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British Journal of Sociology of Education

ISSN: 0142-5692 (Print) 1465-3346 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cbse20

A new approach to researching school effects on

higher education participation
Michael Donnelly
To cite this article: Michael Donnelly (2015) A new approach to researching school effects on
higher education participation, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 36:7, 1073-1090, DOI:
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2014.886942

Published online: 21 Feb 2014.

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Date: 02 September 2016, At: 12:52

British Journal of Sociology of Education, 2015

Vol. 36, No. 7, 10731090, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2014.886942

A new approach to researching school effects on higher education

Michael Donnelly*
Department of Education, University of Bath, Bath, UK
(Received 16 September 2013; nal version received 15 January 2014)
A new approach to researching school effects on higher education
participation is proposed here, which combines insights from the school
effectiveness eld of research with sociological theories and concepts of
schooling. In doing so, it draws attention to some of the problems with
the dominant approach often taken in this area and attempts to offer a
more analytically precise way of measuring and explaining school
effects on higher education choice. It will be argued that whilst past
approaches can make it difcult to decipher school effects, the new
approach proposed here provides greater understanding about the extent
and nature of the schools inuence.
Keywords: school effects; higher education participation; hidden
curriculum; Basil Bernstein

In the United Kingdom, an area of public and researcher controversy is the
factors affecting young peoples higher education (HE) choices. Universities,
especially the most elite, are exhorted, even required, to widen the class
base of their entry, by politicians and philanthropists. Yet the dominant
research approach to exploring the extent and nature of the schools inuence has relied on an over-simplied conceptualisation. This paper sets out
to offer a new approach to researching school effects on HE participation,
drawing on two diverse elds of educational research. This new approach
takes insights from the related eld of school effectiveness research, which
are combined with theories and concepts from the sociology of education.
In doing so, it differs from the dominant approach adopted by past research
in this area, in terms of how it conceives of the school effect and how it
goes about making sense of the ways in which schools might shape choices.
The approach was developed in a recent study exploring the schools inuence on progression to university. The focus here is on the approach itself,
*Email: m.p.donnelly@bath.ac.uk
2014 Taylor & Francis


M. Donnelly

with the empirical ndings of this study outlined elsewhere (Donnelly,

Continuing inequalities in UK HE participation between social class
groups mean that it is even more important to understand the sorts of factors shaping choices. Whilst the growth of HE has undoubtedly increased
the numbers of those from lower socio-economic groups participating in
HE, there remains a persistent gap in the participation rates between those
from higher and lower socio-economic groups in the United Kingdom
(Kelly and Cook 2007). Those from different socio-economic groups have
also been found to be unevenly distributed across different types of universities (Boliver 2011; Trust 2000). When those from lower social class
groups do make the progression to HE, it seems they are much less likely
to enter research-intensive higher education institutions (HEIs) (for instance,
those HEIs that are members of the Russell Group).
Against this backdrop of inequalities, successive governments in the four
nations of the United Kingdom have made numerous attempts to broaden HE
participation (Department for Education and Skills 2003; Welsh Assembly
Government 2002). Increasingly, attention is also being paid to the role
individual schools might play in widening participation. The National
Council for Education Excellence (2008), established by the previous UK
Government, recommended that improvements needed to be made to the
information, advice and guidance schools provide. In doing so, they put
forward several suggestions for how this might be achieved. One suggestion
was that schools should do more by way of instilling ambition in those from
less afuent backgrounds to consider studying at research-intensive HEIs.
However, they do not go into any great detail about how this might be put
into practice. These recommendations came at a time when other research
seemed to suggest that some teachers do not always encourage their most
able pupils to aspire to Oxbridge (Sutton Trust 2008). A survey of individual
school teachers also found that they had varied approaches to advising their
students regarding post-16 transitions (Johnson et al. 2009). However, by
only focusing on individual teachers, this demonstrates a limited and narrow
understanding of the schools inuence on HE participation.
The UK Government has indicated that it plans to introduce further measures on school league tables in England, which include the post-school
destinations of students, and also the subsequent performance of students in
HE (BBC News 2011). Indeed, data on the destinations of pupils from each
maintained school in England for the academic year 2010/11 have now been
published online. Such indicators are unlikely to be introduced in Wales,
where national school league tables were abolished in 2001. However, the
UK Government claim that in England the additional measures would
encourage schools to do more in preparing students for future success at
university, and would also inform parents more about this aspect of schools.
Therefore, it seems likely that in the future schools in England might be

