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Educational inequality: it’s a regular subject of public and political debate. Sociologist Andrea Foster researched how parents’ knowledge of the education system and their expectations play a role in this inequality. She concludes that the socio-economic background of parents relates to their level of knowledge and the level of their expectations and that these factors contribute to unequal educational outcomes. Forster will defend her PhD thesis at the University of Amsterdam on 18 February.

Ladder against schoolboard, on which a small cloud is drawn

Education increasingly determines who gets ahead in society, but the cards are not dealt equally. In many countries, children from lower socio-economic backgrounds consistently achieve lower levels of education than their potential would allow. ‘Unfortunately, we see educational inequality occurring everywhere, irrespective of the educational system’, says sociologist Andrea Forster. ‘It’s just that this inequality is not visible everywhere at the same time. In the Netherlands, for instance, we can recognise inequality quite early on due to our early selection.’

Forster investigated the role that intra-family dynamics play in educational inequality, specifically parents’ knowledge of the school system and families’ expectations regarding levels of education. With the help of longitudinal datasets and population register data, she analysed educational pathways of pupils in the Netherlands and Germany going as far back as the 1990s. ‘It seems that the knowledge that parents have about the school system and their expectations regarding their children are influenced by their socio-economic background and also contribute to unequal educational outcomes’, concludes Forster.

Role of knowledge about the education system

Are families in the Netherlands able to get more out of the educational system if they have greater knowledge of the educational pathways available to their children? Yes, they are, Forster discovered. ‘Parents with a low socio-economic background are often less aware of what their children can achieve with a particular diploma. This makes it difficult for them to make their decisions regarding an educational pathway’, explains Forster. ‘Moreover, these parents are less familiar with the culture of interaction in various educational institutions. We can relate this lack of knowledge to lower educational outcomes.’

According to Forster, parental knowledge is particularly important during the move to a new school environment and in order to prevent downward mobility. ‘This plays a particular role in the Dutch education system, where parents are confronted with choices about subsequent levels at an early stage.’

Role of expectations and ambitions

Besides the Dutch study on knowledge and educational outcomes, Forster also researched how expectations relate to educational outcomes. For this aspect she examined the German situation, specifically the move from primary to secondary education pathways.

In this context, parents with low socio-economic status appear to adjust their expectations strongly downwards if their children are assigned to a lower level of education than they had expected. Parents with high socio-economic status often retain their high expectations, however, even if they receive information about disappointing school performance. ‘Parents with low socio-economic status are less quick to lobby their children upwards,’ says Forster.

On the other hand, if the educational level turns out higher than expected, parents with low socio-economic status still often tend to stick to their lower expectations, while parents with high socio-economic status do indeed adjust their expectations upwards.

Knowledge and ambitions can be influenced

‘These two mechanisms, knowledge and expectations, play an important role irrespective of the institutional environment’, concludes Forster. However, their influence can be stronger or weaker depending on how the educational system is structured, for example how strong the differentiation in different levels of education is.

According to Forster, the positive takeaway from her research is that knowledge and expectations can be influenced: ‘Structural changes to a system or within families are much more difficult, but informing parents about the educational system, for instance through workshops, is a simple intervention that can contribute positively to the level of knowledge.’ Forster believes that proper knowledge is particularly important when complex decisions have to be made, as is the case in strongly differentiated education systems such as the Dutch one. ‘In this context, more knowledge can help to reduce the education inequality created by early selection.’

PhD details

Andrea Forster: Navigating Educational Institutions: Mechanisms of Educational Inequality and Social Mobility in Different Educational Systems. Doctoral thesis supervisor: Prof. H.G. van der Werfhorst, co-supervisor is Dr Thomas Leopold

Time and location

Andrea Forster’s doctorate conferral will take place online on 18 February at 13:00.