During the POLPAN Seminar on March 13th Professor Zbigniew Sawinski (Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Educational Research Institute) presented a talk entitled “Social Background, School Trajectories, and Transitions to Tertiary Education.”


Many studies have documented that academic secondary schools provide more opportunities to continue education at tertiary level than vocational schools which cover students with less privileged social background. Much less is known, however, what happens when students from privileged and unprivileged backgrounds are mixed in academic schools, what may be a consequence of a deliberate school policy or external circumstances. In Poland, before the collapse of the communism (1989), the socialist state economy was based on a heavy industry, so the offer of vocational schools was mainly addressed to boys. For many girls, the only opportunity to continue education after primary school were academically oriented General Secondary (GS) schools (liceum ogólnokształcące). Using the data from the first edition of POLPAN study (1987), the girls attending GS schools were divided into two latent strata: the upper strata, which covers girls, who decided to go to GS school to maximize their chances of reaching higher education; the lower strata, which includes girls for whom the GS school created a possibility to complete education at the secondary level. The POLPAN data demonstrated that for girls from the lower strata the choice of the GS school was a rationale decision. In a socialist economy, general education ensured women a higher paying job than vocational education. Contrary to expectations, however, the GS school did not increase the chances of transition to higher education for girls from the lower strata, especially when compared to boys of similar social background. A proposed division into two latent strata has one more advantage. It provides a clear explanation, why in the GS schools the chances to continue education at tertiary level are dependent on social background  in a much stronger way than in any other schools. The population of GS students is composed of two distinct groups: (1) students with privileged background, with high chances to reach tertiary level; (2) students with disadvantaged background, with low chances for a transition to higher education. The POLPAN data demonstrate that when these two groups are mixed up in secondary schools of the same type, the observed effect of social background becomes impressive.

Key words: sociology of education, educational inequality, school transitions, secondary schools, tracking.