THE subjects a child studies in the classroom are more likely to impact on their social mobility later in life than the school they attend, a new study has found.
Researchers at Edinburgh University said curriculum had a more profound effect on social inequality than attendance at private school.
Data from the National Child Development Study was used to analyse the occupations of people who were in secondary school between 1969 and 1976.
The study looked at the individuals when they were aged 23, 33 and 42 to assess the long-term effects of the curriculum they followed at school.
The findings, published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, show that by age 33, attendance at either a grammar school or an independent school could be shown to have provided a small “advantage”.
But there was a greater benefit to be gained from the curriculum itself, with people from advantaged social backgrounds more likely to have studied a larger number of courses in key subjects such as languages, English, maths and science.
Dr Cristina Iannelli, a senior lecturer at Edinburgh University’s Moray House School of Education, said the research had shown middle-class parents were more likely to make the right choices about what their children should study.
She said: “In the British education systems, subject choices were, and still are, crucial for gaining access to prestigious universities and for entering professional jobs. This study uncovers subject choice as one of the mechanisms by which middle-class parents were able to put their children onto the right path leading to the top occupational destinations.”
Dr Iannelli added: “We should not overlook the importance of subject choices in secondary school for creating opportunities for social mobility.
“Policies oriented to increase the number of pupils from less advantaged social backgrounds having access to, and being encouraged to take up, core subjects such as languages, English, maths and science might help to reduce inequalities in education and the labour market.”
According to the study, attendance at a private school was found to explain only a small proportion of the inequality of those entering the best jobs.
When analysing outcomes at age 33, about 8 per cent of the “advantage transmitted” by a middle-class parent and 16 per cent by a highly educated parent was linked to the school type.
However, a larger portion of this effect was explained by curriculum studied. Curricula accounted for 23 and 29 per cent of the advantage associated with having a parent from top social classes or a highly educated parent respectively, researchers said.
Taken together, curricula and school types accounted for between a quarter and a third of the advantage associated with growing up as middle class.
The research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, claims to be the first time the link between curriculum and social mobility has been demonstrated.
The study found that at age 42, the positive effect of studying key subjects persisted, while the effect of having attended different types of school was found to have diminished.