X Close

Institute of Education Blog


Expert opinion from academics at the UCL Institute of Education


Inequalities in education and society: the home, the school and the power of reading

Blog Editor, IOE Digital22 August 2019

This blog is based on Professor Alice Sullivan’s inaugural professorial lecture, presented at the UCL Institute of Education on 18 June 2019

Much of my work concerns the way that advantage and disadvantage are passed down from one generation to the next. So, for example, why do middle class kids do better in education than working class kids? And, why is there a link between social class origins in childhood and socioeconomic destinations in adulthood?

Sociologists sometimes call this relationship the OED triangle, where O stands for socioeconomic origins, E stands for Education and D stands for destinations in adult life. Social reproduction occurs when there is a close relationship between origins and destinations, and social mobility when that relationship is broken by a move up or down the social ladder.

During the course of my career I’ve worked on a set of interrelated questions regarding educational and social inequalities, and these are the questions I will address here:


How well-off and healthy were my parents when I was little? Am I a hard-working high flier, or an advantaged one?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital12 August 2019

Gabriella Melis and Ingrid Schoon.

Our research looked at how inequalities amongst families in the 1970s in England have been passed on onto their offspring when they were adults themselves. We call the parent’s generation G1, and the offspring generation, born in 1970, G2.

Drawing on data from the British Cohort Study 1970 (BCS70), we considered several measures of socio-economic and health-related risk factors for both the parents (G1) and their children (G2) ­at age 42. The data covered around 11,000 individuals and their families over a 42-year timespan, which makes our sample a very robust one for the study of transmission of inequality from one generation to the next.

We found that individuals who grew up in more disadvantaged families are significantly more likely to end up in disadvantaged socio-economic and health conditions by age 42 when compared to those from relatively more privileged families. This is true, in particular, for those from families where the parents were physically ill or depressed. There is however also a considerable degree of social mobility, for some (more…)

The UK’s unique scientific versions of the 7-Up series

Blog Editor, IOE Digital5 June 2019

Alissa Goodman.

I first encountered the brilliant Michael Apted 7-Up TV series as a 9 year old (pictured) in primary school, back in 1981, not long after 21-Up had been made. Instead of lessons, our teacher Miss Price let us watch TV over several afternoons. I remember watching, captivated, as the lives of the children unfolded, from (as we saw it then) tiny little 7 year olds, through to awkward teenagers, and into late 1970s youth.

Some of the captivation was simple: the mystery of life, and what happens next, resolving before our very eyes. But there was also a more serious lesson: that our social and economic circumstances from birth and onwards fundamentally shape our lives, and who we become. (more…)

Generation Gifted: the statistical data behind the personal stories

Blog Editor, IOE Digital22 February 2018

Heather Joshi
While personal stories contain a depth of detail that cannot be collected on a grand scale, statistical evidence provides the background against which exceptional cases can be seen in wider perspective. BBC2’s ‘Generation Gifted’ documentary series is following six teenagers, selected at age 13 as having exceptional promise despite exceptionally difficult home backgrounds. The intention is to follow them until they are at least 16 and take their GCSEs.
The series not only shines a spotlight on the obstacles to social mobility, but it also helps illustrate a reason for having large-scale longitudinal studies, such as those within the CLOSER consortium. These have been a major source of evidence on the inequality of life chances between children born to rich and poor parents. They put numbers to the extent of social mobility (more…)

Give it time

Blog Editor, IOE Digital31 October 2016

Alissa Goodman and Alice Sullivan.
Recent political events have focussed minds on society’s deeply rooted inequalities and their long-reaching consequences. The gap between the rich and poor is growing as is the gap between generations – a recent IFS report found that people born in the 1980s had only half the wealth by their early 30s that the generation born ten years earlier had had at the same age. Social mobility is stagnant at best, causing concern across the political spectrum. Problems such as depression and obesity grow apace. How can we best understand and solve these social challenges? (more…)

Our 6th form research analysts

Blog Editor, IOE Digital2 September 2016

The Nuffield Research Placement programme allows 1,000 students in the first year of post-16 education who want to go on to study Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths at university to gain some work experience in their field of interest. It’s (usually) done during the summer for around four weeks. Students who don’t have a family history of going to university or who attend schools in less well-off areas are encouraged to apply.
For the past three years, the IOE’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies has provided work placements to five Nuffield students. Over the course of their placements, the (more…)

Your vocabulary aged 40 depends on how much you read as a teenager

Blog Editor, IOE Digital6 November 2014

Originally posted on The Conversation
Alice Sullivan
Reading for pleasure as a child has been powerfully linked in research to the development of vocabulary and maths skills up to the age of 16. But does reading still have a part to play in the breadth of our adult vocabulary? Does it matter what kind of books you read, or is it just the amount of reading that counts? (more…)

Boyhood: the first longitudinal movie?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital22 August 2014

How the times are a-changing: tracking childhood from the 1960s till today

Blog Editor, IOE Digital21 May 2012

Jane Elliott
Do children’s early life experiences determine their future health, wealth, and happiness? Can the ambitions and aspirations of seven year olds have a major impact on their future career and family life? How true is the Jesuit maxim “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man”? These are the questions that the 56 Up documentary series is exploring as part two airs tonight on ITV1.
They are also the questions addressed by the unique portfolio of British birth cohort studies that we look after at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education.
It was 1964 when Michael Apted first recruited a group of seven-year-olds from contrasting social backgrounds for the 7 Up documentary series. Just a year later, in 1965, over 14,000 seven year olds were surveyed and information collected from their mothers, their teachers and school medical doctors about their health, living conditions, school work, and development. These children were part of the National Child Development Study (NCDS), longitudinal research that built on a major survey of all the babies born in Britain in one week in spring 1958. Just like the 7 Up documentary, but on a rather different scale, this fascinating study still continues today. Indeed, the next survey of these cohort members will be in 2013 when they are aged 55. Researchers use the detailed information it provides to understand more about how circumstances in early life affect later development and well being.
For example, analysis of data from the study has demonstrated that parental divorce can often have a long term impact, so that young men and women whose parents had divorced were more likely to marry early, were less likely to get high level qualifications and were more likely to be unemployed at age 23. Early adversity has also been found to have an impact on health in mid-life so that a recent paper, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, shows that financial adversity in childhood is linked with poorer adult lung function.  This is partly because in the 1960s children from disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to live in poor quality housing, but also because these children were more likely to become smokers.
The data from the 1958 study also give us a fascinating insight into the lives of Britain’s seven year olds in the 1960s, and, by comparing this sample with later born cohorts, we can understand something of how childhood has changed over the last four decades. For example, in 1965 just one in fifty seven-year-olds (2%) was classified as “obese” and a further one in ten (9%) as “overweight”. Using data from the Millennium Cohort Study, which is following lives of around 19,000 children born in the UK in 2000-01, we know that by 2008 the proportion of seven-year-olds classified as obese had tripled to over one in twenty (6%), and one in seven (14%) were overweight. Comparisons between the cohorts also suggest that parenting has changed: in 1965, half of mothers (49%) reported reading to their child every week, compared with just over a third of resident fathers (36%); in 2008, nine in ten mothers (90%) and three quarters of resident fathers (74%) reported reading to their child at least once a week.