Educational inequalities in Britain revisited: a new approach to investigating primary and secondary effects of social origins

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Funded by: British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship  & OUP John Fell Fund

Start date: 2017

End date: 2019

Project outline

Despite decades of educational expansion and reform in Britain, social inequalities in educational attainment have persisted. Individuals from more advantaged backgrounds not only outperform those from less advantaged backgrounds in tests and examinations (primary effects), they also make more ambitious educational choices at comparable levels of prior performance (secondary effects). It is important to understand the relative importance of primary and secondary effects, in order to determine appropriate policy interventions. Sociologists and economists have alike addressed these issues but existing findings are inconclusive. Moreover, certain questions have been neglected. For example, previous studies have focused almost exclusively on the influence of inequalities in families’ economic, rather than social and cultural, resources. This is likely to underestimate the size of both primary and secondary effects. Further, little effort has been made to identify the mechanisms that generate secondary effects, an understanding of which is crucial for policy interventions.

Against this background, the main objective of the research programme is to give a full and comprehensive account of the primary and secondary effects of social origins on individuals’ educational attainment in Britain, and to explore the underlying mechanisms that could explain secondary effects. The programme is an ambitious one, bringing together approaches from different disciplines, including sociology, economics, psychology and social statistics.

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