteristics (i.e. other than just NS-SEC of the parents) such as the composition of the household, whether the other family members are in employment or whether SLS members take care of one of the family members. If school leavers have left the parental home, we are also interested in their family status and whether they had children. This helps us investigate whether living arrangements are associated with advantage/disadvantage and could therefore suggest some of the enabling and constraining factors which might affect their labour market outcomes.


Arum, R. and Shavit Y. (1995) ‘Secondary vocational education and the transition from school to work’, Sociology of Education 68(3): 187-204.

Ayalon, H. (2006) ‘Nonhierarchical curriculum differentiation and inequality in achievement: a different story or more of the same?’, Teachers College Record 108(6): 1186-1213.

Boliver, V. and A. Swift (2011) ‘Do comprehensive schools reduce social mobility?’, British Journal of Sociology 62(1): 89-110.

Bourdieu, P. and Passeron, J.-C. (1977) Reproduction: In education, society and culture. London: Sage.

Breen, R. (ed.) (2004) Social mobility in Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Coleman, J. (1988) ‘Social capital in the creation of human capital’, American Journal of Sociology 94 (Supplement): S95-S120.

Gamoran, A. and Mare, R.D. (1989) ‘Secondary school tracking and educational inequality: compensation, reinforcement, or neutrality?’, American Journal of Sociology 94(5): 1146-83.

Gamoran, A. (1996) ‘Curriculum standardization and equality of opportunity in Scottish secondary education: 1984-90’, Sociology of Education, 69, 1-21.

Hannan D. et al (1996) Cross-National research on school to work transitions: an analytic framework. OECD, Paris. In: Werquin P, Breen R, Planas J, editors. Youth Transitions in Europe: Theories and Evidence. Documents Séminaires No 120. Marseille: CEREQ.

Heath, A. (2000) ‘The political arithmetic tradition in the sociology of education’, Oxford Review of Education, 26(3-4), 313-331.

Iannelli, C. and Paterson, L. (2007) ‘Education and Social Mobility in Scotland’, Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 25(3): 219-232.

Iannelli, C. (2007) ‘Inequalities in Entry to Higher Education: A Comparison over Time between Scotland and England and Wales’, Higher Education Quarterly, 61 (3): 306-333.

Kerckhoff, A.C. (1986) ‘Effects of ability grouping in British secondary schools’, American Sociological Review 51, no.6: 842-858.

Kerckhoff, A.C. (1993) Diverging pathways: social structure and career deflections. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kerckhoff, A.C., Fogelman, K., Crook, D. and Reeder D. (1996) Going comprehensive in England and Wales: a study of uneven change. London: The Woburn Press.

Oakes, J. (1985) Keeping track. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Raffe, D., Croxford, L., Iannelli, C., Shapira, M and Howieson, C. (2006) ‘Social-class inequalities in education in England and Scotland’, CES Briefing No. 40 (Edinburgh, Centre for Educational Sociology, University of Edinburgh).

Shavit, Y. and Blossfeld, H.P. (1993) Persistent inequality: Changing educational attainment in thirteen countries. Boulder: Westview Press.

Shavit Y. and Müller W. (editors) (1998) From School to Work. Oxford: Clarendon.

Sullivan, A. and Heath, A. F. (2002) State and private school in England and Wales. Sociology Working Papers. Oxford: Nuffield College, Oxford and Department of Sociology, University of Oxford.

Van de Werfhorst, H.G., Sullivan, A. and Cheung, S.Y. (2003) Social class, ability and choice of subject in secondary and tertiary education in Britain. British Educational Research Journal 29, no.1: 41-62.

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