Navigating Institutions: Parents' Knowledge of the Educational System and Students' Success in Education

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This study investigates whether families navigate educational institutions more successfully if they have a higher knowledge of the pathways in the educational system that are available to their children. We also study whether this kind of knowledge mediates secondary effects of social origin, i.e. differences in educational pathways once achievement differences between children are accounted for. The role of parents' knowledge is consistent with various sociological theories concerning educational inequality. Knowledge can affect families' ability to make rational choices for education but it can also be understood as a form of cultural capital. We use longitudinal student cohort data from the Netherlands combined with individual-level register data on educational attainment to study the importance of knowledge for short-term outcomes (up- and downward transitions in secondary education as well as track placement) and final educational attainment. Our results show that parents' knowledge is a significant predictor of educational success net of parents' education, socio-demographic characteristics, and demonstrated ability. If we apply a stricter test to the measure, however, we can see that knowledge matters for downward transitions and obtaining a tertiary degree but that the effect is negligible for upward transitions and track placement if other mechanisms such as cultural capital and aspirations are considered. Further, we conclude that knowledge matters especially for transitions in the educational system that require a move to a new and unknown school environment such as post-secondary or tertiary education. The study shows that knowledge is one useful avenue to investigate when we are confronted with the question why social disparities in educational decision-making arise.




Forster, A. G., & Van De Werfhorst, H. G. (2020). Navigating Institutions: Parents’ Knowledge of the Educational System and Students’ Success in Education. European Sociological Review, 36(1), 48–64.

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