Parental Social Class and Filial School Level Educational Outcomes in Contemporary Britain: Analysis of Understanding Society and Administrative Data

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Sociology


Despite changes in the education system, children from less advantaged social classes (for example those with parents in routine, semi-routine and manual occupations) still have far less favourable educational outcomes. The proposed research project will build on existing research to develop the sociological understanding of the relationship between parent's social class and their children's school level educational attainment through a secondary analysis of Understanding Society (the UK Household Longitudinal Study) and administrative educational data.

There are a number of notable data limitations for studying the relationship between social class and educational outcomes. The discontinuation of large-scale studies such as the Youth Cohort Study of England and Wales leaves a gap in the data portfolio. The Longitudinal Study of Young People in England is a single cohort of children born in the early 1990s and therefore the data on school educational outcomes is dated. The participants in the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) are moving towards the end of their school-based education and the emerging data will be valuable. The MCS is also a single cohort of children born between 2000/2 and at the current time there are no concrete plans to collect another birth cohort.

An increasing amount of administrative data is becoming available for social science research, for example school examination results. The levels of accuracy and the breadth of coverage in these data resources is advantageous. A limitation of administrative educational datasets is that important background measures relating to the pupil and their family are usually absent. Researchers will routinely rely on very simplistic measures of social background such as free school meals, or area based indicators of social deprivation. Whilst these measures are associated with poverty they are very poor proxies for social class, and they are a long way from providing a sophisticated representation of the social class structure in contemporary Britain.

The proposed research directly addresses the existing data related limitations. We will undertake a secondary analysis of Understanding Society. These data include detailed information on children, their parents and their households. This will be combined with official administrative data (from the National Pupil Database) to investigate the contemporary relationship between social class and school educational outcomes. Understanding Society data includes a wealth of detailed measures on the child's mother and father, and on the wider household. The design of Understanding Society is special because information on step-parents and non-resident parents is also collected. This is unique and is likely to make a distinctive contribution to better understanding children's circumstances in contemporary Britain.

There are a number of approaches to measuring social class and Understanding Society contains the information required to produce a wide array of measures. The most established measures used in the study of educational inequalities in the UK are occupation based measures, and occupations have long been considered as the most important single indicators of economic and social positions. Recently this perspective has been questioned, and a new measure of social class has been developed that is based on measures of individuals' economic, cultural and social resources. The detailed study of these resources has the potential to offer new insights into the processes which lead to educational inequalities. In this study we propose to use the rich data within Understanding Society to evaluate capital and resources based approaches to social class alongside existing occupation based social class measures. This will provide an innovative analysis of the relationship between parental social class and children's school level educational attainment in contemporary Britain.

Planned Impact

We are confident that this project can achieve both social science excellence and high impact outside of academia. The proposed project will deliver benefits to non-academic knowledge users and non-academic researchers.

The substantive aim of the proposed research is to provide an informed evidence base addressing the influence of parental social class on filial educational outcomes. This new evidence on educational inequalities will be of interest to policy makers, the third sector, the media and the general public. The dissemination of the substantive outputs of this research will result in conceptual impact by increasing awareness of the nature of educational inequalities.

Policy Makers and Third Sector Organisations
In the 2017 Green Paper 'Building Our Industrial Strategy', the government highlights the need to build a stronger, fairer Britain that works for everyone, not just the privileged few. Central to the Industrial Strategy is increasing levels of economic competitiveness through improving education. The proposed research will make a distinctive and impactful contribution to better understanding the relationships between family background and school educational outcomes, and speaks directly to a number of strands within the Industrial Strategy.

The proposed research will provide evidence on the extent to which different elements of parent's lives and jobs influence their children's educational attainment. This will be relevant to those seeking to build evidence based policies to tackle educational inequalities. The new empirical evidence provided by the proposed project will make an important contribution by providing information that is directly relevant to our understanding of social inequalities, the processes of social stratification, and social mobility. Potential knowledge users who will benefit from this new substantive evidence include third sector organisations concerned with social inequalities (e.g. the Social Mobility Foundation, the Sutton Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation). This new evidence will also be relevant to government researchers and policy makers for compiling evidence reviews and policy documents relating to education, inequalities and social mobility.

Schools, Teachers and Young People
The proposed research will be of value to teachers working with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. This research will inform teaching professionals by highlighting those factors which contribute to improved educational outcomes amongst disadvantaged young people. This will benefit schools in the pursuit of improving the educational outcomes of disadvantaged young people. The outputs of this project, particularly the graphical illustrations of our key findings, can also be used as novel teaching aids to facilitate the discussion social inequality with young people themselves.

The General Public
Through sharing the substantive outputs of this project with the general public we will make a contribution to the conceptual understanding of educational inequalities in contemporary Britain.

Non-Academic Social Science Researchers
Non-academic researchers will benefit from our training workshop in the use of Understanding Society data for research in the fields of education, families and social inequality. Understanding Society data has a complex design and sampling strategy, which enables a range of specialised analyses. The challenge of using Understanding Society data is that standard data analysis techniques do not take into account the complexity of the design and selection strategy. This presents an obstacle for many non-academic social science researchers. Complex survey designs are increasingly common, for example the Millennium Cohort Study is also a complex sample. Therefore providing training to non-academic researchers through the proposed workshop will have wider applications and will broaden the user base of Understanding Society and other ESRC data investments.


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