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Inequality in education: it’s an uphill struggle

It’s not always easy to stay optimistic in the battle against inequality in education. Because things are going the wrong way at the moment. More than ever before, success (or failure) in the education system tends to be inherited from one generation to the next – at both ends of society. At the same time, gender stereotypes in schools create structural inequality. But we mustn’t give up, because there’s plenty to fight for. Even though the results rarely reflect the effort invested.

You’re probably familiar with the expression “a Sisyphean task”. Sisyphus is a figure in Greek mythology who was condemned by Zeus to push a boulder up a mountain for all eternity. Each time he gets close to the summit, the boulder rolls away from him and ends up back down at the foot of the mountain once again. So he has to start pushing it uphill once more. And he has to do this repeatedly for ever. So a Sisyphean task is a task that feels pointless because you never get anywhere. It’s like trying to sweep leaves in a storm, trying to shovel snow while it’s still snowing – or trying to combat the influence of social inheritance in education or gender stereotypes in schools.

This article starts by focusing on social inheritance in education, which definitely feels like a Sisyphean task for politicians, researchers and anyone else who tries to struggle against it.

Even though Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries are world champions in terms of financial equality, the influence of social inheritance in education is still considerable. There is a tendency for the children of unskilled workers to become unskilled workers themselves; and the children of academics find it easier to gain access to higher education.

Denmark is one of the most equal countries in the world in terms of income distribution, so why are we so bad at breaking the influence of social inheritance in education?

Kristian Bernt Karlson is an associate professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen. He and Rasmus Landersø from the Rockwool Foundation have produced a major study entitled The Making and Unmaking of Opportunity: Educational Mobility in 20th-Century Denmark, which focuses on educational mobility in Denmark in a historical perspective. He comments:

“It’s easy enough to redistribute a country’s income – it’s a simple matter of taxation policy. But it’s far harder to redistribute human capital – our general ability as human beings to develop and utilise the personal attributes with which we were born. Human capital depends on social background, because everything that happens in the family has an impact on your success at school, your choice of education, and the job you do as an adult.”

Educational mobility reflects your chance of escaping the influence of social inheritance as you progress through the education system. In other words: Your chance of gaining a longer and better education than your parents.

The study concludes that young people born in Denmark in the 1980s have roughly the same level of educational mobility as their counterparts born in the USA. This is despite the fact that Denmark (unlike the USA) offers free and equal access to post-secondary education.

The positive trend has been reversed

It hasn’t always been like this. 50-60 years ago, educational mobility was increasing fast in Denmark. Only about 60 per cent of Danish children born in 1940 attended school for nine years or more, while the corresponding figure for children born in 1960 was almost 100 per cent.

In the space of only a few years, the impact of your parents’ social background on educational achievement declined, and Denmark became one of the most equal countries in the world in terms of educational mobility. Which is why it gained the image of being a land of equality offering free education for everyone, no matter what their social background. Unfortunately, cracks are starting to appear in this image, explains Karlson:

“Our study shows that the positive trend in terms of social inheritance hasn’t even been stable during the past 30-40 years. Things have actually started moving in the wrong direction. In particular when we focus on the people completing post-secondary education.”

Growth at the top, stagnation at the bottom

According to Karlson, the success gained in the 1960s in terms of educational mobility was related to the limited number of opportunities at the top, in the post-secondary education system. There were improvements further down, but little development at the top. But at the moment the only progress being made is at the top of the system, with the options in terms of post-secondary education increasing significantly. There is a downside to this development, explains Karlson:

“When you expand the education system at the top, the significance of social inheritance increases. The result is more (and better) education for the elite and middle class, while children from the working class and children whose parents are unskilled workers have no chance of keeping up.”

One of the factors involved is how good you are at taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the welfare state:

“If there is a preference for education in families and the welfare state expands, people will take advantage of the educational opportunities on offer. And in general the middle class are best at doing this.”

In particular, the scope of post-secondary education in the humanities and social sciences has grown over the past 20-30 years. And these are areas which appeal to middle-class children in particular. Because while the children of the elite always find the degree programmes that lead to highly paid jobs and prestige (for instance law, medicine and business administration), middle-class children often apply for less ambitious degree programmes in the humanities (for instance at Roskilde University and Aalborg University), which generally lead to jobs in the public sector.

