Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely than those from higher socio-economic backgrounds to feel in control of their futures.
This is according to analysis of data from the Covid Social Mobility and Opportunities (COSMO) study, which surveyed young people in England whose GCSEs were disrupted by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. They were surveyed between October 2021 and March 2022, when they were aged 16 or 17 years.
Most young people (98.3%) agreed that their future careers are important, and this was broadly the same across different types of households. Most young people (90.5%) also agreed that if you work hard at something you will usually succeed.
Their attitudes, however, towards their prospects and future plans differed depending on their household income, deprivation level, and the qualifications held by their parents.
The cohort’s parents or guardians were also surveyed, and the majority wanted their children to do well. Parents in disadvantaged households were more likely to want their children to get a better education than they did, but also reported being less involved in monitoring their child’s progress in school.
Despite almost universal agreement that having a job or career is important, young people’s feelings about their futures varied by their socio-economic situations.
Young people in households where the adults had never worked or were long-term unemployed were more likely to say that people like them didn’t have much of a chance in life than those whose parents were in managerial, administrative and professional occupations (29.3% compared with 10.9%).
Young people in long-term unemployed or “never worked” households were more likely to feel people like them don’t have much of a chance in life
Responses to the statement “people like me don’t have much of a chance in life”, young people aged 16 to 17 years, by parent’s occupation group, England, October 2021 to March 2022
Download the data
Similar trends were also true of young people living in the most deprived areas, where 23.3% said that people like them didn’t have much of a chance in life. This compared with only 10.0 % of those who lived in the least deprived areas.
Around 4 in 10 young people in the cohort (38.8%) said they “don’t really think much” about what they might be doing in a few years.
Young people from lower-income households were more likely to say that they don’t think much about the future (44.0%) compared with those from higher-income households (34.7%).
Young people in higher-income households were more likely to say “I can pretty much decide what will happen in my life”, while those on the lowest incomes were more likely to say “people like me don’t have much of a chance in life.”
One in four young people in the lowest-income households feel people like them don’t have much of a chance in life
Young people’s feelings about their futures, England, October 2021 to March 2022
Download the data
Young people’s feelings about the future also varied by their parents’ occupations.
Those from households where the adults had never worked or are long-term unemployed saw the highest percentage of young people reporting that they don’t think much about the future, and the lowest percentage reporting that they can decide what will happen in their lives.
Between October 2021 and March 2022, when the young people were aged 16 to 17 years (equivalent to school year 12), a large majority (94.2%) reported that they were still studying at school or college.
Over half (55.5%) of young people said they were currently in full-time education and planned to be continuing their studies in two years’ time. Around 1 in 10 (10.8%) were in full-time education at the time of the survey and planned to be working in two years’ time, while 15.4% said they were currently in full-time education and planned on taking an apprenticeship or similar.
Over half of young people said they were currently studying now and planned to also be studying in two years’ time
Young people’s current status and plan in two years’ time, England, October 2021 to March 2022
- Asterisk denotes shortened category name
Download the data
Of young people from households where the parent or parent’s partner had a qualification at degree level or above, 67.5% said that they’ll still be studying in two years’ time.
This reduced to 45.5% for those living in households where the adults had a qualification below degree level.
Our previous research using the COSMO study found that fewer students living in the most deprived areas said that they were likely to be studying in two years (47.0%) compared with those living in the least deprived areas (63.0%).
Young people from lower-income households were less likely to plan to still be studying in two years’ time
Plans for what they will be doing in two years’ time, by household income, England, October 2021 to March 2022
Download the data
We also found young people from lower-income households and those in more deprived areas were more likely to say they’ll be in full-time work in two years’ time than those from high-income households or those in the least deprived areas.
Socio-economic background is known to play an important role in shaping children’s educational and labour market outcomes but less is known about the role of parenting styles and aspirations, as explored in the Social Mobility Commission's State of the Nation 2022 report.
Most of this cohort’s parents (91.6%) wanted their children to have a better education than they did. This was most common among parents in more deprived households (96.4% of those living in the most deprived quintile compared with 88.0% in the least deprived quintile).
Most parents reported they would like their child to continue studying (84.2%), while 9.8% of the parents said they didn’t mind what their child did.
While all parents want their children to do well, knowledge and finances can play a role in how parents interact with the school system, as discussed in the Sutton Trust's Parent Power 2018 report (PDF, 396KB).
A high percentage of all parents reported always speaking to their children about their school reports, however, this was more likely for parents with higher incomes (93.5%) compared with parents with lower incomes (77.8%).
Meanwhile, those with lower incomes were more likely to report only speaking with their children about their reports if there were concerns (17.8% and 5.1%, respectively).
