Education Systems and Equality

Although education systems of developed nations are largely built on the meritocratic ideal of equal educational opportunities, the connection between one’s socio-economic status (SES) and educational success and failure has proved to be one of the most consistent findings in the sociology of education. Despite all the equalising policy initiatives and implementations made over the past 50 years, research has regularly shown how advantages and disadvantages related to socioeconomic position are associated with educational attainment and outcomes of individuals.1 This can be seen in the SES-based differences in learning results,2 dropout,3 as well as in how students are selected into hierarchically different educational ability groups, tracks or streams. Students from low-SES backgrounds are more likely to be selected into vocational than academic educational routes, which decreases their future labour market opportunities.4

However, although the positive association between one’s social origin and educational attainment seems to hold true across the world,5 some systems and countries have been more successful in promoting equality than the others. According to research, the structure of an education system plays a significant role in how equality is promoted and inequalities generated.6 Hence, each education system produces inclusion and exclusion, and equality and inequality in its own unique way. In their review of the comparative literature on the impact of national-level educational institutions on educational inequality, Herman Van de Werfhorst and Jonathan Mijs7 conclude that countries with a more strongly differentiated education system tend to have higher levels of inequality of educational opportunity by social class and ethnicity. Comprehensive systems with a delayed selection of students are, in turn, associated with high educational equality.8 In addition to the level of stratification, standardisation of a system is also a significant factor in this respect: countries with a more standardised education system have lower levels of inequality of opportunity compared with less standardised systems.9

Since the structure of an education system is associated with the magnitude of the connection between SES and educational attainment and outcomes, one could assume that this connection is weak in Finland. Compared internationally, the Finnish education system is highly standardised across schools and other educational settings and has a relatively low level of stratification.10 Officially, there is no ability grouping in the Finnish comprehensive school, and as most of the special needs education is provided on a part-time basis,11 this means that pupils with different abilities and backgrounds are kept together until the age of 16. Therefore, due to delayed tracking, the first choice all students have to make is whether to continue with academic or vocational studies (VET) after comprehensive school.

Moreover, as in the other Nordic countries, promoting educational equality has been the cornerstone of educational policy since the Second World War in Finland.12 Since a comprehensive school reform during 1972‒1977, the officially stated aim of Finnish educational policy has been that all individuals should have equal access to education, including higher education, despite their gender, religion, socioeconomic or cultural background and their place of residence.

Due to recent education policy changes promoting privatisation, marketisation, individual responsibility, accountability, and parental choice, the situation has changed in the Nordic countries, although there are important differences between the countries in terms of volume and consequences of the changes.13 In Finland, the most important changes that have had an impact on the basic education system, decentralisation of administrative power and introduction of a school choice policy, took place in the early 1990s. Simultaneously with this policy change, the new understanding of educational equality began to take shape. In comparison to the old social democratic agrarian tradition that emphasised the right of every comprehensive school student to receive an education of similar quality, the neo-liberal version of equality spoke more clearly for individual rights emphasising everyone’s right to receive schooling that fits their needs and abilities.14

However, although policies designed to promote, for instance, parental choice have been defended based on equality arguments—making same kind of choices available to disadvantaged parents that were available to advantaged parents,15 research evidence shows that the educational policy approach promoting parental choice has actually amplified educational inequality in many countries.16 In the Finnish context, according to studies undertaken by Piia Seppänen and colleagues, education policy promoting parental choice in basic education has increased tracking in Finnish comprehensive schools, since practices within the system lead to the grouping of pupils into programs or classes offering specific curricula.17 Since the opportunities provided to the families by the school policy are mostly exploited by high-SES parents,18 the establishment of this policy has encouraged and promoted early selection of children from high-SES backgrounds to particular educational paths within school levels. Moreover, while the connection between students’ SES background and their learning results and educational outcomes of various kinds has traditionally been relatively weak in Finland in international comparison, there has been a recent trend towards the opposite. The PISA 2015 study revealed, and PISA 2018 confirmed, that the inequalities between students coming from different SES backgrounds are increasing in Finland,19 which has raised new interest in the perennial question about the relationship between SES and schooling in this Nordic country.

