The present study showed that poor social relations with parents, friends, teachers, and classmates are common among 15- and 18-year-old Danish adolescents. Among both girls and boys, the risk of not having completed a secondary education at age 21 increased if an individual had experienced poor social relations, but at the same time poor social relations with family and friends only explained a minor part of the socioeconomic differences in dropout from secondary education. Poor social relations with teachers and classmates at age 18 explained a large part of the association between income and dropout among both girls and boys.
Most previous research on the influence of social relations on educational outcomes has focused on parent’s investment and involvement in their children’s school, and parental interest appears to facilitate the offspring’s motivation for schoolwork and improve both academic achievement and adult educational outcome [8, 16, 34]. Henry et al. reported parental investment in school as a mediator of the relationship between socioeconomic status and students’ expectation to graduate from high school , but they did not investigate whether the students succeeded in graduating or not. On the other hand, a study by Blondal et al. found that parenting style at age 14 was a stronger predictor than parental involvement in terms of having completed upper secondary school by age 22 . One of the strengths of the study by Blondal et al. is that it like the present study, included social relations from different social environments.
Some gender differences were found in the current study. The associations between parental socioeconomic position and dropout were strong in both genders, and especially among the boys, which is consistent with previous findings [9, 35]. At the same time, poor social relations were more strongly associated with not completing a secondary education among girls than among boys. This finding stresses the importance of parents, teachers, and other adults being in contact with adolescent girls to help stimulate positive social relations.
Other studies have confirmed strong associations between negative relations with parents [12, 36] friends, teachers, and classmates [19–22] and lack of educational outcomes in their children but only a few studies have evaluated the influence of poor social relations on the association between socioeconomic position and dropout. A previous study documented that in addition to lower socioeconomic position being related to school dropout, students from lower socioeconomic families were generally more disengaged in school than students from higher socioeconomic families . In addition Melby et al. found that family income of 7th grade students has both a direct and an indirect effect on educational attainment through supportive parenting . Whether the positive effect of social relations on educational outcome is due to increased school motivation and engagement among the students needs further investigation.
Test for trends overall showed a clear dose–response pattern between level of household income or highest education in the household and completion of secondary education of the young people. The only tests not being statistically significant were between income level and school completion after adjustment for social factors at age 18 (Models 8 and 9).
Previous research suggests that different measures of socioeconomic position, such as parental income and education, affect health and future social status through different pathways . Bourdieu differentiates between two independent yet interrelated mechanisms: economic capital (income) and cultural capital (educational level). He argues that having low levels of economic capital could make a person more prone to living in situations that are more stressful, e.g. lack of material resources, whereas low levels of cultural capital would influence the way a person copes with stressful situations . By including highest education in the household and household income as two separate exogenous variables, we were able to evaluate the contribution of each socioeconomic component. We found both measures related to dropout in young adulthood, but the results indicate that they are related in slightly different ways and that the mechanisms to some extent vary by gender. In general, parental educational level (cultural capital) appeared to have a larger influence on boys’ chances of completing a secondary education than household income (economic capital) when social relations were taken into account, whereas among girls, no clear pattern was observed. This finding is in line with the results of a study in a Norwegian male population .
In the present study, poor social relations with teachers and classmates at age 18 seemed to explain part of the socioeconomic difference in dropout. Actually, it seemed that social relations with teachers and classmates were mediators of the association between household income and completion of a secondary education but not between parental educational level and completion of secondary education. The reason for the difference between the estimates of the two socioeconomic measures is not obvious. However, the results indicate that the importance of social relations at school increases from age 15 to 18 concurrently with the natural transition during adolescence, especially among young people from stressful environments due to low economic capital. It seems that late adolescence is an important stage of the life course, with a transition from a strong parental influence to greater influence of classmates, teachers, and other non-family members.
This study features a relatively high initial participation rate of 83 % of whom 71 % responded again at follow-up in 2007. Additional strengths of the study are the prospective design with complete follow-up due to use of register-based data. At the same time, the use of both questionnaire and register-based data minimises the risk of common method variance .
It is important to emphasise that the questions asked about social relations with classmates and teachers at the two different age points are not all identical. As such, the difference between social relations’ mediating role at ages 15 and 18 might be attributable to the different constructs that were measured rather than the age periods per se.
Some of the missing answers to the questions about social relations at age 18 could be due to school dropout prior to this age. Altogether 147 participants reported being out of school when they completed the first follow-up questionnaire at age 18. This selection problem could result in bias due to missing information from some of the adolescents with highest risk of negative educational outcome. However, it is not clear how this missing information may have influenced the results.
The high frequency of young people attending or having completed a secondary education (91 %) by age 21 indicates that some selection into the Vestliv cohort has occurred. A previous study on the same data material demonstrated that the participants had slightly better school abilities and more often came from homes with two adults, higher income, or higher educational level. These differences increased at subsequent follow-ups. Although certain characteristics were related to those who participate initially and at follow-ups, this did not have any large influence on the relative risk estimates measured in the study. This is reassuring for the validity of the relative estimates in the current study .
Social relations with family, friends, teachers, and classmates in general only explained a small part of the association between socioeconomic position and dropout. It is likely that other aspects such as major life events like death or illness in the family, divorce, or living with one parent could potentially influence the chance of completion as well. Including such variables in future studies is recommended.
The objective of this study was not to study social inequality of health per se but to address some potential determinants that eventually could lead to poor health outcome. Addressing inequality in young people’s educational outcome has multiple potential benefits that extend beyond reductions in health inequalities. If this inequality could be reduced, it would enable young people to maximise their capabilities and eventually be able to participate equally with others in society. Given the relatively low social inequality in Denmark, the results can be difficult to generalise to other more unequal countries. However, the fact that the difference in life expectancy between those who complete secondary education and those who do not is increasing in Denmark , indicates that positive social relations that are preventing school dropout is indirectly related to the prevention of health inequality later in life [2, 4].