School subject choices and social inequalities in higher education entry and labour market outcomes

This project aimed to assess whether and to what extent social class differentials in entry to higher education and in occupational destinations are mediated by subject choices in secondary education. In Scotland and overall in the UK, students in upper secondary education are free to choose the type and number of subjects. At the same time, universities, in particular the Russell Group universities, require students to have studied certain subjects in secondary education in order to gain access to the desired study programme in their institutions. These institutional characteristics may reinforce social inequalities in higher education entry and the choice of institution in Scotland (and the UK) and ultimately affect the chances for social mobility.

In order to highlight this mechanism, the project compared the mediating role of subject choice for social inequalities in higher education outcomes between Scotland and Ireland where selection into higher education is mostly based on attainment. Moreover, the researchers used this country comparison to assess whether subject choices in secondary education explain social class differentials in labour market outcomes among those who do not opt for higher education in Scotland to a larger extent than in Ireland.

Further work was carried out to unpack the influence of curriculum choices in secondary education on young people’s labour market destinations. Using regression analyses of school leavers’ survey data from Ireland and Scotland, we analysed to what extent subjects studied and grades achieved in secondary school matter for young people’s occupational opportunities. We found that subject choice are more important for employment chances and access to higher status positions in Scotland than in Ireland. Higher grades enhance access to higher quality jobs in both countries. We further analysed this issue in Scotland by using data from the Scottish Longitudinal Study. Among more recent cohorts of school-leavers, we found little gender differences but strong parental background differences in school leavers’ employment status and type of occupation entered. Social inequalities in labour market outcomes were only partly explained by curriculum choices.

Outputs associated with this research:

Iannelli, C., Smyth, E. and Klein, M. (2016) Curriculum differentiation and social inequality in higher education entry in Scotland and Ireland. British Educational Research Journal, 42(4): 561-581.

Iannelli, C. and Duta, A. (2017) Inequalities in school leavers’ labour market outcomes: do school subject choices matter?
CLS (Centre for Longitudinal Studies) Working Paper 2017/3.

Iannelli, C. and Smyth, E. (forthcoming) ‘Curriculum choices and school-to-work transitions among upper-secondary school leavers in Scotland and Ireland.’ Journal of Education and Work – Special issue Bridging divides: An appreciation of the contribution of David Raffe (1950-2015)

AQMeN Research Briefing 7- Iannelli, C and Klein, M Subject choice and inequalities in access to Higher Education Comparing Scotland and Ireland 

Policy relevance:
This research is policy-relevant because it identifies mechanisms by which social inequalities in secondary and tertiary education come about and how they affect labour market outcomes and gives policy makers crucial insights in how to reduce social differences in life course outcomes.

Researchers associated with this project:

Cristina Iannelli

Emer Smyth
Markus Klein
Adriana Duta