In this chapter, we examine the significance of SES for the educational dispositions and aspirations of Finnish comprehensive school leavers. Examining these dispositions and aspirations is important from the point of view of educational selection and, thus, equality. It seems logical to think that educational dispositions, which refer to one’s general attitude towards schooling, education and learning, are reflected in the educational aspirations of individual students. According to research, educational aspirations, in turn, predict future educational outcomes of individuals rather well.20 In this chapter, after demonstrating the existence of the relationship between the young people’s SES background and their educational dispositions and aspirations, the main question addressed is whether this relationship changes when students’ academic ability is taken into account in the analyses. The importance of this question relates to the efficiency argument used in supporting the policy aim to reduce SES-based educational inequalities: if high-ability students from low-SES backgrounds do not develop their potential in full, the resulting educational inequality is not only a loss for themselves but also for society.21

In our examination, we draw on a study of 15-year-old lower-secondary school students in Turku sub-region, consisting of the city of Turku and ten smaller, surrounding municipalities.22 Turku sub-region is mainly an urban region, which is a relatively strong economic area in the Finnish context. This area has 307,000 inhabitants of which 176,000 are living in Turku, the capital city and economic centre of the region. With its two universities and versatile options for post-compulsory education, Turku sub-region is also a strong educational area in Finland. Altogether 12 of the region’s 27 lower secondary schools from eight municipalities participated in the study we present in this chapter.

The Connection Between Students’ Socioeconomic Background and Their Educational Dispositions and Aspirations

In Finland, studies on educational selection are traditionally made from the viewpoint of inequality of educational opportunities. Typically, this research has included large-scale quantitative studies focusing usually at selection into higher education.23 The studies have focused on intergenerational educational mobility, which is viewed as a sign of an open and just society. In addition, particularly since the 1990s, there have been a growing number of qualitative studies with the aim of understanding the connection between SES and educational choices of individuals from the actor’s point of view.24 Recently, PISA studies have raised interest in examining the connection between SES and learning achievement. Generally, in the Finnish context, attention has been paid more to educational attainment and outcomes than to educational aspirations. International research findings, however, show that students from high-SES backgrounds typically aspire to more and higher education as well as to more prestigious occupations than those from low-SES backgrounds.25

Further, it may be assumed that positive dispositions towards learning and education are connected with high educational aspirations, such as a preference for university education. Although there are international studies on the impact of SES on students’ educational aspirations,26 studies on the connection between educational dispositions and aspirations and students’ SES are scarce. Differences in the educational dispositions and aspirations of young people coming from different SES backgrounds can, however, be a significant background factor that explains the class-based differences in young people’s selection into educational tracks providing unequal future opportunities, such as their selection into academic versus vocational track after common comprehensive school.

The question concerning the interplay of individual ability and SES in determining educational aspirations is particularly important from the viewpoint of educational equality. If gifted low-SES students ‘voluntarily’ give up achieving higher levels of education, it means that education system is not able to encourage and support them to make choices that differ from their family tradition. The self-exclusion of gifted low-SES students would mean that a nation, such as Finland, loses a large share of its talent potential.

The relationship between SES and educational dispositions and aspirations can be informed by Bourdieu’s work, his concepts of habitus and field in particular. Bourdieu defines habitus as “a system of lasting, transposable dispositions which, integrating past experiences, functions at every moment as a matrix of perceptions, appreciations and actions”.27 It refers to a tendency to act in a specific way in a given field, such as in the field of education. Drawing on Bourdieu, Kalalahti28 sees educational dispositions as an educational orientation, which manifests itself as one’s general attitude toward education and schooling, which is, in turn, associated with one’s success or failure at school. Based on these views we see educational dispositions consisting of relatively stable values and beliefs on and attitudes towards education internalised in one’s habitus, and operationalised them in our study as a student’s general attitude towards schooling and the value that student gives to education both intrinsically and instrumentally.

