Academic flags up the role of subject choice in closing the attainment gap

Written by: Sam Phipps | Published:
Photo: iStock

Pupils from poorer backgrounds in Scotland are more likely to miss out on university because of their subject choices at secondary school, researchers have found.

Children from working class families tend to drop more academic subjects, including maths, sciences and languages, earlier and this damages their chances of entering higher education, according to Professor Cristina Iannelli of Edinburgh University.

The disparity is an important but so far widely overlooked part of the attainment gap which Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has pledged to tackle, Prof Iannelli said.

She told SecEd: “There is a great difference between social groups in terms of what subjects pupils decide to take at S3 and S4 and this cannot be put down entirely to attainment. Often individuals may simply not be aware of the importance of studying those subjects that Russell Group universities favour.”

Schools have given a mixed reaction to the findings, with some denying there is a social gap in subject choices and others admitting it is challenging to engage some pupils in more academic subjects, Prof Iannelli said.

“There is a lot of variation. On the other hand, the general pattern is clear – far fewer working class kids studying subjects that most readily gain them access to university.

“Some of the barriers are cultural: for instance, outside the classroom middle class children tend to have far more resources to draw on that will support them in academic subjects.”

Together with the attainment gap at primary and secondary, the question of how to break down social barriers to higher education is prominent in Scotland, following the establishment of the Scottish government Commission on Widening Access, which will report in spring 2016.

The Edinburgh University research was due to be presented at an event hosted by the Economic and Social Research Council in the Scottish capital yesterday (Wednesday, November 11), with evidence from Scotland being compared with the rest of the UK, Ireland, Germany and the US.

“We are trying to find some insight from other countries into what else we can do in Scotland so that certain subjects are not just attracting middle class candidates. We need to discuss what is missing and why we are not so successful,” Prof Iannelli said.

For their part, some Russell Group universities need to show more flexibility in admitting students without specific Highers if the individual candidates are clearly capable, she added.

Vonnie Sandlan, president of NUS Scotland, urged universities to do more: “That absolutely includes working much more closely with schools and colleges to ensure prospective students have the necessary advice and guidance to access higher education,” she added.

A Scottish government spokeswoman said young people from poorer areas were now more likely to enter higher education by the age of 30 than they were in 2006/07.


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