Socioeconomic Inequalities and Academic Achievement in Spain

Álvaro Borja Choi de Mendizábal, Associate Professor in Economics, University of Barcelona

A pupil’s socioeconomic status conditions their academic achievement. This fact has been amply demonstrated by empirical evidence. The effects of inequalities of socioeconomic origin can be transmitted through very diverse mechanisms, such as parents’ differing expectations, the availability of educational material in the home and the impact of the socioeconomic background of fellow pupils in a school.
Key points
  • 1
       At the age of 15, there is an 82-point PISA gap (equivalent to two years of schooling) between pupils from homes of a higher socioeconomic status and those from homes of a lower socioeconomic status.
  • 2
       In Spain, coming from a home in the bottom socioeconomic quartile results in a six-fold increase in the risk of having a very low academic achievement.
  • 3
       Socioeconomic status is one of the main determining factors of the risk of not completing higher secondary education, the greatest challenge the Spanish education system faces.
  • 4
       The results of reading tests on pupils aged ten show considerable differences depending on families’ socioeconomic and educational status. This inequality appears early on in youngsters’ lives and then continues or worsens during secondary education.
  • 5
       Spanish pupils with a lower socioeconomic background run a greater risk of having to repeat academic years. In addition, the evidence indicates that repeating a year has an especially negative impact on the subsequent achievement of these pupils: repeating a year is the precursor to dropping out of school and early abandonment of education.
Is private education better? The apparent difference in academic performance between private and publicly-run schools is due to the segregation of pupils from homes with a lower socioeconomic and educational status (ESCS).
Is private education better? The apparent difference in academic performance between private and publicly-run schools is due to the segregation of pupils from homes with a lower socioeconomic and educational status (ESCS).

Numerous studies have demonstrated that, in Spain, the difference in results between private and publicly-run schools is fundamentally due to the different socioeconomic backgrounds of their pupils. In fact, the performance of publicly-run schools is slightly higher than that of private schools if we control for the effect of the socioeconomic status of their pupils: once the effects of the socioeconomic status of the pupils and the school are discounted from the results, the gap of some 30 PISA points (the equivalent of a year of schooling) in favour of private schools becomes one of ten points in favour of publicly-run schools.

Recommendations on action to tackle the situation:

  1. Early intervention in the education system, with a greater participation of the public sector in the stage from 0 to 3 years old.
  2. Continuation of aid, such as grants, focused on pupils from a lower socioeconomic background: it has been shown that this aid has the ability to reduce the initial disadvantage.
  3. Help in making educational decisions for families and pupils, for example by boosting academic guidance services.
  4. Reduction in the segregation of pupils between schools for socioeconomic reasons, given the importance of the ‘peer effect’.
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Álvaro Borja Choi de Mendizábal, Associate Professor in Economics, University of Barcelona

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