British Journal of Sociology of Education


assessed by the UK Government, and by parents, not only in terms of their

examination results, but also in the post-school destinations of their students. The pressures of school league tables have resulted in many schools
adopting practices to improve their performance in the AC economy
(Gillborn and Youdell 2000). In the future, schools might also seek to
introduce further practices that improve their performance in the kinds of
progressions their students make. Of course, schools already have various
incentives for being concerned about post-school progressions, given that
these are often mentioned in school marketing materials and websites.
Developing theoretical approaches to researching school effects on HE
choices, and actually carrying out this research, might therefore be important in order to go some way in understanding how realistic it is that
schools can make a difference in this regard. This might also lead to
increasing knowledge about the kinds of school-level practices that might
make a difference in alleviating some of the inequalities in HE participation.
Before going on to outline the theoretical approach proposed here, attention
is given to past research in this area, in particular some of the theoretical
issues and debates surrounding other approaches taken to researching school
effects on HE choices.
Research on choice and progression to higher education
In addressing issues around the transition to university, much of the literature has considered the varying ways in which social class mediates the
kinds of choices young people make. Educational decision-making has been
conceived of as an embedded social practice (Heath, Fuller, and Paton
2008), with the kinds of resources young people are able to draw upon from
home shaping their trajectories. The choice process for working-class students has been characterised as a solitary activity (Reay 1998), as their families are often said to lack the knowledge and social capital to help their
children navigate their way through the different options (Pugsley 2004). In
contrast, there is more often than not a greater degree of certainty for those
from middle-class families, where expectations to enter university are often
left un-said and implicitly assumed (Allat 1993; Reay, David, and Ball
2005). Those from middle-class backgrounds are also much more likely to
interpret the status of different universities as important when making their
choices (Ball 2002). However, it may not necessarily be the case that those
from lower social class groups are unaware of status differences between
universities. Indeed, other more recent research has shown that students
from a wide range of social class backgrounds are knowledgeable about the
hierarchical ordering of universities (Bradley et al. 2013).
Against this large body of research looking at factors external to the
school, there have been comparatively fewer studies concentrating on
school-level factors. Those studies that have focused on the school have


M. Donnelly

found disparities between them in their practices and processes, as well as

their patterns of progression to HE. A small number of quantitative studies,
mostly carried out in other European countries, have suggested that even
after attempts to hold external factors constant, there are still variations at
the school level in progression to HE (Ianelli 2004; Pustjens et al. 2004). In
the United Kingdom, Crawford, Meschi, and Vignoles (2011) explored
whether attending a further education (FE) college, as opposed to a schoolbased sixth form, made a difference in rates of progression to HE for those
studying A-levels. They found that even after controlling for attainment and
subjects studied, those who attended a FE college were around four or ve
percentage points less likely to progress to HE than those who attended
sixth forms.
The majority of other studies in this area have tended to take the form
of in-depth qualitative case studies of schools spanning the state/private
divide. In understanding the inuence of schools, these studies have largely
drawn on the concept of institutional habitus, which extends Bourdieus
(1990) work on the individual habitus and applies this to educational institutions. Institutional habitus has been dened as a set of dispositions and
behaviours that are the product of a schools past experiences, staff and
pupils (Ingram 2009; Pugsley 2004; Reay, David, and Ball 2005). Thus, like
the individual habitus, the institutional habitus has a history and is established over time by the inuence of school intakes and teachers. The school
is conceived of as constrained by its intake, which predisposes it to adopting particular practices and processes:
Here we can see how wider socio-economic cultures impact on organisational
practices within schools and colleges in ways which also shape opportunities and constraints within the higher education choice process. (Reay, David,
and Ball 2001)

Reay, David, and Ball (2001) present the school as a mediator of its intakes
class consciousness. A number of important studies in the United Kingdom
and the USA have drawn upon this concept to help explain the ways in
which schools mediate HE choices (McDonough 1997; Pugsley 2004; Reay,
David, and Ball 2005). Private schools and state schools with predominantly
middle-class catchments are conceived of as facilitating, through their high
levels of support, progression to HE and research-intensive HEIs. At the
same time, schools with more disadvantaged intakes are conceived of as
constrained, and unable to provide the same high level of support, due to
the social characteristics of their intake.
Reay, David, and Balls (2005) study took into account the inuence of
the school attended on HE choices as part of a wider matrix of mediating
factors. The diverse institutions in their study, which had varied intake
proles, included schools from the state and private sectors, as well as a FE