According to Bourdieu,29 the basic structure of habitus consists of dispositions that an individual internalises from social and cultural environment through socialisation. This implies that the basic structure of habitus and the dispositions internalised in one’s habitus are similar among people who have grown up in similar social and cultural environments and who share a similar kind of social class background. Habitus itself, however, is continually responsive to new experiences that either confirm or restructure it.30 In other words, the habitus acquired within one’s family underlies the structure of one’s educational experiences. The habitus is then confirmed or restructured by educational experiences.31 These experiences can be habitus-confirming or habitus-transforming by nature, meaning that they can gradually or radically transform habitus, which in turn creates the possibility for the formation of new and different dispositions.32

Based on such theorisations and results of previous studies it can be assumed that there is a connection between students’ SES and their educational dispositions and aspirations. Furthermore, one can argue that educational experiences may change individual’s habitus and, therefore, also their educational dispositions and aspirations. At a conceptual level, this chapter looks at the question whether individual ability, which is indicated by a high-level of literacy skills and which most likely promotes one’s success at school, causes changes in one’s habitus and, consequently, in educational dispositions and aspirations. If so, in the case of students coming from low-SES backgrounds, this may strengthen their academic self-beliefs and lead to a widening of their horizon for action,33 which both limits and widens their view of the world and the choices they can make within it; what they think is possible for ‘people like them’.

Our Study on the Educational Dispositions and Aspirations of School Leavers in Turku Sub-region

The findings discussed here are based on our study on the significance of SES background for the educational dispositions and aspirations of Finnish comprehensive school leavers. The study is part of the larger international research project International Study of City Youth, in which young people’s school experiences as well as their educational transitions and the development of educational trajectories have been followed up for a four-year period in 15 cities around the world.34 The aim of the project is to study how well education systems are working, for whom, and why. As part of the research project, we have studied, for example, Finnish young people’s school engagement and learning of the twenty-first century skills with the aim of understanding the schooling and learning experiences of Finnish young people in an international context.35

The objective of the study discussed in this section is two-fold. First, we explore the relationship between SES and students’ educational dispositions and aspirations. Second, and more importantly, we examine whether this relationship changes when students’ ability and gender are taken into account in the analyses. Although we are not primarily interested in studying the connection between gender and educational dispositions and aspirations, we include gender as a control variable in our analyses for two reasons.36 Firstly, in international research, it has been shown to have a significant influence on the educational aspirations of young people.37 Secondly, since there is a possibility that the connection between SES and dispositions and aspirations is different for boys than girls, we cannot draw reliable conclusions from our analyses without taking this possibility into account.

To put this in the form of a research question, we are interested in finding out: What is the effect, if any, of the socioeconomic background of young people on their educational dispositions and aspirations, and how does the relationship change when controlling for the effects of individual ability and gender?

The study participants were 15-year-old lower secondary school students living in Turku sub-region, Finland. A total of 1058 students (42.5% of all region’s lower secondary school students) participated in an online survey and a reading literacy test in 2014. In the study, educational dispositions were measured by students’ general attitudes towards schooling and education, and educational aspirations by students’ views on the highest level of education they plan to complete (whether a student, at the age of 15, plans to apply to university or not). We constructed a principal component of educational dispositions from three observed variables: ‘I like being at school’, ‘Working hard in school matters for success in the workforce’, and ‘School teaches me valuable skills’ measured on a four-point Likert-type scale (1 = Strongly disagree, 4 = Strongly agree).38 We view that the chosen variables measure different sides of educational dispositions: a general attitude towards schooling and the instrumental and intrinsic value of education, respectively. To measure students’ ability, we used a modified version of PISA 2012 literacy test. The classification of the socioeconomic background of the students is based on the International Socio-Economic Index of Occupational Status (ISEI 88) classification.39 Cross-tabulations and regression analyses were used in analysing the data.In the following, we report and interpret the main findings of our study.

