Children of similar cognitive ability have very different chances of educational success

29 May 2019

Britain’s got talent – but we’re still wasting it. That’s the main finding of a new Nuffield-funded report by researchers from Oxford University published today.

Children of similar cognitive ability have very different chances of educational success, depending on their parents’ economic, socio-cultural and educational resources. This contradicts a commonly held view that these days that our education system has developed enough to give everyone a fighting chance.

The researchers, led by Dr Erzsébet Bukodi from Oxford’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention, looked at data from cohorts of children born in three decades: 1950s, 1970s and 1990s. They found significant evidence of a wastage of talent. Individuals with high levels of cognitive ability but who are disadvantaged in their social origins are persistently unable to translate their ability into educational attainment to the same extent as their more advantaged counterparts.

The research found that only about half of the difference in educational attainment between children from advantaged and disadvantaged parental backgrounds is due to differences in their cognitive ability. The other half is due to other factors associated with their backgrounds.

‘If we compare the educational attainment of children born in the 1990s to those in the late 1950s and early 1970s, we see that parent’s economic resources have become a less important factor, but their socio-cultural and educational resources have grown in significance,’ says Dr Bukodi. ‘That means that your parents’ place in society and their own level of education still play a big part in how well you may do.’

These experts are now calling for policy-makers to acknowledge that formal qualifications are only one channel for upward mobility for high-ability individuals of disadvantaged backgrounds. Dr Bukodi says: ‘These findings show that there are limits to how far inequalities of opportunity can be reduced through educational policy alone. Changes in educational policy aren’t having the impact we want.’ Apart from education, job training programmes, promotions or becoming self-employed in higher-level occupations are important channels for upward mobility.