Being born to a parent with a university degree is more likely to guarantee a child top grades at school in England than in the US, Australia and Germany, a study has revealed.
Researchers found England was “significantly behind similar nations” in creating an equal chance of achieving high exam scores for pupils from the least well-educated homes compared with those from the most well-educated families.
A study of 16,000 14-year-olds, commissioned by the educational charity the Sutton Trust, found that in England, 56% of teenagers whose parents had degrees scored high enough grades to perform in the top quarter of their peer group. This was the case for just 9% of teenagers whose parents had left school without qualifications. The gap of 47 percentage points is more than twice Australia’s (23 percentage points), and higher than Germany’s and the US’s (37 and 43 percentage points respectively).
The researchers, from Essex University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, discovered that in England and Scotland, there is a particularly strong link between the number of books a family owns and how well their child performs in maths tests. In England, children whose parents have more than 100 books are 4.7 times likelier to achieve high enough results to be in the top quarter of their peer group than those whose parents have fewer. In Scotland, they are 5.6 times likelier, while in Canada and Australia they are 2.9 and three times likelier, respectively.
The researchers said the “stark inequality” in England could be attributed to highly educated parents ensuring their children had places at top-performing secondary schools. These schools often had better resources and teaching, they said.
They are also usually in neighbourhoods with high house prices, and so parents from poorer areas may live too far away for their child to be awarded a place.
However, there are signs of improvement over time, the study found. In England four years ago, children with parents who had a degree were four times more likely to obtain at least five A* to C grades at GCSE than those with parents who did not go to university. Some 32 years earlier, children with university-educated parents were 6.5 times more likely to obtain good O-level grades – the forerunner of GCSEs – than children whose parents did not have degrees.
Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “A major obstacle to education, and consequently to social mobility, is the high level of social segregation in English secondary schools. The widening achievement gap is almost entirely accounted for by the fact that children from degree-educated parents are far more likely to attend higher performing secondary schools and so benefit from a positive school effect. If every child went to a school with similar average test results, there would be no further widening of the achievement gap that exists at age 11.”
He called for radical change to create more balanced intakes in secondary schools and new approaches to improve attainment for the poorest children. He said: “A failure to respond to this challenge is to condemn our disadvantaged youngsters – and our economy – to the bottom of the class in education’s world order. The concern is that if England compares unfavourably in international comparisons now, it may fall even further behind when it comes to future international comparisons of social mobility.”