British Journal of Sociology of Education


college. It was found that the institutions varied in the way they shaped and
inuenced young people in making their HE choices. Those with more
advantaged intakes were said to provide a greater quantity and quality of
careers advice in comparison with those with more disadvantaged intakes.
Indeed, those young people attending schools with the most disadvantaged
intakes often felt that they had little careers advice and the small amount
that they did have was either inconsequential or actively unhelpful. This
contrasted with the practices evident within those schools with more advantaged intakes, such as the private school CB:
careers advice at CB is a major enterprise. Careers education and guidance
is provided by two full-time members of staff, the Head and deputy head of
careers, by consultants from Apex Careers, but also by other outside agencies,
as well as tutors and subject specialists within the school. (Reay, David, and
Ball 2005, 3940)

Drawing on the concept of institutional habitus, Pugsley (2004) identied

similar differences between her six schools and FE colleges based in south
Wales. The schools in her study are positioned onto a good/bad continuum
according to their advice and guidance practices relating to HE entry. They
are categorised as thrusting, trying, and trusting schools. The thrusting
schools consisted of the private school, the grant-maintained school and the
state school situated in a middle-class catchment area. These schools are
described as ranking active and are said to ensure that their students
are successfully steered through the complexities of the HE marketplace in
order to enable them to choose the best universities (2004, 144).
Conversely, the trying schools are said to do their best to facilitate
choices (2004, 144), but curriculum pressures and the marginalisation of
advice and guidance programmes are said to limit the effectiveness of their
institutional habitus (2004, 144). Finally, the two trusting schools in her
typology, which are both located in working-class areas, are said to be not
engaging with the HE market at all, and simply rely upon compact
agreements with local post-1992 universities. It is claimed that trusting
schools lack the initiatives and the competencies to facilitate choices
(2004, 145).
Similarly, Reay, David, and Ball (2005) found differences between their
schools in terms of their engagement with the HE market. The private
schools in their study encouraged their students to study traditional academic subjects at research-intensive HEIs, whereas some of the state schools
with largely disadvantaged intakes were more likely to push their students
towards post-1992 HEIs. They also identied a greater degree of coupling
between the private schools and research-intensive HEIs. In particular, the
private school habitus was said to project a sense of entitlement to enter
Oxbridge and were able to mobilise their social capital in order to realise


M. Donnelly

progressions to these two elite HEIs. This is contrasted with those schools
with largely disadvantaged intakes, whose efforts to support their Oxbridge
applicants were hampered by not being able to mobilise the same high
levels of academic social capital.
Problematising institutional habitus
Despite the wide use of institutional habitus in understanding school effects
on HE choices, it has its drawbacks, four of which are discussed here. The
concept has rstly received criticism for the homogenised way in which it
conceives of the school, and consequently how this can mask any nuances.
Atkinson (2011) argues that the concept may reduce the school to a
one-dimensional monolithic entity, which is devoid of any internal differentiation. In this way, the concept reduces the school to a single set of
dispositions, strongly associated with intake, which are expressed through
common school practices, processes and teacher expectations.
Secondly, it is difcult to decipher how the concept is dened, in terms
of precisely to which aspects of the school it is directing its theoretical gaze.
As shown above, it seems that the concept has been used to include almost
every aspect of the school. Reay, David, and Ball (2005) refer to the
schools expressive order (Bernstein 1975) as well as the careers resourcing, and social capital. Pugsley (2004) similarly makes reference to the
careers resources and social capital. These studies also make reference to
educational status in terms of curriculum offering and the HEIs which students are encouraged to consider. In this sense, it is not always clear what
the concept represents, and what is meant when social scientists draw upon
it within their work.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the concept has its drawbacks in terms of
the assumptions it makes with regards to the interconnected relationship
between the intake prole of schools and their practices and processes. As
illustrated by the work of Reay, David, and Ball (2005) and Pugsley (2004),
the school is conceived of as constrained by its intake, which determines
the kinds of practices and processes they develop over time. This assumption is problematic given that other studies have suggested that intake might
not always necessarily be so closely tied to the kinds of practices schools
develop. Indeed, other research has suggested that schools may differ
independent of their intake in the way they prepare their students for
progression to HE.
Oliver and Kettleys (2010) study explored the practices of schools in
relation to the support they provided for entry to HE and research-intensive
HEIs. They identied differing practices in the extent to which teachers
targeted individual students they perceived of as having the ability to
make an Oxbridge application. They also found differences in the level of
advice and guidance given to Oxbridge applicants in the application