Cracking the school code

According to Karlson, the best way of understanding social inheritance in an educational perspective is by considering the issue of unequal opportunities.

“From an educational perspective, social inheritance reflects a statistical connection between two variables (family background and education), which have a direct influence on how successful children are at school, in the further education system, and in life in general,” he says. And he continues:

“The human capital derived from your family is an important aspect of children’s perception of themselves from a very young age.”

Ida Gran Andersen, an associate professor at DPU, Aarhus University, agrees. She explains that the children of parents with a high level of education generally have an advantage at school because they understand the kind of code that is used there:

“The children of well-educated parents are better at cracking cultural codes in schools. It’s about the ability to meet demands and expectations in a teaching context, but also about understanding the game being played in schools in a broader sense. Pupils are different when they start school – not just in terms of their academic competences, but also (in particular) in terms of other skills such as the ability to adapt their behaviour and adopt an analytical approach to things. These differences are rewarded both directly and indirectly in the education system, for instance via grading,” she says.

Social inheritance when choices have to be made

The influence of social inheritance in education is most visible at points of transition in the education system. The most important choices are those made by young people when they complete a course of education (for instance basic schooling or upper-secondary education) and have to decide what their next step should be.

This is explained by David Reimer, who is a professor with special responsibilities in the field of educational sociology at DPU, Aarhus University. He says:

“Children from privileged homes tend to choose the path of further education – even if they don’t have particularly good grades – while children whose parents left school after completing basic education tend to choose a different path.”

Even though two different pupils are equally successful at school, their choices of education will differ depending on their parents’ education: Will they choose to attend upper-secondary education followed by post-secondary education? And which subject will they choose if they do?

“Each time young people are faced with a choice, their own expectations and ambitions play a role – and they are influenced by their family background. So the potential for inequality arises each time young people stand at a crossroads in their educational lives,” says Reimer.

He points out that children from privileged homes whose parents have attended post-secondary education are best equipped to work out which pathway will lead them to the most prestigious courses of education, and subsequently to success on the labour market (a good income, for instance). He says:

“This is why children from the elite tend to choose a field of study requiring advanced maths in upper-secondary school. They’ve been told that they will need advanced maths to get into prestigious post-secondary degree programmes like law, economics or medicine. A study by the Danish Center for Social Science Research has also concluded that only three per cent of pupils whose parents have an academic background are planning to take a programme of vocational training.”

According to Reimer, better guidance before educational transitions are made could help pupils whose parents only have limited knowledge of upper-secondary education and the further education system because they didn’t attend further education themselves.

Guidance can’t compensate for the inequality in young people’s backgrounds, but it can make them more aware of their options. And this is exactly what he is studying in a major research project in collaboration with Rie Thomsen, who is also a professor with special responsibilities at DPU, Aarhus University.

Social inheritance in law students

When young people climb higher up the social scale than their parents (and this does happen, of course) in terms of length of education, standard of living and income, with education being a driver of social mobility, social inheritance still has an influence, explains Reimer. He refers to a study which measures the direct effect of education by exploring the connection between background and income among graduates of law, business administration, engineering and medicine:

“The results showed that the difference in terms of income was greatest among male lawyers. Male lawyers from privileged homes whose parents had attended long-cycle post-secondary education earned 12-17 per cent more a year than male lawyers from a working-class background. In other words, even though you fight your way out of the working class and manage to gain a law degree, your social inheritance still has an influence!”

This study helps us to understand how effective education is when it comes to breaking the patterns of social inheritance. So if two people have the same education, is there still a difference in the degree of success they achieve in terms of income?

Gender equality leads to inequality

It’s one thing to study what Ida Gran Andersen calls vertical educational differences. Which means inequality in terms of the level of education.

But she also thinks we should focus on the horizontal differences. In other words, which young people study which degree programmes? And in this respect, gender is an important factor. This is a corner of inequality research in which Andersen has specialised. She says:

“There are far more women studying at universities than there used to be, and they are often more successful in the education system than men are. But there are big differences in terms of the degree programmes that men and women choose. The so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering & mathematics, ed.) are normally dominated by men, and they often lead to well-paid jobs. So gender differences in terms of the degree programmes that men and women choose may lead to inequality later in life.”

