This paper compares two explanations of the persistent relationship in the UK between young people’s social class backgrounds and their rates of participation in higher education: poverty of aspiration and rational action. It is argued that, rather than widening opportunities, successive reforms in education and training have created a series of blind alleys for the (mostly working class) young people who are not high achievers, and that these experiences are the most likely reason for the subsequent strengthening of the weak relationship that exists at age 11/12 between, on one hand, social class backgrounds, then, on the other, pupils’ educational and vocational aims. The paper then proceeds to argue that at age 16 to 18 high achievers from working class homes are likely to face equally attractive opportunities to the kinds of higher education that they might otherwise enter.
Key words: Education, labour markets, occupational choice, poverty of aspiration, rational action, youth.
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