Working-class children don’t primarily do worse because they are ‘less bright’

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New study debunks the myth that the main reason for children from working-class backgrounds doing worse in school and in the labour market is that they are ‘less bright’ than other children.

The claim that differences in the life chances of children from different social backgrounds are mostly due to differences in cognitive ability between them continues to be influential in academic, policy and public debates. The remarkable persistence of this claim is likely because it legitimises the intergenerational reproduction of (dis)advantage by casting society as meritocratic and fair.

New research from the University of Oxford tests this claim and reveals that children’s cognitive ability can explain only about 35% of the gap in educational attainment, and 20% of the gap in labour market success between children from working-class backgrounds and children from more advantaged backgrounds. In other words, differences in cognitive ability explain a much smaller part of the inequality between children from working-class backgrounds and children from more advantaged social backgrounds than is often claimed. The study has just been published in the British Journal of Sociology.

‘Our findings highlight the need for researchers and policy makers to identify and address the different channels through which parents confer advantage to their children', says Dr Bastian Betthäuser, Associate here at DSPI and Research Fellow at Nuffield College, lead author of the study. ‘Moreover, policies should seek to equalise conditions for the cognitive development of children from different social backgrounds’.

The study also finds that differences in children’s sense of control over their lives (their ‘locus of control’) explain about 4% of the gap in educational attainment and labour market success between children from working-class backgrounds and children from more advantaged backgrounds. ‘Feeling in control of your life, and that you can influence the events and outcomes of your own life, is important to being successful,’ says Betthäuser. ‘Working-class children are likely to learn, observing the obstacles faced by their parents and other family members, that their chances for upward mobility are constrained, and therefore feel less in control. Existing evidence on the importance of individuals’ locus of control for a range of labour market outcomes suggests that policies that successfully instil a greater sense of control amongst disadvantaged children may aid them in their educational and labour market careers and thus compensate for some of the disadvantages they face’.

Betthäuser, B.A., Bourne, M. and E. Bukodi (2020) Understanding the mobility chances of children from working-class backgrounds in Britain: How important are cognitive ability and locus of control? British Journal of Sociology. 2020, 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-4446.12732