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The concept of educational access is central for a life course perspective towards education in terms of educational trajectories and the potentials of social mobility in this regard. In the framework of the knowledge society it is most often associated with access to third level education or to lifelong learning, where it tends to be concerned with debates around widening access, in particular in relation to gender, socio-economic status and ethnicity. It is on the one hand closely related to the perspective of social inequalities and disdvantage reproduced by the education system. On the other hand it relates to participation and whilst participation as a concept implies an active or decisive role for social actors, access can be distinguished through its more restrictive nature, whereby only those individuals with certain ascribed characteristics are able to participate. It is most closely associated with policies that are related to selection by ability. Referring to the interplay of structure and agency in the reproduction of inequality, the provision of access depends on the subjective accessibility of educational pathways on the side of pupils, students and their parents.

In broader terms, access and accessibility are issues concerning welfare policies as a whole, rising questions of equality of opportunities, coverage and flexibility (especially to cover multi-problematic cases and cases not belonging to “standard” mainstream welfare user categories). From this point of view, the issue of access is related to institutional responsiveness (capacity to read, meet and answer potential clients' needs), effectiveness (capacity to achieve goal, taking up potential clients) and universality (limiting distortion due to implicit or explicit, intended or unintended discriminatory profiling of potential clients).

From a comparative perspective between different transition regimes in Europe, at the lower secondary level, an initial distinction can be made between the few countries which restrict access to academic tracks (gymnasium or grammar schools) and those which operate comprehensive systems. Recent evidence from IALS and PISA suggest that educational systems with the most comprehensive systems have the lowest level of educational inequality in terms of measured outcomes. Selective systems, by comparison display much wider inequalities in education and school level effects (Green et al, 2006). However, within comprehensive systems the existence of varying forms of quasi educational markets are also seen as contributing to educational inequality (Ball, 1993). Access to private forms of education represents a further differentiation across European societies, whether through educational institutions outside of the state sector or through supplementing state education with private tutoring, here, access is restricted to families with sufficient resources to avail of such opportunities. Although access to different educational institutions represents one key dimension of educational access, it can be defined much more broadly in terms of access to knowledge (Murphy and Hallinger, 1989). Within many comprehensive systems ability grouping occurs within the same school, through a process of setting or tracking, which can lead to differential access to curricula and teaching.


Ball, S. J. (1993) Education, Markets, Choice and Social Class: the market as a class strategy in the UK and US. British Journal of Sociology of Education. Vol. 14, No.1, pp. 3-19.

Green, A., Preston, J. and Janmaat, J. G. (2006) Education, Equality and Social Cohesion. A comparative analysis. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ireson, J., Hallam, S. and Hurley, C. (2005) What are the Effects of Ability Grouping on GCSE Attainment? British Educational Research Journal. Vol. 3, No.4, pp. 443-458.

Murphy, J. and Hallinger, P. (1989) Equity as access to learning: curricular and instructional treatment differences. Journal of Curriculum Studies. Vol. 21, No.2, pp. 129-149.

Walther, Andreas & Pohl, Axel (eds.) (2005) Thematic Study on Policy Measures concerning Disadvantaged Youth. Final Report. Download:

(Andy Biggart, Eduardo Barberis & Andreas Walther)