Parents on the highest incomes were more likely to report always speaking with their children about school reports
How often parents discuss school reports with their children, by income, England, October 2021 to March 2022
Download the data
This also varied by the education level of parents. Those with qualifications below degree level were more likely to only speak to their children about their reports if there were concerns (13.4%) compared with those with degree-level qualifications (7.4%).
Young people who lived in a household with at least one adult educated to degree level were more likely to say they would apply to university than those whose parents had below degree-level qualifications (83.0% compared with 60.6%, respectively).
Parents with a degree-level qualification were more likely to say their children were likely to go to university (84.2% of those with degree-level qualifications compared with 62.0% of those without).
Parents’ expectations about the likelihood of their children attending university also varied by occupation (81.5% of those working in managerial, administrative or professional jobs compared with 64.2% of those working in routine and manual jobs).
In university-educated households, both parents and children were more likely to think the child would go to university
Expectations of child going to university, by parent’s education level, England, October 2021 to March 2022
Download the data
For the most part, parents and their children reported similar aspirations: in 90.1% of households, young people and their parents held the same opinion about whether the young person would attend university.
In households where a parent had degree-level education, parents and children agreed that the child would attend university in 8 in 10 cases.
This compares to just over half (55.9%) of households where a parent held a qualification below degree level.
Socio-economic differences also emerged where there was disagreement between the young person and their parent on the likelihood the young person would attend university. This was especially the case in instances where the parent thought that university attendance was likely, but the young person disagreed.
In 6.7% of households where parental qualifications were below degree level, the parents thought their child was likely to attend university and the young person disagreed. This compares with 4.3% of households where at least one parent had degree-level qualifications.
Likewise, in 8.4% of low-income households, young people disagreed with parents who thought that they would attend university. This was almost double that of households with high incomes (4.4%).
Deprivation is measured using the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI). This measures the proportion of all children aged 0 to 15 years living in income-deprived families.
It is a subset of the Income Deprivation Domain that measures the proportion of the population in an area experiencing deprivation relating to low income. The definition of low income used includes both those people that are out of work, and those that are in work but who have low earnings (and who satisfy the respective means tests).
When we refer to young people living in deprived households, or areas of high deprivation, this means they live in one of the 20% of areas in England with the highest levels of deprivation. Those in the least deprived areas live in one of the 20% of areas with the lowest levels of deprivation. For more information, see the English indices of deprivation 2019.
Income is derived from the combined self-reported income of the parent and of their partner.
This article uses a system called National Statistics Socio-economic classification (NS-SEC) to group the parents’ jobs. It is a system that classifies groups of jobs based on employment relations and conditions.
This article uses the three-class system to classify our cohort’s parents’ occupations. We use the occupation of the highest earner in the household, which may be the parent or the parent’s partner.
For more information, see the National Statistics Socio-economic classification (NS-SEC).
In the survey, parents were asked to indicate the highest academic or vocational qualifications held by them or by their partner. For the purposes of this article, we classified qualifications into “degree level and above”, and “below degree level”. For more information and detail about qualification levels, see What qualification levels mean.
This article presents a summary of results, with further data including confidence intervals for the estimates shown in the charts presented contained in the associated datasets. Where comparisons between groups are presented, 95% confidence intervals should be used to assess the statistical significance of the change.
This article uses the data from the first wave of the COSMO study. This is publicly available data obtained from the UK Data Service. The article combines responses from both young people and their parents or guardians, and includes responses from the Sutton Trust Opportunity Cohort. This resulted in a representative sample of around 10,000 matched responses from young people and their parents.
The young people included in the study were students in Year 11 during the academic year 2020 to 2021. This cohort did not sit GCSE exams because of the coronavirus pandemic, instead their results were replaced with centre-assessed grades. Between October 2021 and March 2022, when the cohort were aged 16 to 17 years, they were asked a range of questions on future aspirations and plans. The COSMO study is a collaboration between University College London (UCL) Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO) and Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), the Sutton Trust and Kantar Public.
The article uses quotes from case studies (PDF, 2.2MB) from young people who are part of the Sutton Trust Youth Panel and interviews (PDF, 790KB) with young people from the Sutton Trust Opportunity Cohort. Any potentially identifying information was removed from the quotations by the Sutton Trust. We have shortened some quotations for brevity.
We have used deprivation indices provided by the survey, as well as information about parents’ education, occupation and income to measure socio-economic background. Future research on this topic would benefit from the inclusion of additional variables that are known to be associated with deprivation and socio-economic background, such as the types of schools that young people attended and their results in previous school assessments.