The persistence of socio-economic disadvantage in education

By Marie-Hélène Doumet

Senior Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Many people believe that educational pathways are largely determined by merit. But the concept of merit in education can be controversial – particularly when educational opportunities and performance are influenced by socio-economic status and other external factors. Our rapidly changing world has also forced us to challenge our very understanding of the term “merit”, which has expanded beyond academic competencies to include social and emotional skills – many of which are still more commonly learned outside the classroom.

Education systems have been slow to adapt to this trend. Many countries still use academic performance as the main criterion for tracking secondary students. This can limit students’ options for higher education, especially if higher education programs are selective and open only to those from certain upper secondary tracks. Disadvantaged students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are particularly at risk, as they are more likely to struggle academically.

Educational policies have attempted to correct for this by building flexible pathways that remove entry barriers or cut across programmes and levels, providing students with a second chance to develop their skills at higher levels of education. But as we describe in the latest edition of Education Indicators in Focus, the playing field has not been levelled in all countries.

Our brief focuses on how socio-economic status influences the transition from upper secondary to tertiary education. This is a pivotal moment in a student’s life, as it sets the tone for their career prospects, and it is one that disadvantaged students have difficulty navigating. According to our analysis, disadvantaged students are less likely to advance at each milestone during this period. As the figure above shows, the share of students without tertiary-educated parents (a proxy often used for socio-economic status) decreases between entry to upper secondary, graduation from upper secondary and entry to tertiary education. Disadvantaged students also tend to be over-represented in upper secondary vocational programmes, which do not always grant access to tertiary education.

Countries have taken different approaches to promoting equity throughout education, and have faced various challenges. In Norway for example, disadvantaged students are less likely to complete upper secondary education. Those who do, however, are almost as likely to enter tertiary education as their more advantaged peers. In contrast, the Netherlands faces more inequities in access to tertiary education, partly due to the fact that around 40% of upper secondary students enrol in upper secondary vocational programmes that do not grant access to tertiary education.

In an effort to expand higher education opportunities to those left behind, some countries have favoured open rather than selective admission systems or have set up transition pathways to give upper secondary vocational students access to higher levels of education. The extent to which such measures are effective however, remains questionable. In France, for example, tertiary education is theoretically accessible to all students with upper secondary qualifications, yet those from disadvantaged backgrounds still tend to be under-represented. And even when they do enrol in tertiary programmes, they are still less likely to graduate.

Clearly, not all students develop their skills at the same pace. Flexible pathways can provide struggling students with a second chance to develop their strengths and passions, but the success of such pathways will hinge on whether students actually follow them, enrol and complete their degrees. Without the required skills built up from their early schooling or awareness of these pathways, such policies may have patchy results at best. Ultimately, the most effective way to tackle inequities in education is to address them early on, when they first appear. After all, it is better to know how to swim before diving into the deep end.

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