One of the key features of our education system is that at certain points it gives students a choice about what they study. Perhaps the most obvious example is in post-16 education where they get to pick between studying A-levels or a more vocational alternative such as BTEC’s. Similar choices also exist at GCSE level. These choices have important consequences for the student’s future: taking some qualifications shuts off options that would have been available to them had they studied something else. It would be worrying, therefore, if these choices were determined not just by academic ability or personal preference but by social background. Unfortunately the evidence suggests that this is exactly what happens. Controlling for prior academic attainment, one study found that the probability of someone from a high socio-economic background studying academic subject’s post-16 was 79% compared to a 31% chance for those from low socio-economic backgrounds. The author of the study concluded that this provided evidence for what is snappily titled the ‘effectively maintained inequality hypothesis’ which is basically the idea that the well-off maintain their advantage within the education system by picking high-status options whenever they are confronted with a choice.
The consequences of this discrepancy are stark and suggest that such a strategy is effective. One recent study sought to examine the long-term influence of curriculum differences on social mobility. The conclusions deserve to be cited in full.
Firstly, curriculum differences reproduce social inequalities and affect individuals’ chances of social (im)mobility. Secondly, among the school factors, the content taught counts more in the reproduction of social inequalities than the structure of the school system. This casts doubts on the centrality of the debate on ‘comprehensive schools versus grammar schools’ and it supports the need to focus the discussion on curricular content and inclusive methods of teaching this content. Thirdly, studying core subjects such as languages, English, mathematics and science is important for individuals’ long-term occupational opportunities.
What makes this particularly disturbing is that generally we don’t tend to think of subject choice as a social mobility issue. School type, teaching quality and even ‘cultural capital’ are frequently given prominence in discussions about social mobility, but subject choice has largely been ignored (although it has become increasingly relevant in debates about university access). The evidence mentioned above indicates that this is an unfortunate omission. Fortunately there are some indications that education policy is moving in the right direction. The introduction of the EBacc combined with changes to the accountability framework will provide strong incentives for schools to encourage students to study more academic subjects (including languages) at GCSE. Requiring students to carry on with English and maths post-16 if they fail to meet a minimum standard at GCSE is also a positive development, ensuring that those pursuing vocational qualifications will have reached a certain level in the core academic subjects by the time they leave school
One of the depressing things about these changes has been the reaction of much of the political left. Rather than welcoming the focus on core academic subjects the default response has been to castigate the changes as promoting a narrow-minded and outdated vision of education. According to these critics, the split between academic and vocational education is something to be welcomed, not eliminated. The idea that students should be encouraged to study subjects that they don’t like and find difficult is considered repugnant. Some of these attitudes arguably underpin the position of the Labour Party which has consistently argued for developing and the vocational route. However, whilst his might seem like comfortably progressive territory it really isn’t. Such thinking is guilty of ignoring the context in which choices are made within education. In an egalitarian educational utopia a ‘gold standard’ vocational education would be possible and could lead to lucrative opportunities. But in a system in which an unequal start is a given such choices all too easily cement underlying inequality, as the evidence above clearly shows. Nearly a hundred years ago John Dewey – one of the founding fathers of progressive education – expressed concern that vocational education might make education ‘an instrument of perpetuating unchanged the existing industrial order of society, instead of operating as a means of its transformation’. Looking at the education system today it is difficult to avoid feeling that his concern was justified.