Understanding the attainment gap through social closure: towards a conceptual underpinning

Michael Wilson, Christopher Holligan

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


Promoting greater social mobility has become the mantra of social and educational reform, underpinned by the establishment of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission under the former coalition Government. While there is acknowledgement that the causes of inequality of opportunity are complex and multifaceted, the policy focus has been largely on the perceived inadequacies of state education provision, coupled with the pressures on state schools to reduce the so-called attainment gap through comprehensive improvement strategies supported by high-stakes testing, curricular prescription and a rigorous system of school inspection. Schools must bear a heavy responsibility for opening life-changing opportunities for children through quality and equality of provision. However, it can be argues that many causes of social and educational inequality of opportunity lie outside the direct control of state schools, and require more radical approaches to understanding both the problems and possible long-term solutions. The nature of the roundtable discussion is conceptual with four key aims:-

1. To discuss the concept of 'social closure' and its theoretical contribution to understanding barriers to equality of educational opportunity and social mobility. This will initially focus on traditional social closure, as originally conceptualised by Max Weber, relating to social stratification that results in both an unfair distribution of resources and barriers to fair access for 'outsider' groups. It will then examine four recent neo-Weberian reconceptualisations that relate the concept more specifically to inequalities in educational provision and access in the labour market, namely: symbolic closure, school-based closure, informal closure and intergenerational closure.
2. To consider how and why current Government policy has failed to effectively address the barriers of social closure.
3. To recommend a way forward through debating possible answers to three questions:     - How might social closure be addressed more effectively through political             and/or social intervention?     - How might policies be more consistent and mutually reinforcing in                       supporting disadvantaged children and families, e.g. regarding social                   security/welfare provision alongside educational support?     - How might schools be more effectively supported through lessons drawn             from progressive systems, such as that of Finland, which rely less on                   prescription, inspection and high-stakes accountability to achieve                       outstanding educational results?
4. To discuss the prospects and possibilities of applying the concept of social closure to an empirical research agenda, e.g. as a means of acquiring a deeper understanding of the attainment gap in schools, and in accounting for the limitations of the massification and post-massification of higher education to achieve major upward social shifts in social mobility.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 22 Nov 2017
EventScottish Educational Research Association Annual Conference : Educational Futures in a Changing Landscape: Bridging Boundaries or "Mind the Gap"? - University of the West of Scotland, Ayr, United Kingdom
Duration: 22 Nov 201724 Nov 2017


ConferenceScottish Educational Research Association Annual Conference
Abbreviated titleSERA Conference 2017
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • social closure
  • educational attainment
  • equality of opportunity
  • fair access
  • resource distribution
  • social mobility


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