She says it’s ironic that women are more successful in the education system than men – they get good grades and take university degrees – but are still vastly under-represented in the most prestigious mathematics- and technology-intensive fields.

Research shows that there are particularly clear horizontal gender differences in Denmark, despite a high level of gender equality compared with other countries. She explains:

“Research has identified what is known as the gender-equality paradox, which argues that gender differences are more pronounced in prosperous, gender-equal countries owing to the existence of strong gender images and stereotypes about men and women. The paradox is that women use their right to choose gender stereotypically in accordance with educational expectations and a discourse which praises individuality and self-realisation,” she says. And she adds:

“When women and men express their gender identity in their educational choices, the result is often gender-segregated degree programmes. And if we can’t break this tendency, it is difficult to prevent a gender-divided education system and labour market.”

But where do these internalised expectations come from?

According to Andersen, they originate in normative gender images existing in schools and elsewhere. Strong gender stereotypes are not uncommon, of course (for instance, the notion that boys are good at maths and science, while girls are good at languages). And although it’s true that these stereotypes are based on statistics to some extent, this is not the whole story. She explains:

“For instance, culturally embedded gender perceptions in schools influence the way in which teachers assess and evaluate their pupils; and research has shown that teachers often draw on stereotypes when assessing their pupils. These stereotypes have wide-ranging consequences because they influence teachers’ expectations of and interactions with their pupils, as well as pupils’ performance, self-confidence and educational choices.”

So schools may be helping to produce gender differences in the way boys and girls regard STEM subjects. The teachers who interact with and evaluate their pupils on a daily basis have an important role to play in relation to gender inequality in education and employment later in life.

Andersen is planning a new research project in collaboration with VIA University College with a view to focusing on the (more or less unconscious) gender stereotypes of teachers. She will be exploring how students who are training to be teachers perceive gender. Do they have a gender bias which could have an impact on their teaching in future? The students involved in the study will be asked to consider a hypothetical case.

“This will enable us to examine the significance of gender with regard to the way in which the students assess their pupils and recommend specific fields of study to them, as well as the causal mechanisms such as gender stereotypes which influence their assessments.”

She hopes that this will provide relevant insight regarding gender stereotypes among students who are training to be teachers, as well as increasing their awareness of and reflection on the issue of gender in teaching.

Girls avoid STEM subjects

This doesn’t mean that we should regard teachers as the bad guys – the only people responsible for the dominant gender stereotypes that cause girls to avoid STEM subjects. This is a complex field because these gender stereotypes are an integral feature of our society, explains Andersen. So it’s not the teachers’ fault – but they (and the parents) do offer the most direct way to influence the way in which children and young people perceive themselves from an academic and personal perspective. If we want to solve this problem, we need to start by understanding what’s at stake when gender stereotypes take over in Danish classrooms.

Andersen and her colleague Emil Smith are studying this in a project called Exploring School Culture. They are studying the impact of gender stereotypes on the self-confidence of pupils in Danish and maths, which are traditionally gender stereotypical subjects. The study is based on data regarding sixth- and ninth-grade pupils and their teachers.

“We are focusing on gender differences in terms of the extent to which pupils believe in their own abilities in Danish and maths, compared to their actual performance. We found that boys don’t actually have any less belief in their Danish abilities than girls, but that girls strongly underestimate their own abilities in maths.”

The study also shows that the teachers’ stereotypes have a significant influence on the ways in which boys evaluate their abilities in Danish. But that girls underestimate their abilities in maths owing primarily to their own gender stereotypes – not those of the teachers. In other words, the results show that the way in which boys evaluate their abilities in Danish depends on the context and the teachers, while the way in which girls evaluate their abilities in maths reflects a more internalised gender stereotype.

“This could result in differences in the way boys and girls navigate their subsequent path through the education system. Girls generally tend to avoid STEM degree programmes in which maths and programming play a central role. This is a problem for girls – but it’s also a problem for society. We’re losing out on a lot of talent,” explains Andersen.

A residual group is left behind

We also risk losing a lot of talent owing to the negative influence of social inheritance in education and the loss of educational mobility.

But is this really a problem? Our public and private sectors are desperately short of skilled workers as well as care staff in the service industry and old people’s homes. So perhaps we don’t need any more academics. Indeed, you could even claim that we need fewer academics. Which begs the question: Is the creation of equality through education really a sustainable strategy for a country like Denmark? Will we be needing all these highly educated young people in future?

