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Family, school and jobs: intergenerational social mobility in Next Steps

SHAO, XIN (2022) Family, school and jobs: intergenerational social mobility in Next Steps. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

PDF (This is the PDF of the final post-examination version of my PhD thesis full-tex) - Accepted Version


Young people’s higher education (HE) participation, and early access to labour markets, in the UK and other developed countries, are stratified according to their socio-economic origins and prior educational attainment. Such background factors are difficult to change in an individual’s lifetime, they are presumably not the only determinants of stratified outcomes, and anyway they could be mediated by peer influence and the issue of who goes to school with whom. This new study examines the relationships between a wide range of such social and economic factors relating to birth characteristics, family background, secondary schooling characteristics, and post-16 destinations, and it explores the possible reasons behind their links to HE and labour market outcomes.

At the core of the study is an innovative combination of the large-scale nationally representative longitudinal Next Steps survey dataset linked to the robust administrative National Pupil Database (NPD) for England. In order to investigate the degree of social justice and equity in education, the study tracks the life course of a cohort of 5,192 state-school-educated young people in England from age 13 to age 25, to build a comprehensive picture of the journeys of these young people entering the labour market in their early adulthood. Analytical methods used include cross-tabulations, effect sizes, correlations and regression models. The main outcomes of interest are HE participation, and labour market outcomes as indicated by employment status and professional occupation status.

The findings show a complex but relatively clear picture, providing some confirmatory and some new evidence on the correlates of intergenerational social mobility in a large cohort of people who are currently in their early 30s. Disadvantaged young people are consistently under-represented in HE participation and the labour market, especially in professional occupations. Bivariate analyses show that HE opportunities and labour market outcomes are systematically unbalanced between different socio-economic groups of young people, suggesting that destinations are strongly stratified by social origins. All of the factors considered in this study are independently associated with post-16 outcomes when analysed separately.

Regression models reveal that, once birth characteristics are controlled for, the most important predictor of HE entry is prior educational attainment. This is followed by parental and pupil aspirations, parental occupation and education, material ownership at home, positive schooling experiences, and geographical location.

In terms of employment status, doing an apprenticeship is the most powerful predictor of being employed at age 25 (although this may be skewed by the small number of young people still in formal education at that age). This is followed by prior educational attainment, material ownership at home, and prior HE entry.

The relationship between the predictors and having a professional occupation status is slightly different. Regression analysis demonstrates that the key predictors of having a professional job are prior educational attainment, HE participation, parental and pupil aspirations, and positive schooling experiences. However, unlike generic employment status, evidence shows that having done an apprenticeship does not contribute to higher chances of landing a professional job.

These findings collectively offer a core message in terms of fair access to life opportunities; the most import barriers to access to HE and professional occupations are stratified prior educational attainment and poverty-related factors at home.

More crucially, the study also makes the first attempt to explore the level of segregation by background characteristics that is experienced at school as a potential factor in intergenerational social mobility. It is, to our knowledge, the only study to date which examines whether and to what extent who goes to school with whom might play a role in these outcomes beyond school. Bivariate analyses show that the clustering of pupils of similarly poorer socio-economic backgrounds at school is consistently linked to lower chances of HE participation and poorer labour market outcomes. Regression analyses further suggest that the level of between-school segregation an individual experiences plays a small role in all post-16 pathways, over and above that which can be explained by individual factors.

In the light of these results, it appears that life destinations are still patterned by background inequality in modern England. However, there are promising signs that policy interventions – including creating a more socially mixed school intake, providing more financial support for low-income families such as travel bursaries, continuing and improving contextualised assessment in both university admissions and recruitment processes, and investing more in public transport in deprived areas – can help to improve fair access to HE and the labour market. These interventions can bring other long-term benefits such as life satisfaction too. Perhaps, instead of advocating or focusing on promoting social mobility, policymakers should devote more energy to and invest more money in tackling social inequality and improving equity in education and life opportunities. If this were to be done effectively, then social mobility could, presumably, look after itself.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:social mobility, school segregation, higher education participation, labour market outcomes
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Social Sciences and Health > Education, School of
Thesis Date:2022
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:01 Sep 2022 15:55

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