14 SES 03 B, Parental Involvement with Schools and Children‘s Education (Part 2)
This paper focuses on choice of subjects at A level, i.e. during the last two year of secondary schooling in Britain prior to going to university. Generally, pupils have to gain passes in at least three subjects to be able to go to university. While this is the minimum requirement, qualifications are what Hirsch (1976) has termed “positional goods” because their value is not absolute, but depends in part on the qualifications other people hold. Following educational expansion, many more pupils take A levels and enter university, and the range of A level subjects taken has also increased. Prestigious universities in particular now face a large number of applicants who all fulfil the minimum requirement of holding three A level passes, and who in many cases have achieved high marks. Given that they seek to admit the most able, they have to use other indicators of ability, with one of these being the A level subjects studied. “Traditional” subjects, perceived as intellectually more demanding, are favoured by prestigious universities, although most institutions deny that they use hard and fast rules about which subjects are permitted or aren’t.
While pupils may be expected to choose their A level subjects on the basis of ability and interest, their choice also constrains or enables later university admission. However, since officially all A level subjects are equally valued, some pupils may be unaware of the significance of their choices. We expect that social capital (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1979, Coleman, 1988) is required for pupils to access informal knowledge which lets them choose “suitable” A level subjects. We investigate two possible sources of such knowledge: parents and schools. Parents who hold degrees themselves are more likely to have knowledge they can use to provide their children with an advantage in a world where inflation of educational credentials has taken place and where qualifications are a positional good. Academically selective schools also can provide the necessary knowledge and social capital, and it is in their interest to do so since their reputation depends, amongst other things, on the number of their pupils gaining access to prestigious universities.
We use lists published by two prestigious institutions, the London School of Economics and Trinity College Cambridge, to code subjects as being “suitable” in the view of these institutions. These institutions are exceptional in making their lists public. There is considerable overlap between their lists. Using data from Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM), we investigate ability, gender, parental education and type of school (non-selective versus selective) as potential factors which may contribute to pupils’ choosing “suitable” subjects.
Bourdieu, Pierre & Passeron, Jean-Claude (1979): The inheritors. French students and their relation to culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Coleman, James S. (1988): Social capital in the creation of human capital. American Journal of Sociology, 94 Supplement, S95-S120. Hirsch, Fred (1976): Social limits to growth. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. Ragin, Charles C. (1987): The Comparative Method. Moving beyond Qualitative and Quantitative Strategies. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press. Ragin, Charles C. (2000): Fuzzy-Set Social Science. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. Ragin, Charles C. (2008): Redesigning Social Inquiry: Fuzzy Sets and Beyond. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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