First, we explored the relationship between students’ SES and their educational dispositions controlling for gender and PISA literacy test results. The results of the hierarchical multiple regression analysis40 showed that SES, female gender and the literacy test score, were all associated with more positive educational dispositions.41 While SES was a statistically significant predictor of educational dispositions in the first two regression models, when literacy test score was added to the model, SES no longer predicted dispositions significantly. This finding means that when students have high-level literacy skills, they have positive dispositions towards learning and education despite their socioeconomic background. This is an important finding, since literacy skills do not only form a basis of all learning, but also help students to integrate into the literary-academic culture of school. It also shows that students’ educational dispositions cannot be explained simply by referring to their family environment and SES background.

According to Bourdieu’s theory,42 both students’ school success and their integration into school environment require a compatibility between their habitus and the field of education. When different habitus meet with the requirements and cultural practices of the school, the consequences for students coming from different social and cultural backgrounds are different. The further apart the culture at home—such as values and language—is from the literary academic culture at school, the harder it is for the child to adapt to the cultural demands school sets for the students. Different forms of general education, where emphasis is put on liberal arts and mastering of theoretical knowledge, particularly favour children of highly educated parents who have internalised the ‘right’ kind of dispositions from their home environment already in their childhood. Based on the findings of this study, however, high-level literacy skills of low-SES students are associated with positive educational dispositions, which may significantly promote their successful integration into the school environment.

Next, we explored the association of students’ SES background and their educational aspirations as follows: firstly, the relationships of students’ SES, ability (i.e., their literacy test score), and educational aspirations regarding university education were examined with cross-tabulations. For this examination, both SES and literacy test score values were categorised into three groups based on quartiles (lowest 25%, middle 50% and highest 25%). Then, the data was split into the three SES groups, and educational aspirations and literacy test score groups were cross-tabulated in each SES group. The shares of students who plan to go to university are summarised in Table 15.1. In each SES group, the higher the literacy test scores were the more frequent were also the university plans among students. Also, in each of the literacy test score groups, the higher the students’ SES was, the more frequently students were planning to go to university. What is particularly noteworthy here is that a larger share of those high-SES students belonging to the lowest literacy test quarter were planning on going to university (28.6%) than of those low-SES students in the highest literacy test score quarter (27.6%).

Table 15.1 Share (percentage) of students who plan to go to university (n = 318) according to SES and literacy test score

When reflecting on results presented above, it can be seen that even though high-level literacy skills of low-SES students are positively associated with their educational dispositions, the same is not the case with their educational aspirations. Despite having good competences in reading and writing, which form the basis of all learning and knowledge acquiring, they do not see university education as an option in their future in a similar manner that high-SES young people do.

Next, we continued our analyses by performing a hierarchical binomial logistic regression43 to analyse the effects of SES, gender, and literacy test score on the likelihood that students plan to go to university.44 Here, the main interest was in the relationship of SES and university plans when controlling for gender and ability. The main finding of this analysis is that students’ SES was a statistically significant predictor of their educational aspirations, and this relationship remained significant when controlling for the effects of gender and ability. This finding confirmed the results of cross-tabulation by showing how strongly young people’s SES impacts on their aspirations to university education.

Conclusion: Low Aspirations of High-Ability Students as a Challenge of the Education System

The aim of our study in the Turku sub-region was to examine the relationship between school leavers’ SES background and their educational dispositions and aspirations, and how that relationship changes when controlling for the effects of individual ability and gender. The results were mixed. First, there was a statistically significant connection between student’s SES and educational dispositions, and this relationship remained significant when controlling for the effects of gender. However, when literacy test score was taken into account in the analyses, SES no longer predicted students’ dispositions significantly. A student with high-level literacy skills has positive educational dispositions despite their socioeconomic background. It seems that having high-level literacy skills helps one to integrate into the literary-academic cultural environment of the school, which can be a habitus-transforming experience for low-SES students making their dispositions towards learning and education as positive as the dispositions of their middle-class peers.