British Journal of Sociology of Education


process. Importantly, they found that the differing practices were not always
associated with what the teachers perceived to be the socio-economic status
(SES) of their schools intake. The three schools with low rates of entry to
Oxbridge had less advantaged intakes, but they did not all share similar
practices in relation to HE preparation. Two out of the three schools with
low rates of entry to Oxbridge had no routine provision of advice on
Oxbridge applications, and did not target specic students to apply, but
instead invited all students to any Oxbridge events they held. However, the
third low-rate sending school, Northern College, differed greatly in its
Teachers aimed to ood their students with a tsunami of information to
develop a momentum about applying to HE. Their low rate of applications to
elite universities was not through lack of will or trying; indeed, there was a
dedicated Oxbridge mentor committed to raise application rates. Practices
were similar to those found at Princes Bridge. Personal letters were sent to
potential applicants identied through the gifted and talented register. A series
of workshops on applications were held, some attended by Cambridge representatives. (Oliver and Kettley 2010, 743)

Despite its less advantaged intake, this school had a large number of
students initially interested in Oxbridge. However, once AS-level results
became known this dropped considerably from 28 to just four potential
applicants. The large number of students initially interested in applying
could suggest that the schools practices may have been important in
encouraging students to consider Oxbridge.
Finally, the concept can also make it difcult to understand the importance of the school as a factor inuencing HE choices. The underpinning
assumption that school practices are intertwined with intake characteristics
means that no attempt is made to separate the school from other inuences and understand its importance independent of other factors. Of course,
one could argue that it is not possible to separate out the different mediating
inuences on choices in this way. Indeed, it would seem entirely plausible
that the socio-cultural aspects of schools may vary according to their intake
prole (Thrupp 1999). However, at the same time, the lack of attempt to
isolate the school from other inuences makes it impossible to say whether
it is the institutional practices of schools that are making a difference to
decision-making. For example, it might be difcult to ascertain the degree
to which the kinds of practices identied in Reay, David, and Balls (2005)
study, such as the sorts of careers guidance offered, may have been
important. Furthermore, it also becomes problematic because it assumes that
greater quantities or (perceived) higher quality careers advice is positive,
but what about possible negative effects? It could be that practices have
unintended, or unexpected, consequences.


M. Donnelly

A new approach
In an attempt to go some way in addressing some of these issues, a new
theoretical approach for researching school effects on HE choices is proposed here. This original approach combines insights from the eld of
school effectiveness research with more sociological approaches of understanding schools. It rst tries to isolate a school effect by attempting to
control as far as possible for background characteristics, and then goes on
to explore what might account for any identied variances. The approach
presupposes a quantitatively framed, qualitative research design, based on
analysis of large-scale datasets used to purposefully select case-study
schools for more in-depth qualitative research. In what follows, this
approach is described in detail, paying attention to how it might be applied
in practice, beginning with the rst stage of identifying school effects.
Identifying school effects
In considering how to approach exploring the inuence of the school as a
factor in shaping HE participation, it is worth considering some of the
insights derived from research from the related school effectiveness movement. School effectiveness research commonly denes the school effect as
the between-school variance for a given outcome, such as attainment, which
cannot be accounted for by any control variables such as background and
prior attainment (Creemers, Kyriakides, and Sammons 2010). Attainment is
the most common outcome measured by school effectiveness studies,
although others have also paid attention to behaviour, attendance and other
kinds of social and affective outcomes.
Of course, what constitutes effectiveness represents value-laden judgements about the most important outcomes of schooling. School effectiveness
research has been criticised on account of its ideologically laden and
reductive judgements about effectiveness, with its emphasis on academic
achievement as the primary outcome of schooling. In measuring levels of
attainment, this ignores other more affective impacts of schooling such as
the happiness of pupils or developments in their personal and social skills.
Similarly, in thinking about the effect schools may have in terms of HE
participation, it might be worthwhile to consider wider impacts other than
progression to university itself. These could include the school effect on
student mobility, and the choice of particular subjects or kinds of HEIs.
Other sorts of impacts might be in terms of how satised young people are
in their HE choices, how they fare at university, and what they choose to
do afterwards (including progression to postgraduate study). In exploring
the effectiveness of schools, researchers might be interested in these wider
kinds of impacts, rather than just a narrow focus on progression to
university itself.