According to Kristian Bernt Karlson, the short answer is ‘yes’! Education is vital for anyone wishing to succeed in tomorrow’s world. We don’t all need to be academics, but even the factory workers of the future are going to need some form of technical training enabling them to push the right buttons and control the computers that are taking over their manual labour on an increasing scale.

But these aren’t the people Karlson is worried about. He’s worried about the young people who leave school after completing basic education. The so-called ‘residual group’. In 2020 roughly seven per cent of all 15-24 years-olds in Denmark (about 47,000 young people) had no connection with the education system or labour market.

“Young people whose parents are unskilled labourers have a far higher risk of ending up in what we somewhat unflatteringly call ‘the residual group’. This situation has changed very little over the past 15 years. And the sad thing is that people in this group get left behind in all areas of life. They can’t find a job and they don’t have an education,” says Karlson. And he continues:

“But does it matter that the most successful young people prosper, while the least successful get left behind? As long as everyone has a good life. And we’re fortunate in Denmark because we have good welfare services and a safety net for anyone who needs catching. But what are the consequences in terms of the quality of your life if you fail to keep up with the development of society? I don’t think this is good for anyone, because it leads to the polarisation of the population.”

Whenever a young person ends up in the residual group, society has reacted too late. If we want to remove the impact of social inheritance on education, Karlson believes that we need to redistribute the human capital possessed by families. But how can this be done? The answer remains a mystery to researchers in the sociology of education. One thing is certain, though. The state will have to get involved in the private sphere and in the private lives of families. And is that the kind of society we want to be? Karlson thinks not. Because although we can make a determined effort to get girls interested in STEM subjects at school, for instance by working with teachers’ expectations and gender bias with a view to counteracting gender inequality in education so women get a larger share of the pie in future, it’s not easy to do much about the impact of social inheritance on education because it is embedded in families.

We mustn’t give up

The research shows that educational mobility is in decline despite decades of focused but unsuccessful efforts. So combating the influence of social inheritance on education is clearly a Sisyphean task. But the question is whether society should accept this situation.

The three researchers who have been interviewed by Asterisk insist that we must not give up, although they also say that the road will be long and hard. With the image of Sisyphus in mind, the time has come to change tactics if we want to prevent the stone we’re trying to push up the mountain from rolling back down again. It might not stay at the summit of the mountain at the first attempt, but we may be able to prevent it from rolling all the way back down again if we can erect sufficient scaffolding and take effective and focused initiatives to keep it in place.

The latest initiative to be taken by the government relates to the controversial redistribution of upper-secondary school pupils with a view to balancing the overall intake. This is already done to balance the school intake in towns with particularly disadvantaged housing areas.

In principle, David Reimer thinks this kind of redistribution of pupils in schools and in upper-secondary education makes good sense. Our children and young people experience greater diversity at school; and we can avoid the kind of situation that exists in the Copenhagen area, where the children of the elite attend specific upper-secondary schools in Northern Zealand, while upper-secondary schools west of Copenhagen are full of non-Danish ethnic groups. He is concerned that this may have a range of negative consequences. But it probably won’t have any effect on the influence of social inheritance on education.

Unfortunately, this is the case with many of the initiatives taken in Denmark to combat the negative tendency in educational mobility. But all we can do is keep on trying – even though it feels like a Sisyphean task. According to David Reimer, we can’t afford to give up:

“We need to keep on trying to create greater equality in education. As researchers, we are growing wiser all the time, and we’re ready to try new initiatives on an ongoing basis. Some of them work, others don’t. Unfortunately, there are no short-cuts. But we must never give up.”


Personal bios

Ida Gran Andersen is an associate professor at DPU, Aarhus University. Her areas of research include inequality in educational opportunity, with particular focus on the significance of gender and social contexts in schools. She teaches on the Bachelor’s degree programme in education studies and the Master’s degree programmes in educational sociology and education studies.

David Reimer is a professor with special responsibilities at DPU, Aarhus University. His research areas include education and inequality, and points of transition in the education system. He teaches on the Master’s degree programme in educational sociology.

Kristian Bernt Karlson is an associate professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen. His research areas include social inheritance in education, social mobility, quantitative methods and sociological methodology.