Unequal schooling: how the school curriculum keeps students from low socioeconomic backgrounds out of university

Deborah Tranter

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    38 Citations (Scopus)


    The Australian higher education sector has grappled, with little success, to increase the participation of students from lower socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. In this article I identify the ways in which the secondary school curriculum contributes to this outcome, and how universities are complicit in this process. Using data collected at three low SES secondary schools, I argue that the hierarchy of subjects and the increase of vocational education options, together with the expectations of schools and teachers, conspire with tertiary selection processes to prevent all but a very few low SES students from gaining entry to university. These students are not well positioned in relation to cultural and social capital to negotiate the educational strategies that facilitate university entrance. When university places are limited and access is based on relative (apparent) merit, the secondary curriculum orders young people into a social hierarchy of postsecondary options where the success of more privileged students comes at the cost of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The article concludes with an exploration of alternative modes of entry that disrupt the established curriculum hierarchy by valuing a broad range of knowledges for entry to university.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)901-916
    Number of pages16
    Issue number9
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2012


    • education policy
    • higher education
    • poverty and education


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