British Journal of Sociology of Education


Underlying the school effectiveness approach is an attempt to disentangle the inuences of student background and of schools on educational
attainment and progress. The studies attempt to make comparisons
between schools on a like-with-like basis. The between-school variances
are adjusted most often according to parental education, ethnicity,
eligibility for free school meals and prior attainment. Studies take into
account individual students starting points, in terms of their prior
attainment and background, and then assess how much progress they make
in their schooling. This approach to understanding the school effect on
attainment could be applied to understanding the school effect on HE
participation. If there are two students from similar social class backgrounds, with similar levels of attainment, but who attend different schools
and make different HE progressions, then a case could be made that this
may be due to a school effect. Without attempts to isolate background
and attainment from the school, and without trying to make such
like-with-like comparisons, it would seem less credible to make this case
for a school effect.
Educational effectiveness research draws on advanced statistical
methodologies, in an attempt to understand which factors either directly
or indirectly explain measured variances in student outcomes. The
approach put forward here does not attempt to explain variances in such
a way. The school effectiveness approach is drawn upon for the purpose
of selecting schools, in order to carry out more in-depth qualitative
research to understand what might account for any measured variances
between them in student outcomes. There are a range of administrative
datasets which can be drawn upon that contain detailed school-level and
pupil-level information about levels of attainment, SES and post-school
destinations. Drawing on statistical techniques, such as multilevel modelling, these datasets can be used to explore the extent to which schools
might explain variances in the kinds of post-school transitions made.
From this analysis, cases of under-performing and over-performing
schools can then be selected, in order to investigate further what might
account for their patterns of progression, using more in-depth qualitative
In selecting case-study schools, the approach proposed here is to
select schools with similar intake proles, but which differ in their
effectiveness. This is in an attempt to take into account the compositional effect, which may mean that it is unrealistic to expect a school
with a mostly low-SES student intake to be able to develop the same
kinds of processes as a school with a majority of high-SES students
(Thrupp 2001). Schools could be paired together in the following kind
of way:


M. Donnelly

Pair A:
 High SES intake, high effectiveness.
 High SES intake, low effectiveness.
Pair B:
 Low SES intake, high effectiveness.
 Low SES intake, low effectiveness.
Selecting case-study schools in this way forms a good starting point to
investigate further the kinds of school-level practices that might be important in shaping HE participation. In attempting to control for factors outside
the school, and in making comparisons on a like-with-like basis, a stronger
case can be made for a school effect.
Accounting for school effects
In selecting cases of differentially effective schools, the approach put forward here then attempts to understand what might account for their variances in progression to HE. School effectiveness studies are often criticised
for their explanations for school effects, including what have been considered as their one-dimensional lists of factors such as effective teaching
(Sammons, Hillman, and Mortimore 1995). Studies have added to and
rened these factors, which are seen by some as obvious statements about
what might constitute a positive learning environment. Other criticisms
include not drawing on theories of schooling in explaining the kinds of factors that shape school effects. In contrast, contributions in the sociology of
education have highlighted the complex socio-cultural processes in schools.
The approach put forward here combines the aforementioned school effectiveness approach of attempting to isolate a school effect with more sociological theories of schooling to try to explain such school-level inuences.
In trying to account for variances between schools, identied from the
initial quantitative analysis, the hidden curriculum of schooling provides
one theoretical lens in which to understand how schools shape and inuence
young people. This refers to all that is learnt within school in addition to
the formal curriculum, covering an array of learning, including all of the
socialising practices contributing to the reproduction of culture; for example,
gender roles within society (Ringrose 2012). It is said to constitute all of
the hidden messages that are carried within aspects of the school such as
educational transmissions, school time, social relations, texts and other cultural artefacts. These various aspects of the school can send out different
kinds of messages about post-school choices, and importantly what constitutes the most appropriate kinds of choices young people should make.

