Research Handbook on the Sociology of Education
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Research Handbook on the Sociology of Education

Edited by Rolf Becker

Presenting original contributions from the key experts in the field, the Research Handbook on the Sociology of Education explores the major theoretical, methodological, empirical and political challenges and pressing social questions facing education in current times.
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Chapter 3: How does education depend on social origin?

Robert Erikson


Education has a major role in life in the modern world and the question of identifying how educational attainment is determined by social origin is central for the understanding of how people are situated in the social structure. To reduce how people’s educational achievement depends on their social origin is an important political goal. Inequality of educational opportunity (IEO), considered as the association between parents’ education, social class, status or income, and children’s educational attainment at adult age has been extensively studied during the last half-century. The social origin of men and women seems to account for no more than 25 per cent of the variation in their educational attainment in any advanced society and in most countries it accounts for clearly less. In most countries, the association between origin and education seems to have decreased in the period after World War II, a decrease that, in many countries, appears to have stalled with the cohorts born between 1950 and 1960. Given the other factors, parents’ education, social class, social status and income all have separate effects on children’s education. The role of educational performance in the transition to the next educational level – primary effects – and the role of choice given performance – secondary effects – appear to differ among children of different social origins, in all countries. In most countries, primary effects account for a greater part of the variation in transition rates at the first hurdle, from mandatory education to academic upper secondary school, than at the second, from academic upper secondary to tertiary education. The association between social origin and educational attainment is slightly smaller among women than among men, while the patterns are rather similar. The proportion of women who have attained higher education has increased greatly and considerably more so than for men. However, the expansion seems not to have had any substantial influence on IEO among women or men. Children of immigrants generally obtain less education than children from the majority population, but social origin factors have similar overall effects in the two groups. Immigrant children tend to perform less well in school, but given their performance, they tend to be more likely to choose to continue to the next educational level. Inequality of educational opportunity tends to be greater in stratified educational systems where children are divided into separate tracks in school at a relatively early age. In standardized systems where the curriculum is similar across schools and where students have to pass central examinations, IEO may be weaker.

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