Inequalities and school curriculum: Informing policy on widening access to higher education and promoting social mobility

Research carried out by an international team of researchers led by Professor Iannelli provided new knowledge on the role of the school curriculum in widening access to higher education and promoting social mobility, which informed the work of the Commission on Widening Access (COWA) and the Scottish Government’s strategy to address the issue of subject choice in secondary schools.


Research hubs

Advanced Quantitative Research in Education

Social Justice and Inclusion

Research Experts

Professor Cristina Iannelli

Professor Lindsay Paterson

Dr Adriana Duta


Institute for Education, Community and Society (IECS)

What was the problem?

‘Tackling inequalities in Scottish society’ is one of the key National Outcomes of the Scottish Government (SG), and across the UK and worldwide governments and education institutions are seeking to reduce educational inequalities, widen access to higher education, and promote social mobility.

What did we do?

Over £1 million funding from the ESRC and the Scottish Funding Council underpinned eight studies conducted by Iannelli, Paterson and Duta as part of the Applied Quantitative Methods Network (AQMeN) research centre along with colleagues from other international institutions.

Findings have shown that institutional factors – including school curriculum, differentiation of higher education (HE) institutions, and the degree of linkages between education and the labour market – play a key role in the educational and labour market outcomes of young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

The research used high-quality, longitudinal large-scale survey and administrative data and applied advanced quantitative methods to understand how social inequalities in education and the labour market are reproduced both nationally and internationally.

What did we learn?

These new studies have introduced novel understandings of the mechanisms of social reproduction of inequalities in education and the labour market. The research on the role of specific subject choice, in particular, is important: it goes beyond the vocational/academic divide often discussed in international and national research.

The research also contributes to the wider debate about standardisation and differentiation of national education systems, and how they relate to social inequalities in education and labour market outcomes.

One of the key findings from the AQMeN research is that education systems that allow a high degree of flexibility in curriculum choices, such as the Scottish system, offer another avenue for social inequalities to emerge. This occurs since more socially advantaged parents have more information and resources for ensuring that their children make the best decisions, leading to higher educational attainment and better jobs.

This is especially true when higher education institutions put a strong emphasis on subjects as a way for differentiating and selecting applicants. The research has found that pupils from less advantaged social classes study fewer subjects than pupils from higher social classes. This difference is mainly due to the lower uptake of English, Languages, Mathematics, Sciences, Geography and History by less advantaged young people. These subjects are those deemed to ‘facilitate’ entry into UK universities, especially research-intensive universities.

Social inequalities in subject choices in secondary education, in turn, have consequences for later labour market outcomes. In a study on occupational outcomes at three points of individuals’ lives (at ages 23, 33 and 42) in the UK, Iannelli found that the higher representation of those from more advantaged social backgrounds in professional or managerial jobs was partially explained by the fact that they had studied a higher number of Languages, English, Mathematics and Science subjects at school.

Moreover, the AQMeN research team analysed the role of subject choices for the labour market outcomes of young people who do not enter higher education after leaving school.

The findings showed that having studied vocational subjects at school does not help young people from disadvantaged social backgrounds to achieve better labour market outcomes. Indeed, the study found the existing social inequalities in school-to-work transitions in Scotland could be only partly explained by curriculum choices.

The main conclusions from these studies are that the general nature of school curricula and the lack of standardisation of certifications in Scotland is unable to provide clear signals about school leavers’ knowledge and skills to future employers. However, having studied academic subjects is very important for enhancing young people’s chances of attending university, especially at more prestigious institutions.

What happened next?

This pioneering body of research has a) raised awareness of role of curriculum choices in contributing to social inequalities and b) informed the Scottish Government’s (SG) strategy for achieving its goal of reducing inequalities in university access.

Raising awareness of the role of curriculum choices in contributing to social inequalities in HE and labour market outcomes

This impact has been achieved through wide dissemination of the research to policymakers and practitioners in seven journal articles, two book chapters, various research briefings, numerous media reports and presentations at AQMeN events (such as those linked to above) to approximately 380 key Scottish policymakers, practitioners and academics through knowledge exchange events.

The research was also cited in a speech by Education Secretary Michael Gove at the 2015 Policy Exchange Education Conference stating:

The work of Dr Cristina Iannelli at Edinburgh University demonstrates that the type of curriculum you study - specifically enjoyment of core academic subjects - is more important than the type of school you attend, whether grammar, independent or comprehensive, in determining future success.

Michael GoveEducation Secretary

The research was also cited by HM Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman at the 2017 Ark's Teach Conference:

Research by Dr Cristina Iannelli at the University of Edinburgh has shown that differences in the secondary school curriculum have a much larger impact on social inequality than differences in school type. And so if we are ever to improve social mobility, between and within generations, we should start with sorting the curriculum.

Amanda SpielmanHM Chief Inspector

The research is also being used to raise awareness among the wider public and ultimately to impact the education experiences of socially disadvantaged pupils.

A theatre piece, ‘Schooled,’ was informed by Iannelli’s research on inequalities in curriculum choices and in education more generally, providing further insights on the underlying issues that are grounded in the lived experiences of pupils and teachers. Two performances of this work-in-progress piece took place in November 2018 at the Traverse theatre, which gathered 170 spectators including students, parents and teachers. After the show, the audience was invited to discuss the main messages from the play and to promote changes in policy and practice to address inequality issues in school.

Informing the Scottish Government’s strategic aim of reducing inequality in university access

The research has had a direct impact on the Scottish policymakers’ understanding and knowledge of the role of curriculum choice and inequality. For example, following the 2015 ESRC Festival of Social Science event on ‘Social Inequalities in Education: Why and How National Institutional Factors Matter', attended by several members of the Scottish Government’s Commission on Widening Access (COWA) as speakers and panellists, the Scottish Government’s Head of Education Analysis, Intelligence and Performance said:

We’re interested in ensuring that every child in Scotland fulfils their potential, so the research… will help us greatly in thinking about how we deal with the needs of children from different backgrounds, how we ensure that they get the chance to maximise their potential to enable them to attend higher education if that’s what they wish to do.

Scottish Government’s Head of Education Analysis, Intelligence and Performance

The COWA used insights from the research findings to inform their work in advising Ministers on steps necessary to ensure that every child has an equal chance of accessing higher education.

Iannelli and colleagues submitted written evidence to COWA in 2015 and have subsequently given oral evidence to and attended private meetings with COWA members to discuss their research findings.

The evidence provided resulted in the Commission including ‘secondary school subject choices’ among the barriers to access in the COWA interim report, which then led to their inclusion of Access to Key Subjects (Recommendation 18) as one of 34 key recommendations in their final report.

Final Report

Universities, colleges and local authorities should work together to provide access to a range of Higher and Advanced Higher subjects, which ensures that those from less advantaged backgrounds or living in rural areas are not restricted in their ability to access higher education by the subject choices available to them.

A Blueprint for Fairness: Final Report of the Commission on Widening Access

Our work on inequalities in curriculum choices and HE entry has been cited by the OECD (2021) in their report ‘Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: Into the Future’. The reference to our work focused on the key finding from the study which showed that social inequalities in HE entry were explained to a larger extent by subject choice in Scotland than in Ireland.

In particular, the report highlights our conclusions that flexibility in curriculum choices in Scotland may have the unintended consequence to disadvantage students from lower social backgrounds in the long run and this may hinder policy efforts to reduce inequalities.

Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: Into the Future