British Journal of Sociology of Education


Bernsteins (1975) theoretical framework draws attention to these more

hidden aspects of the curriculum and educational transmissions. It shows
how school knowledge is not neutrally ordered or transmitted, but instead
carries a specic order and structure in its transmission. Educational transmissions are said to vary according to their underlying structures of power
and control. His thinking on the curriculum stems from looking at the relation of contents to one another, in terms of the boundary strength between
contents. The notion of boundary strength underlies Bernsteins (1975) concepts of classication and frame, which refer to the underlying structure of
the curriculum, and also the context of educational transmissions.
Classication does not refer to what is classied, but to the extent of
separation between school knowledge, and so gives the basic structure of the
curriculum. Strong classication indicates a high degree of insulation
between contents, with strong boundaries keeping content separate from each
other. Where classication is weak, there is less insulation between contents,
with more blurred boundaries, which highlights the similarity between content. The concept of frame refers to the degree of control teacher and pupil
possess over the selection, organization, pacing and timing of the knowledge
transmitted and received in the pedagogical relationship (Bernstein 1975,
89). When framing is strong, there are clear boundaries in what knowledge
may be transmitted and received by teacher and pupil, whilst weak framing
entails blurred boundaries in the kinds of knowledge that may be transmitted
and received. Classication and frame are valuable in the sense that they
explore school cultures independent of their intake. The concepts do this by
focusing on the institutional properties themselves, examining their underlying structures of power and control. Bernsteins (1975) approach was then to
look at how children from different families respond to particular school
cultures, thus recognising the importance of institutional properties in
shaping, and potentially transforming, their involvement in school.
Bernsteins (1975) work has been drawn upon within a range of empirical studies to help understand a variety of educational problems (Aggleton
and Whitty 1985; Walford 2002, 2007). Examples include an examination
of how faith schools in England and the Netherlands deal with religious
education (Walford 2002), and the nature of student supervision in postgraduate research (Walford 1981). Although used widely to explore school and
HE curricula and pedagogies, these concepts have not been deployed in the
choices research.
Bernsteins (1975) concepts of classication and frame are powerful, and
can be used to differentiate schools messages about HE to students. The
different kinds of messages sent out by schools might go some way in
explaining any disparities identied from the initial quantitative analysis.
The concepts can be adapted and applied on different conceptual levels to
make sense of the various ways in which schools might send out messages
about choices. In one sense, classication can be used to refer to the extent


M. Donnelly

to which boundaries are made at an organisational level in the school. The

division of pupils into different groups may create such boundaries, whilst
other boundaries may be formed from the separation of resources in school.
These boundaries in the more organisational aspects of schooling could send
out different kinds of messages about choices. For example, if HE material
is separated from other careers resources and placed in a more prominent
position within the school, this might signal to pupils that progression to
university is the most appropriate choice; whereas the grouping together of
resources could make explicit that pupils should make their own choices,
which might not necessarily be university entry. Other boundaries in these
more organisational aspects of schools could similarly send out messages
about progression to HE. In this way, classication is a useful conceptual
tool to explore what organisational aspects of schools may be important in
accounting for their effectiveness in terms of HE participation.
Related to these organisational aspects of school, classication can also
be applied to refer to the strength of boundaries between types of postschool progression. This is in terms of the extent to which university as a
destination is marked out by school practices and processes. For example,
progression to university may be marked out from the kinds of talks and
events held within school. Classication can also be used to refer to the
strength of boundaries between types of universities, in terms of the extent
to which schools might present the HE landscape as differentiated and hierarchical. When referring to the strong classication of HE destinations, this
describes the way schools may present strong boundaries between different
universities. These strong boundaries make explicit that universities are
unlike each other, and are hierarchically ordered. Conversely, weak classication of HE destinations refers to the way schools may present more
blurred boundaries between different universities, which emphasises their
similarities rather than any differences. For example, if teachers were to
mention the Russell Group during interactions with pupils, this could send
out a strong classicatory message to pupils, making explicit a differentiated
HE system. The extent to which schools present the HE system as differentiated could be helpful in accounting for disparities between them in their
rates of progression to research-intensive HEIs.
Bernsteins (1975) concept of framing can be seen as distinct from classication in the sense that it refers to the degree of control individuals possess within particular contexts. Therefore, it seems relevant for
understanding how much control pupils possess in their school context in
terms of choice and progression to university. First, framing can be applied
in order to understand the range of post-school options mentioned within
the context. In this sense, when referring to strongly framed contexts, I am
talking about those which give pupils less choice in the range of post-school
options open to them. It could be that in some schools the only talks, events
and activities held are those relating to HE entry. No other post-school

