Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Family, Gender, and Educational Attainment in Britain: A Longitudinal Study*

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Family, Gender, and Educational Attainment in Britain: A Longitudinal Study*

Article excerpt


The odds are stacked in favour of some young people and against others when it comes to educational attainment in Britain. For example, some youth are more advantaged than others because of privileged socio-economic backgrounds and supportive families. Class is one dimension associated with (dis)advantage. Despite the expansion of educational qualifications, it seems that the relationship between class origins and educational attainment has stayed remarkably constant, when considering relative chances (Heath and Clifford, 1996; Marshall et al, 1997). Nevertheless, classifications that label some youth as being 'at-risk' or 'advantaged' ignore the considerable individual variation in youth achievement. In recent years, research has increasingly focused on the complex ways families transmit advantage from one generation to the next and the active role that young people play in this process.

The transmission of advantage involves at least three different aspects. First, families reproduce advantage through different forms of capital, including financial, human, cultural and social capital (e.g. Bourdieu, 1986; Coleman, 1988; Furstenberg and Hughes, 1995; Sullivan, 2001). Second, household structure and family processes help shape the young person's capabilities and create various opportunities and constraints that mould the young person's development (e.g. Joshi et al., 1999; Schoon et al., 2003). Third, young people themselves play an active role in shaping both present circumstances and future pathways (e.g. Brannen and O'Brien, 1996).

A key question in debates about family transmission concerns the relationship between structure and agency. This debate goes far beyond the scope of this paper (for example, see Archer 1988; Emirbayer and Mische, 1998). However, we do address the crucial role that young people play in realising the opportunities that family background and parenting support can offer. We also consider the way that gender ideology is manifest in the transmission process. This ranges from the way that gender differences in young people's educational attainment are interpreted, through to the debates about how maternal employment or female headed families may impede young people's attainment.

In this paper, we use six years of data from the British Household Panel Study (1994-1999) to examine how family background, maternal employment, parenting practices, youth characteristics and gender role attitudes and aspirations in early adolescence help shape later educational outcomes in terms of success at two key educational stages in England and Wales (or their Scottish equivalents). We analyse both the attainment of five or more good General Certificate of secondary Education (GCSE) passes at age 16 and also the achievement, by age 19, of two or more ?-levels passes. Both GCSE and A-level performance have improved over recent years, but there is an ongoing concern about differences in attainment by class and gender.

Attainment differences by gender have particularly caught the public interest. The British media gears up each year for the reporting of GCSE and A-level attainment as if this were a major battle-field in an on-going war of the sexes. It is well known that boys are now lagging behind girls in educational attainment (Younger and Warrington 1996) and the candidates for 'blame' range from generalities about the clash of school and 'laddish' cultures to specific concerns about the curriculum (Yates, 1997; Epstein et al, 1998, Francis 2000). For example, the shift towards continuous course-work assessment may disadvantage the anti-learning stance of boys and favour the more dutiful (female) students.

The family is also blamed for youth underachievement. Lone mothers and working mothers have been particularly singled out for scrutiny. Results from a small scale study of 540 teenagers in East London was reported by the BBC current affairs programme Panorama as showing that children of mothers who worked full-time did less well at school (O'Brien and Jones, 1999; Franks, 1999:235). …

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