Unequal Distribution of Educational Outcomes between Social Categories: ‘Children at Risk’ from a Sociological Perspective


This paper discusses the concept of ‘children at risk’ for poor educational outcomes from a sociological perspective. The broader concept of social inequality with its determinants and dimensions is introduced as a conceptual basis. The concept of ‘children at risk’ for adverse educational outcomes can be located within this framework: They are defined as children with an above-average risk of unfavourable educational outcomes because of their affiliation to a social category. The unequal distribution of educational outcomes between different social categories is a well-established research topic in sociology which is usually simply referred to as ‘educational inequality’. Its description and especially its explanation are the major tasks for sociologists in this field. The paper provides some selected examples for educational inequalities and introduces one exemplary theoretical explanation from a sociological perspective for this phenomenon. Furthermore, the concept of ‘children at risk’ is critically discussed in light of the usefulness as well as the complex of problems that may be associated with its application in sociology.

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  1. 1.

    If these people also interact with each other and have a common identity, one speaks of a social group (Barkan 2011, p.75). For the sake of simplicity and easier reading, we will only use the term social category in this paper to refer to social categories and social groups as a collection of people who share similar characteristics – independently of whether they interact with each other and have a common identity or not.

  2. 2.

    Solga, Berger and Powell additionally distinguish ‘consequences’ of social inequality which is left out here. However, some dimensions of social inequality may also become a determinant for further inequality. ‘Consequences’ are therefore included in this simpler version if such temporal sequences are also regarded.

  3. 3.

    There are various, partly competing theoretical and practical approaches regarding the definition of social positions. Within the major frameworks including concepts of socioeconomic indices, social class and prestige scales, there is a multitude of alternative measurements. The further description and discussion of these would be far beyond the scope of this paper (for an overview see Breen and Jonsson 2005, p. 224).


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This research was funded by the Hessian initiative for the development of scientific and economic excellence (LOEWE).

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Correspondence to Birgit Becker.

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Becker, B., Tuppat, J. Unequal Distribution of Educational Outcomes between Social Categories: ‘Children at Risk’ from a Sociological Perspective. Child Ind Res 6, 737–751 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12187-013-9190-x

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  • Children at risk
  • Educational inequality
  • Educational attainment
  • Social inequality