Publish at March 05 2006 Updated September 08 2022

Social disadvantage and the educational pathways of individuals

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Paper Abstract

This paper presents an analysis of the relationship between social disadvantage and educational pathways for individuals from disadvantaged family backgrounds at each stage of their lives, and describes some of the consequences of these pathways for society as a whole.

A general conclusion is that while education can serve as a social elevator -- providing better employment prospects for youth most at risk of deprivation and reducing the prevalence of economic poverty in adulthood -- educational failure can, in contrast, reinforce social disadvantage: in several OECD countries, a significant minority of students do not even complete compulsory education; at the lower secondary level, students' test scores are highly dependent on family characteristics; and the expansion of university education has most often benefited households with relatively better educated parents.

Far from "leveling" the playing field, education can be a powerful driver of social selection. In a context where the returns to education increase over time, this dynamic could lead to greater generational persistence of poverty as well as a decrease in equality of opportunity.

This report also analyzes the role of policies that focus more specifically on the learning pathways of people from disadvantaged backgrounds as part of a broader strategy to combat poverty and social exclusion. These measures can be grouped into two broad categories:

  • Education policies

    These policies can be designed to compensate for key aspects of home-based disadvantage that inhibit educational success, but do not necessarily inhibit the success of the best students. In some OECD countries, school entry rules are much more equitable than in others, and the distribution of students by skill level occurs at a later age. Measures to strengthen both cognitive and non-cognitive skills of students from disadvantaged backgrounds can play an important role in limiting social exclusion and mitigating the use of social measures later in life.

  • Social policies

    These policies can be designed to have a greater educational content. Preferred in this case are: policies that provide financial resources to families on the condition that they send their children to school; training programs targeted at young people who have left the regular school system prematurely; adult training targeted at individuals with a low level of education; policies to validate prior learning; and programs that aim to change parents' attitudes toward schooling (e.g., parenting programs) or that provide out-of-school activities, which can influence groups of children of the same age.

A critical aspect of learning pathways programs is the life stage at which they are implemented. Over the years, a considerable body of evidence has accumulated supporting the importance of targeting programs to children from disadvantaged backgrounds beginning in preschool. There is less agreement about the effects of targeted programs on disadvantaged individuals later in life.

This paper reviews evidence on three types of programs: school-based programs for disadvantaged students; financial aid and mentoring provided to these students; and programs for adults and high school dropouts. Available evaluations suggest that when these programs are properly designed, well-targeted, adequately funded, and monitored with appropriate evaluation strategies, they can improve both the employment and earnings prospects of people from poor families.

Social disadvantage and education experiences (.pdf) by Stephen Machin, OECD.

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