Monday, 13 November 2017

Do secondary school peers influence educational decisions?

Sophie Hedges from London Economics, together with NIESR's Stefan Speckesser, has been looking at how students make choices about their education after GCSEs  

Why did we look at peer effects?

Following the increase in the education participation age, individuals are now required to study towards either a vocational or academic qualification until their 18th birthday once they have completed their GCSEs. However, there is currently relatively little understanding of the factors which determine which route learners choose to follow. Attainment in secondary school is clearly important, given that most A Level courses generally require a high level of GCSE achievement as a prerequisite, but there remain students with strong exam results who choose to pursue a vocational route. Furthermore, it is not necessarily the case that the pupils following a vocational trajectory are veering away from pursuing education at a high level; although it is less common than for A Level students, there are a significant number of individuals who proceed into higher education after achieving vocational qualifications.

In order to better understand such education choices, in our new discussion paper we investigate one of the factors which might drive the transition into vocational or academic routes. Specifically, we examine whether the composition of somebody’s secondary school, in terms of the attainment of their peers, significantly influences which pathway is chosen.

Using census-level National Pupil Data and data from the Individualised Learner Record (ILR) for students completing their GCSEs in the summer of 2011, we can observe peer group composition and qualification enrolment. We restrict the analysis to pupils with at least five GCSEs at grades A*-C, since those with achievement below this level typically do not genuinely have the choice to pursue an academic route in the first place.

What did we find?

Our main results indicate that the composition of secondary school peers is an important determinant of a student’s post-16 education choice. We find that while the main driver of educational choice is individual ability and young people with higher ability more often decide in favour of academic rather than vocational education, peers have a significant impact too. The more able one’s peers are, the less likely one is to choose a vocational course after completion of their GCSEs, after controlling for the individual’s own ability.

Another important finding in this paper is the influence of the social gradient on educational decision making. Using the Index of Multiple Deprivation, we see a significant relationship between deprivation and education choice over the whole distribution of wealth/IMD, i.e. students from more deprived families are significantly more likely to choose a vocational course, other things being equal, than those from better off families.

What are the policy implications?

  • Secondary school composition at transition from KS2 to KS3 should be more carefully looked at and better information on educational choices needs to be offered at school so that individuals can make impartial choices.
  • Our findings also tie in with the policy aim of better understanding and possibly mitigating inequality in access to education for people, who can be identified as deprived e.g. using the information about Free School Eligibility (FSM) in the data (e.g. “just about-managing families”). Our results indicate that students from such less affluent families are less likely to enrol in an academic course irrespective of their ability and the ability of their peers. Furthermore, the influence of the social gradient is not only a matter for the most deprived (e.g. the FSM eligible pupils), but across the income distribution.

"Peer Effects and Social Influence in Post-16 Educational Choice" by Sophie Hedges and Stefan Speckesser, CVER Research Paper 008 (November 2017) is available at

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