British Journal of Sociology of Education


destinations might be mentioned in such strongly framed contexts, making

explicit that you should progress to university. At the same time, more
weakly framed contexts might mention a wider range of destinations, such
as apprenticeships and employment, sending out messages that you should
decide for yourself what to do. It could be that stronger framing propels
more young people to university and so might go some way in accounting
for why a school may perform better on this measure.
Second, the concept of framing is also relevant for understanding the
degree of control pupils possess in the process of making their university
choices and applications. In this sense, contexts that are strongly framed
make explicit to a greater degree how students should make their university
choices and applications, and at what time and pace they should be doing
so. In such contexts, pupils may have little control in how they go about
making their university choices and applications, and at what time and pace
they do so. For example, strong framing in some schools might make explicit a specic schedule of activities in the HE choice process that young people are expected to follow, at a particular time and pace. In other school
contexts, weaker framing could make it less explicit about what should be
done and when in the choice process.
In exploring what might account for quantitative disparities between
schools, it would be worthwhile to consider other hidden dimensions of
schooling which might send out messages about choices, including the
prioritisation of school time. School timetables regulate the daily lives of
teachers and pupils, binding them to certain tasks and activities (Delamont
and Galton 1986). Schools are constrained by this nite amount of time, and
what they select to ll the space signies what they prioritise as most important (Ball et al. 1984). The length of time allocated to different subjects (academic or pastoral) within the school timetable can indicate their relative
status. In the same way, the importance of different kinds of post-school and
HE choices might be reected in the amount of space they are allocated in
school time. If a large amount of time is dedicated to a particular post-school
destination, this might make more explicit that you should choose this destination. Some schools might allocate much more time to HE preparation than
others. These differing prioritisations of school time can make explicit to
differing degrees the importance of making particular post-school choices.
The more social dimensions of schooling can also carry hidden messages
about HE choices. This includes the various grouping and sorting mechanisms
operating within schools, which can separate and mark out different pupils
(Ball 1981; Gillborn and Youdell 2000; Lacey 1970). Gillborn and Youdells
(2000) study explored differentiating practices at two state schools, including
the ways in which guidance ofcers supported Year Nine students in the
GCSE options process. They found that guidance ofcers routinely made
judgements about the academic ability of individual pupils based upon their
prior attainment. Students would then be channelled towards particular


M. Donnelly

subjects that were deemed appropriate for their level of ability. Pupils
(according to their perceived ability) were found to be both warmed up and
cooled down for particular subjects according to what was seen as appropriate for them. Students perceived to have high levels of ability were warmed
up for history and geography, but cooled down for sociology.
In the same way as students are marked out according to their academic
ability, it could also be that students are differentiated between according to
their expected destinations following sixth form. For example, a schools
organisational practices may mark out research-intensive HEIs, whilst also
making explicit those who should be choosing these universities. Those perceived by their teachers to be academically able might be encouraged to
attend special group meetings were they are channelled towards particular
kinds of universities. Membership of these kinds of groups could serve to
shape the way young people conceive of their HE choices. It might also be
that the effects of such differentiating practices may differ according to the
composition of the cohort. A student perceived as academically able, who is
situated within a cohort perceived as generally less academically able, may
have a different positioning in terms of their identity and expected HE destination than had they been situated within a cohort regarded as mainly consisting of high-ability students. The student may have been marked out as high
ability to a greater extent within the former cohort than they might have been
in the latter. This social dimension of schooling offers a further way of
explaining what might account for quantitative disparities between schools.
Taken together, these concepts and theories can act as a useful toolbox
for researching the sorts of factors that may account for any measured quantitative disparities between schools, as indicated by the initial analysis. In
comparing schools, classication and framing are valuable concepts to elucidate the hidden messages that might be carried from mundane aspects of
school life, such as events, interactions and resources. It might also be worthwhile to explore and compare the temporal and social dimensions of schools.
The allocation of school time, as well as processes of differentiation within
school contexts, could also send out messages about HE participation. In
exploring the effectiveness of schools in their rates of progression to HE, it
could be that the more effective schools send out strongly framed messages
that you should progress to university. They may also allocate more time to
HE preparation, making explicit that this is the most appropriate destination.
Similarly, it might be that schools which are more effective in their progression to research-intensive HEIs send out strong classicatory messages about
the HE landscape, making explicit distinctions between universities.
Discussion and conclusions
A new approach to researching school effects on HE choices has been
proposed here, which differs in important ways from approaches adopted by

