The missing middle

A life more ordinary: a UK collaboration turns the microscope on the under-examined majority in educational attainment.

Students working

There is now renewed interest in studying ‘ordinary’ or ‘unspectacular’ young people (Roberts & MacDonald 2013). The term ‘missing middle’ has been used to describe this large group of students, who are often absent from the research agenda. They are invisible because research has become polarised, with an increasing concentration on young people who achieve either very successful or very unsuccessful outcomes. In a pithy statement, Brown (1987) described these young people in the middle as pupils who neither leave their names engraved on the school honours board, nor gouge them into the top of their desks.

In the sub-discipline of the sociology of youth, research into educational attainment has historically been orientated towards ‘under-achievement’, focusing on young people with poorer academic qualifications, and those who are not engaged in education, employment or training (so-called ‘NEETs’). It has found clear stratification in educational attainment, and has shown that young people from less advantaged social backgrounds tend to be less successful.

But in addition, an increasingly large proportion of young people have remained in education for longer periods in recent decades, and there has been an explosion in participation in further and higher education. Recent cohorts of young people have achieved more advanced levels of qualifications which in previous decades were restricted to those from more advantaged social backgrounds. As a result, more educationally-successful young people have gradually become the subject of sociological investigation. It is arguable that the sociology of youth is now focused on these two polarised educational groups.

Shifting the focus

Roberts (2011) made an appeal for researchers to better document the educational experience and qualification levels of young people in the ‘middle', because this might provide additional insights into patterns of inequality in contemporary Britain. We have recently taken up this challenge and have examined middle levels of GCSE attainment at school (Connelly et al. 2013; Gayle et al. 2013).

We conducted analyses of two large-scale data sources. The first set of analyses used the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS). The BHPS is a general dataset but has the advantages of following young people into adult life. The second set of analyses was a replication study, and used data from the Youth Cohort Study of England and Wales (YCS). The YCS is a more specialised dataset and contains more detailed information on educational qualifications.

The overall pattern of school GCSE attainment is one of increasing levels of performance over time. This is encouraging, but the enduring presence of dramatic inequalities is particularly dismal.

In general, girls performed better than boys, and there were some marked differences in attainment for pupils from the main minority ethnic groups. But a more striking result is the major impact of parental socio-economic position, and of other factors associated with the young person’s home background, on educational attainment. This is particularly important because much of the current popular discourse associated with differences in school attainment focuses on gender differences rather than on the differences between pupils from dissimilar social backgrounds.

Our analysis of the BHPS showed that young people with modest levels of achievement at GCSE differed in their economic activities in early adulthood from those who were either more or less well qualified. This group of modest achievers made the transition from education into employment more readily. These successful early transitions into employment may have consequences later in life, and this is an area that requires further research. Using the YCS data, we were able to replicate some of the analyses on a much larger sample, and we were able to explore a range of alternative measures of school GCSE attainment.

A central goal of our investigations was to establish whether or not there is a clearly defined ‘middle’ group of pupils with ‘ordinary’ levels of GCSE attainment at school. There are a notable group of young people who fail to gain any GCSEs at grades A*-C. Nevertheless, our analyses show that there is no convincing evidence indicating the presence of a distinctive group of young people with middle levels of school GCSE attainment. We conclude that pupils’ school GCSE attainment is best understood as being located along a continuum. Whilst there in no evidence of a distinctive ‘middle’ group of pupils who have ‘ordinary’ levels of school GCSE attainment, we argue that researchers should make a concerted effort to analyse educational attainment across its broadest spectrum.

Dr Roxanne Connelly is a research officer at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Department of Quantitative Social Science, Institute of Education, University of London.

Professor Vernon Gayle is the chair of Sociology and Social Statistics at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh.

Dr Susan Murray is a research fellow at the School of Applied Social Science, University of Stirling.

  1. Brown, P. (1987) Schooling ordinary kinds; inequality, unemployment and the new vocationalism (London, Tavistock).
  2. Connelly, R., Murray, S. & Gayle, V. (2013) Young People and School GCSE Attainment: Exploring the 'Middle', Sociological Research Online, 18(1).
  3. Gayle, V., Murray, S. & Connelly, R. (2013) Exploring the 'middle': School GCSE attainment and ordinary young people. ESRC Centre for Population Change Working Papers 39.,  (Southampton, ESRC Centre for Population Change).
  4. Roberts, S. (2011) Beyond 'NEET' and 'tidy' pathways: considering the 'missing middle' of youth transition studies, Journal of Youth Studies, 14(1), 21-39.
  5. Roberts, S. & MacDonald, R. (2013) The Marginalised Mainstream: Making Sense of the 'Missing Middle' of Youth Studies, Sociological Research Online, 18(1), 21.

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