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Social Class, Ability and Choice of Subject in Secondary and Tertiary Education in Britain

By Herman van der Werfhorst, Alice Sullivan and Sin Yi Cheung


This paper examines the impact of family background (social class, cultural and economic capital) and ability on the choice of subjects in secondary and tertiary education in Britain. Using a framework that integrates rational choice perspectives and cultural reproduction theory, we assume that children take their parents’ social position as a reference for their own choices, and are guided mainly by the amount of economic and cultural capital that is available within the family. Using longitudinal data from the 1958 British birth cohort (N = 13,245), the empirical analysis shows that children from higher social class backgrounds achieved a higher standard in both humanities and scientific subjects in primary and secondary school. Furthermore, children of the professional class were relatively likely to choose the prestigious subjects of medicine and law in university, independent of ability. Both absolute and relative levels of ability were relevant to the choice of subject at degree level, as it was found that people chose subjects that they were relatively good at compared to other subjects. This concept of ‘comparative advantage’ gives additional insight into field-of-study choices, but does not explain the gender segregation across disciplines

Year: 2003
OAI identifier:

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