Education'sclass divide 'narrowing quickly'

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Working-class pupils are now almost as likely to want to stay on at school as their middle-class counterparts, according to a study published today. The finding will prompt speculation that age-old educational divisions are finally breaking down.

Eight out of 10 working-class GCSE students now want to stay in full- or part-time education after they are 16, compared with nine out of 10 from the middle classes.

As recently as 1992, just five out of 10 working-class pupils stayed on full-time, compared with eight out of 10 from middle-class homes.

Researchers who carried out the latest study say their figures show that the gap is narrowing fast. Among 12- and 13-year-olds more than nine out of 10 now expect to stay on.

The report, from the University of Southampton, does not necessarily signal the advent of a classless society. Six out of 10 middle-class pupils expect to take A-levels, but their working-class friends are more likely to take vocational qualifications. Despite their aspirations, they often leave school if they get a job, so actual staying on rates are lowered.

Also, pupils still make their choices in different ways, according to Nick Foskett, director of Southampton's Centre for Research in Education Marketing. Middle-class pupils have the "drip-drip" effect of high parental expectations while working-class pupils had often sat down with their parents and talked about the possibility of staying on, he said.

Dr Foskett said the figures from a survey of 1,300 pupils just before they took their GCSE exams showed a major trend in attitudes to education. "Parents can see that with fewer job opportunities at 16, the road to economic success is through further education and training. Those who have aspirations for their children see that as a likely way forward."

Although working-class parents valued education, he said, their children's choices were not identical to those of their counterparts from middle- class homes. Sixty per cent of middle-class students expected to take A-levels compared with 36 per cent of the working-class group.

Judith Norrington, head of curriculum at the Association for Colleges, carried out a similar study two years ago for the vocational exam board, Btec, and found that just 70 per cent of working-class pupils expected to stay in full-time education. She said: "I think young people are getting more and more street-wise. They are cottoning on very quickly to the idea that if they don't get some sort of qualifications their job prospects are less good than they might be."