What we found in the case of educational aspirations was somewhat different. SES remained a statistically significant predictor of students’ educational aspirations when controlling for the effects of both gender and ability. In the case of low-SES students, individual ability does not predict high educational aspirations in a similar manner that it does among high-SES students. It does not widen the horizons for action of low-SES students, that is what they think, is possible or desirable for them. Our finding that the weakest readers of the high-SES group aimed at university education more often than the best readers of the low-SES group suggests that many gifted low-SES students do not see university studies as possible for them and, hence, ‘voluntarily’ give up achieving higher levels of education. This is in line with a recent Finnish study undertaken by Laura Heiskala and colleagues showing that, among students with equal school success, the high-SES students continue their studies significantly more often in higher education in comparison with students from low-SES backgrounds.45

The above-mentioned finding is understandable if we take a standpoint according to which the aspirations of individuals are socially and culturally constructed and have their origins in the cultural environment one lives in. University education is a field that may be unfamiliar to low-SES students and their families. They do not have a first-hand experience of the field of higher education, and without the knowledge and experience of it, aspiring to higher education may feel like an inaccessible and risky option, which is not compatible with their culturally constructed view of ‘a good life’.46

When interpreting our results in the light of Bourdieu’s theory, having high-level literacy skills most likely promotes one’s success at school, which may turn out to be a habitus-transforming experience that has an effect on one’s dispositions, but not so much on aspirations. According to Diane Reay,47 school also has an important role in the formation of students’ educational aspirations. Reay argues that class-based differences in educational aspirations can be understood as a result of the complex interaction of familial and institutional habitus. While familial habitus results in a tendency for young people to acquire expectations adjusted to the educational experiences and history of their family, the concept of institutional habitus may help us to understand how these class-based expectations are reinforced through the institutional practices of everyday life at school.

Institutional habitus refers to the set of predispositions and taken-for-granted expectations on the basis of which schools are organised.48 At the level of an individual school, the key element is the school culture with the expectations teachers have concerning the students’ inclinations and educability being its central part. In her case study of ten students engaged in the higher education choice process, Reay shows how the expectations of students’ educability are different for students from different SES-backgrounds within the same school. It is likely that different expectations towards students from different SES-backgrounds are more obvious in highly stratified systems in comparison to comprehensive systems such as the Finnish system, where students from different SES-backgrounds are kept together until the age of 16. However, the recent changes in the Finnish basic education system, such as the introduction of a school choice policy and an increasing number of specialised classes inside common comprehensive school, have led to increased segregation both between and within schools in terms of student populations. A division of students according to their interests, which has become more common in Finland during the recent decades, in practice means a division by socioeconomic background. This may mean that the expectations Finnish schools and teachers have concerning students’ educability are linked to their social origin more strongly than before. However, since we have not studied teachers’ expectations towards students, answering this question is beyond the scope of this chapter.

Our findings about the significance of SES background for students’ aspirations poses a challenge for the Finnish education system, comprehensive school in particular. The Finnish comprehensive school is built on the idea of promoting equality of educational opportunities. According to this principle, all individuals irrespective of their background should have equal access to education, including university education. However, despite the Finnish education system being highly standardised with a low-level of stratification when compared internationally, recent PISA studies have demonstrated that inequalities in the learning outcomes of 15-year-old students have increased in Finland. Social class-based differences in school leavers’ educational aspirations, in turn, seems to be an important factor explaining educational inequalities in the higher levels of education system. If SES is a more significant predictor of educational outcomes of individuals (including getting access to universities) than individual ability or motivation, it has negative effects for both individuals themselves and society. From the individual point of view, self-exclusion of gifted low-SES students from higher education decreases their future labour market opportunities and outcomes. From the society’s point of view, in turn, it means that many occupational fields will lose potentially talented and skilful employees. In these respects, Finnish education system would not only be unequal but also inefficient. In other words, the system is not able to encourage and support students to set themselves educational goals that differ from their family tradition. By not succeeding in this, the system functions towards the social inheritance of education and reproduces the social divisions and hierarchies of a society. In the case of Finnish society, policy makers and educators must work against such social reproduction and loss of talent if Finnish education is to truly offer the life chances it wants to promise.