British Journal of Sociology of Education


past research in this area. The key difference lies in its attempt to combine
the school effectiveness approach of trying to isolate a school effect, with
more sociological theories of schooling to help explain the nature of schoollevel inuences. In doing so, it attempts to identify school effects using a
quantitative approach, and then explore what may account for these drawing
on in-depth research carried out in purposefully selected, differentially effective, case-study schools. It is also distinct in putting forward an alternative
to the concept of institutional habitus, which has dominated the eld of
The approach put forward here can be seen as distinct from the concept
of institutional habitus on a number of different levels. The most important
distinction between the two approaches is the prioritisation given to school
cultures over intake characteristics. Bernstein (1975) begins by focusing on
the school, looking at its culture independent of its intake, thereby recognising the importance of institutional properties. The concept of institutional
habitus, on the other hand, begins by looking at intake and school together,
in order to understand and make sense of how they mutually shape each
other. This is problematic in the sense that any analysis of institutional
properties can become blurred. In adopting the approach advocated here,
this is not to say that a schools intake does not shape to a large degree its
culture. Indeed, in drawing comparisons between schools with similar
intakes, the approach tries to take account of the ways in which intakes
shape school cultures.
This original approach to studying school effects on post-school
choices holds value in a number of different ways. The approach rst has
value in terms of the credibility it gives to any claims of a school effect.
In attempting to isolate the school from other important factors, it
provides a more analytically precise measure of the schools inuence.
Whilst it is always difcult to hold other factors constant and isolate any
individual factors, if no attempt is made to do so it is very difcult to say
with any condence whether schools are shaping choices. At the same
time, you cannot expect schools with varied intake proles to be able to
develop the same kind of practices and processes, as intake all too often
places constraints on what is possible. Therefore, the approach advocated
here of comparing schools on a like-with-like basis takes into account
such problems of comparison. It is worth attempting to overcome such
methodological obstacles, as it allows for a more sound footing from
which claims can then be made.
Another important aspect of the approach put forward here is that it
takes account of school practices and processes independent of intake, therefore capturing those instances were intake might not necessarily inuence
what schools do. In my own study, despite their similar intake, the
case-study schools varied in the kinds of messages they sent out about
post-school choices and the HE landscape (Donnelly, forthcoming). Whilst


M. Donnelly

it is difcult to understand why this might be the case, possible reasons

could be that this was due to particular cultures, historical practices, or the
different approaches and attitudes of staff. Adopting the institutional habitus
theoretical lens can miss these instances where a school might be having an
unexpected impact despite its disadvantaged intake.
In terms of making sense of the ways in which schools might shape
choices, the hidden curriculum of schooling provides a helpful way of
conceptualising the subtle ways in which taken-for-granted aspects of the
school can send out messages about post-school and HE choices. Past
research has often focused on comparing levels of resources and support
across schools; for example, the amount of careers advice provided.
Whilst this is important, the work of Bernstein (1975) and others opens
up an additional theoretical dimension by focusing attention on the underlying structures of power and control, highlighting the subtle kinds of
messages schools send out. This is important because whilst a school
might have a large amount of careers advice, the selection and ordering of
this content might weakly classify the HE landscape, sending out messages that there are few status differences between HEIs. Similarly, there
may be a large amount of talks, events and other activities held in some
schools, but these might vary in terms of the kinds of destinations mentioned (and excluded) and could make explicit to differing degrees which
destination you should choose. When researching the ways in which
schools might shape choices, a narrow focus on the quantity of content
could miss these more subtle, and hidden, messages about the nature of
choices and decision-making.
The approach outlined here might usefully be applied in future
research exploring the impact of school attended on choice and progression to university. At a time when individual schools are being increasingly scrutinised and held to account for the future success (however
narrowly dened) of their young people, it seems important to have a
sound theoretical basis from which claims can be made. The kind of
research approach outlined here could generate some useful insights into
the sorts of school-level practices that might be having an inuence on
educational decision-making. A more sound evidence base about the
kinds of practices that might propel more young people to HE and
research-intensive HEIs may be of interest to those schools wishing to
achieve such goals. At the same time, the kind of approach proposed
here might be of use to those interested in the role of schools in shaping
other aspects of educational and career choices. For example, the
approach could be applied to exploring school effects on progression to
specic degree courses such as medicine, or other post-school routes
such as apprenticeships.

British Journal of Sociology of Education


I would like to thank Sara Delamont and the two anonymous reviewers for their
very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. Thanks also go to the
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for providing the funding for the
research this paper is based upon.

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