Skip to content

Blog post

How do socio-economic differences affect pupils’ access to historical content knowledge?

David Rosenlund, Associate Professor at University of Malmö Magnus Persson, Associate Professor at Linnaeus University

In which ways does socio-economic status (SES) affect how pupils can make use of historical knowledge or just history? This question triggered the research presented in this blog post. In Sweden, pupils from low-SES households have lower grades, both on a general level (Skolverket, 2018) and in history (Skolverket, 2022). This is not just the case in Sweden, there are also indications that educational systems internationally are struggling to provide equal educational opportunities for different groups of students (OECD, 2018), and one factor that affects this is socio-economic status (Osman et al., 2021).

How do differences in SES affect pupils’ possibilities to have a historical perspective on the various societal challenges that are upon us? In life, people frequently have to address phenomena that have some kind of historical connotation (such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022), that can be understood in more nuanced ways if they are related to their respective historical backgrounds. Phenomena with such historical connotations can be of several kinds, like events or processes, where an invasion of a neighbouring country could be an example of the former, and rising inflation or increased societal polarisation examples of the latter. In the case of an invasion, an understanding of the situation would be deeper if it contained historical content knowledge about the historical relation between the two nations and their respective relations to other states and international organisations in the past. This could be knowledge regarding the formation and downfall of the Soviet Union, and the role of Russia and Ukraine in that process. Based on previous research that address the role of historical content knowledge, we built a model (CCK – the Centrality of Content Knowledge) where we theoretically visualise how access to content knowledge affects three important competences: an Educative, a Disciplinary, and an Orientational competence. In this blog post we focus on one of them: the Orientational competence. This competence includes an understanding of the present from a historical perspective.

Figure 1. The Centrality of Content Knowledge (CCK)

An individual with an abundance of historical content knowledge has the means to understand and evaluate an invasion itself, the international community’s ways to deal with it and how the event might affect certain aspects of the future. A more diverse pool of historical content knowledge – including social, political and economic perspectives – provides an individual with opportunities to address the situation at hand in more nuanced ways than had the pool of knowledge been less diverse. The ability to understand historically related phenomena is not just important in each specific case; it is also a prerequisite for individuals’ participation in society as democratic citizens (Barton & Levstik, 2004, p. 40) and access to historical content knowledge is a crucial part of this ability (Huijgen et al., 2019, p. 462).

‘An individual with an abundance of historical content knowledge has the means to understand and evaluate an invasion itself, the international community’s ways to deal with it and how the event might affect certain aspects of the future.’

In the study, we analysed responses from 100 pupils, on both selected-response tasks and constructed-response items, from the Swedish national test in history. The responses were collected from low- and high-SES schools. The results show that most pupils from high-SES families had access to a substantial amount of content knowledge, that represented several aspects of the past (social, technological, environmental, and so on). In the study this was visualised in responses on an item addressing the Industrial Revolution, where the pupils mentioned social aspects (formation of new social classes) as well as technological changes (use of steam engines) and environmental aspects (increased pollution). Among a vast majority of the low-SES pupils, the pool of content knowledge was much more meagre, and allowed only for a one-dimensional view of the past. A typical response in this category only consisted of a statement that factories were beginning to be used during the Industrial Revolution.

With the CCK model as a point of departure, we argue that the differences in access to historical content knowledge that is found between low- and high-SES pupils, affect the degree to which they are able to understand and act in contemporary society. This, we argue, calls for increased efforts to increase the compensatory aspect of the educational systems.


Barton, K. C., & Levstik, L. S. (2004). Teaching history for the common good. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Huijgen, T., Holthuis, P., van Boxtel, C., van De Grift, W., & Suhre, C, (2019). Students’ historical contextualization and the cold war. British Journal of Educational Studies, 67(4), 439–68.   

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD]. (2018). Equity in education: Breaking down barriers to social mobility.

Osman, A., Ydhag, C. C., & Månsson, N. (2021). Recipe for educational success: A study of successful school performance of students from low social cultural background. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 30(4), 422–439.

Skolverket. (2018). Analyser av familjebakgrundens betydelse för skolresultaten och skillnader mellan skolor en kvantitativ studie av utvecklingen över tid i slutet av grundskolan [Analyses of the importance of family background for school results and differences between schools: A quantitative study of development over time at the end of lower secondary school].

Skolverket. (2022). Betyg och prov, riksnivå, tabell 7 [Grades and tests, National level, Table 7].