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    af Ursin, P., J. Tikkanen, and T. Järvinen. Forthcoming. Differences in twenty-first century skills among lower secondary school students in Urban Finland. In R. Rumberger and S. Lamb, eds. Inequalities in cognitive, social and emotional skills. An international comparison of policy and practice. American Educational Research Association.

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    In general, when analysing aspirations and dispositions related to education, it is necessary to acknowledge the complexity of the phenomena by including and controlling for various factors (see e.g., Härmälä, M., D. Leontjev, and T. Kangasvieri. 2017. Relationship between students’ opinions, background factors and learning outcomes: Finnish 9th graders learning English. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 27: 665–681. Also Järvinen, J., and J. Tikkanen. 2019, op. cit.

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    The first step of the analysis process was to assess the suitability of principal components analysis: all variables had at least one correlation coefficient greater than 0.3, the Kaiser–Meyer–Olkin measure was 0.63, and Bartlett’s test of sphericity was statistically significant (p < 0.001). The educational dispositions component had an eigenvalue of 1.83 and explained 61.10% of the total variance. The component loadings were 0.50 (“I like being at school”), 0.62 (“Working hard in school matters for success in the workforce”), and 0.71 (“School teaches me valuable skills”).

  39. 39.

    Ganzeboom, H.B.G., P.M. De Graaf, and D.J. Treiman. 1992. A standard international socio-economic index of occupational status. Social Science Research 21: 1–56.

  40. 40.

    First, the assumptions of the regression analysis were tested. Linearity was assessed by partial regression plots and a plot of studentized residuals against the predicted values, residuals were fairly independent (Durbin-Watson value 1.038), there was homoscedasticity as assessed by visual inspection of a plot of studentized residuals versus unstandardized predicted values, and no evidence of multicollinearity (tolerance values greater than 0.1). There were seven studentized deleted residuals slightly greater than ± 3 standard deviations, but as there were no leverage values greater than 0.2 or Cook’s distance values above 1.0, they were retained in the analysis. Lastly, the assumption of normality was met as assessed by Q-Q Plot.

  41. 41.

    The full model of SES, gender, and literacy test score to predict educational dispositions was statistically significant, R2 = 0.063, F(3, 847) = 19.003, p < 0.001; adjusted R2 = 0.060. In this final model, gender (p < 0.05; β 0.082) and literacy test score (p < 0.001; β 0.213) were statistically significant predictors of educational dispositions. The changes in R2 were as follows: model 1 0.008, model 2 0.013, and model 3 0.042; and Cohen’s f2 values (effect sizes) model 1 0.001, model 2 0.02, and model 3 0.07 (values between 0.02 and 0.15 considered small).

  42. 42.

    See e.g., Bourdieu, 1990. op. cit., Bourdieu and Wacquant, op. cit.

  43. 43.

    Regarding the requirements of the regression analysis, the assumption of linearity of the two continuous variables with respect to the logit of the dependent variable was assessed by the Box-Tidwell procedure, and there were no outliers.

  44. 44.

    In the hierarchical binomial logistic regression, the variables were entered into the model in the following order: SES, gender (male = 0) and literacy test score. The full logistic regression model was statistically significant, \(\chi\)2(3) = 95.968, p < 0.001, it explained 14.8% of the variance in planning on going to university, and correctly classified 71.4% of the cases. All three predictor variables were statistically significant: SES p < 0.001, OR 1.021; gender p < 0.05, OR 1.380; and literacy test score p  < 0.005, OR 1.149 (in model 1, OR for SES 1.024; in model 2, OR for 1.025 and for gender 1.555).

  45. 45.

    Heiskala et al., op. cit.

  46. 46.

    Bok, op. cit.

  47. 47.

    Reay, D. 1998. ‘Always knowing’ and ‘never being sure’. Familial and institutional habituses and higher education choice. Journal of Education Policy 13: 519–529.

  48. 48.

    Tarabini, A., M. Curran, and C. Fontdevila. 2017. Institutional habitus in context: Implementation, development and impacts in two compulsory secondary schools in Barcelona. British Journal of Sociology of Education 38: 1177–1189.