Sources of change in the primary and secondary effects of social class origin on educational decisions: evidence from Denmark, 2002–2016

Authors: Jesper Fels Birkelund
Issue: 2020
Themes: ,
Link to Publication (External Site)

It is well-known that pupils from poorer backgrounds are more likely than their peers to take vocational rather than academic routes in upper secondary school – but what drives this? Does social class status itself lead to these decisions, or is there a mediating factor at play: that pupils from less well-off homes tend to do less well academically, and are therefore more likely to choose vocational pathways?

The analysis looks at these primary and secondary effects of social class on more than 200,000 pupils who completed the ninth grade of compulsory education in Denmark between 2002 and 2016. The proportion of pupils enrolling in the academic track increased from 55 to 72 per cent during that period.

This paper finds that in Denmark poorer pupils are becoming more likely to choose an academic path, reducing the educational gap between them and their peers. The research concludes that the weakening link between social class and educational choice is in part driven by a reduced mediating role of academic performance. Surprisingly, however, this is not caused by reduced social class gaps in academic performance, but rather by a weakened association between academic performance and educational choice.

The paper finds that:
• Social inequality in Denmark has declined because the effects of both social status and academic performance on educational decisions have weakened.
• The primary effect of social class on educational decisions has weakened despite a widening social class gap in academic performance.
• This weaker link between class and educational decisions is linked to a decline in the benefits young people gain from doing well academically.

The paper concludes that there are conflicts for policymakers in trying to reduce social inequality while maintaining a purely meritocratic system of education selection. In order to reduce the effects of social origin, it might be helpful to remove performance criteria for enrolment in an academic track. But this could be seen as unfair, and policymakers need to balance these considerations.