A social inequality of motivation? The relationship between beliefs about academic success and young people's educational attainment

Jonathan Frederick Smith, Zlatko Skrbis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Meritocratic ideals, which emphasise individual responsibility and self-motivation, have featured prominently in discourses about Australia's international competitiveness in academic achievement. Young people are often encouraged to attribute academic success and failure to individual factors such as hard work and talent, and to downplay extrinsic factors such as luck, task difficulty, or broader structural advantages and disadvantages. Using longitudinal data on a large, single-age cohort (n=2,145) of young Australians participating in the Social Futures and Life Pathways (‘Our Lives’) project, we analyse the relationship between attributions for academic success across their final years of secondary schooling and how they related to educational attainment at the end of school. The belief that hard work would lead to academic success was widespread within the sample and positively associated with subsequent educational performance. Most students also emphasised the importance of having a supportive family, despite this being negatively associated with performance. Consistent with claims about a ‘social inequality of motivation’, the findings suggest that emphasising meritocracy may compound the disadvantages of young people from less educated or vocational backgrounds, and those living in rural and regional Australia, whilst impacting unevenly on males' and females' academic performance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)441–465
Number of pages25
JournalBritish Educational Research Journal
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • social inequality
  • attribution theory
  • habitus; meritocracy
  • academic motivation

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