While young people have been going to college in greater numbers over the past 20 years the Scottish higher education rate versus the English has been 'consistently and substantially' greater in Scotland, according to a unique study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
The project, led by Dr Linda Croxford with Professor David Raffe of the University of Edinburgh, found that while the Scottish system encouraged young people to study beyond the age of 16, middle class students took most advantage.
Using carefully constructed sets of data drawn from ongoing surveys of thousands of young people aged 16-19, researchers were able for the first time to analyse the effects of social change on their experiences through and beyond the education system, and to map trends across Britain.
The report says that more than half of Britain’s 16-year olds in the mid-1980s felt that school had done little to prepare them for life, compared with just a third by 1999. And those feeling it had helped give them confidence to make decisions rose from 52 to 70 per cent.
The research compared the success rates of young people from working-class and middle-class backgrounds. Their findings for England present a more positive picture than other recent studies which show class inequalities remaining stable or even increasing. Inequalities in attainment at age 16 changed little over the period, but at ‘A’ level and entry to higher education in England, they narrowed slightly over the period.
In Scotland, the picture was different. Inequalities at age 16 were similar to England, though with more evidence of the gap closing north of the border. But inequalities in attainment at 18 and in entry to higher education were considerably wider north of the border, and showed fewer signs of narrowing over the period.
Even so, according to the study, overall levels of attainment and participation were higher in Scotland. And despite wider inequalities, Scottish working-class youngsters consistently outperformed their English peers.
Dr Croxford said: “The narrowing of the gap in Scotland during compulsory education years may reflect the stronger Scottish emphasis on comprehensive education.”
She continued: “A key issue, however, is the effect of educational expansion on social inequalities. In Scotland young people from higher social classes have been far more successful in gaining academic qualifications so that they can take advantage of increasing opportunities for higher education.”
Professor Raffe said: “In England, the narrowing of inequalities at 18-plus may reflect the growth of vocational courses and the increased diversity of post-16 opportunities during the 1980s and 1990s.
“For Scotland, our findings pre-date the new courses and qualifications introduced by the Higher Still programme, and we need more research to find out if they have spread opportunities more widely.”
He added: “The implications of our findings may depend on how we value education. If education has value in its own right, the working class has been better off in Scotland. However, if education only has value to the extent that you possess more of it than other people, the working class has been better off in England.”