Better schools key to higher achievements

Better educated parents put their children into ‘better schools’, particularly at the secondary school level.

The way English children are sorted into secondary schools affects inequality in their educational achievements.

Children of better educated parents improve their educational performance more during secondary school than those of less educated parents, according to data from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE)4. A generally accepted target for achievements at the end of compulsory secondary school is for the student to have five GCSEs at grades A*-C, including English and Maths. Forty-seven per cent of the sample reach this target overall, with the percentage rising from 20 per cent of the lowest parental education group to 79 per cent of the top group.

Findings from the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) reveal that adolescents with better educated parents have greater chances of improvement in school test results between 11 and 16. Part of the reason for this, say researchers, appears to be related to the sorting of children into secondary schools. Better educated parents put their children in better quality schools, and the association between school quality and parental background is stronger at secondary school than primary school.

A ‘better school’ would be one with better teachers and other educational resources, and a better classroom environment, including better behaved pupils and better interactions among pupils and between pupils and teachers. Better educated parents manage to send their children to better schools primarily by living in areas with good access to these type of schools.

How can policy reduce educational inequality related to parental background? More equal access to good schools could make some contribution, but as long as there is large variation in school quality it would be limited because more affluent parents can afford to locate closer to better schools. Reducing the variance of school quality through a ‘levelling up’ of quality could make a large contribution, but although we know what makes a school better, it is not clear how this can be achieved.

Improving education mobility is a pressing need as education mobility for the current generation of children has not changed in the least educated households5. Indeed, the disadvantage of having poorly educated parents in terms of performing well in tests at age 11 and age 16 is the same for the current generation of children as the previous generation.

However, the advantage of having degree-educated parents in terms of performing well in tests at age 11 and age 16 has diminished for the current generation of children compared with previous generations, indicating an improvement in education mobility.

In 2006 (for children born in 1989/90), the chance of obtaining at least five GCSEs with grades of A*-C was four times higher for children of degree-educated parents than for children whose parents did not go to university. However, the relative advantage has declined over time.

In 1974 (for children born in 1958), the odds were 6.5 times higher. This effect, researchers explain, could be due to the increase in proportion of children in this top educational grouping, making it less exclusive than successive generations as the education levels of parents have risen.

Nonetheless, stark achievement gaps between children of degree-educated parents and those of uneducated parents remain. In 2006, 79 per cent of children with degree-educated parents obtained at least five GCSEs at A*-C grades compared with 33 per cent of children whose parents left school without any O-levels or equivalent qualifications – a gap of 46 percentage points. In 1986 and 1974 the equivalent achievement gap in O-levels was 44 percentage points.

More qualifications needed from longer stay in school