Social class and educational achievement


Class and achievement

  • Social class remains the strongest predictor of educational achievement in the UK (Perry and Francis).
  • Jerrim analysed government statistics relating to class and exam results.  He found that even the most talented of students were being left behind in education if they came from a lower-class background.
  • Both external and internal factors can help explain this significant class divide.
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External - material deprivation

  • Sociologists argue that material deprivation can have a profound impact on educational attainment.

  • Material deprivation refers to a lack of resources and the inability to purchase goods and services compared with more affluent members of society.

  • Smith and Noble list the 'barriers to learning' that can result from a low income:
    1. Insufficient funds to pay for school uniform, school trips, transport to and from school and classroom materials, can lead to students being bullied, isolated and stigmatised.  As a result, they fall behind in their schoolwork; 2. Children from low-income families are more likely to suffer from ill health, which can affect attendance and performance at school; 3. Low income reduces the likelihood of pupils having access to a computer, a desk, books and space to do homework, and a comfortable well-heated home; 4. Low income means parents cannot afford private tuition or private education for their children; 5. Marketisation of schools means that there will be successful, well-resourced schools in affluent areas, while socially disadvantaged students are concentrated in unsuccessful, poorly resourced schools.
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External - material deprivation 2

  • Ridge found that in low-income families a lack of money means that children have to take on jobs such as babysitting, cleaning and paper rounds, which can have a negative impact on their schoolwork.

  • Private-school students were 55 times more likely to get into Oxford or Cambridge and 22 times more likely to get into a high-ranked university than state-school students entitled to free school meals (Sutton Trust).

  • Reay noted that many working-class students intended to apply to their nearest university because they felt they could not afford the costs of travel and accommodation away from home.

  • Howard argued that children from poorer homes have lower intakes of energy, vitamins and minerals, all of which have a negative impact on concentration levels within the classroom.
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Evaluation of material deprivation

  • Critics argue that governments have addressed these issues through compensatory education.  In 1988, for example, education action zones in disadvantaged areas were funded to raise standards through initiatives such as breakfast and after-school clubs.

  • Children from ethnic minority groups, especially those of Indian and Bangladeshi origin, suffer higher than average levels of poverty but yet they do better than average in education.  

  • To say that poverty causes poor educational performance is too deterministic as some students from poorer backgrounds succeed in education.                                    
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External - cultural deprivation

  • As an alternative to explaining educational achievement in terms of material differences, one can explain them in terms of cultural differences. 

  • Cultural deprivation refers to the lack of appropriate norms and values which lead to lower educational outcomes.

  • Bernstein believes that a particular aspect of culture - speech - shapes educational attainment.  He identified two types of speech pattern: restricted codes, which involve a limited use of vocabulary that includes slang and colloquial language, and elaborated codes, which involve a more complex use of language.  Elaborated codes are associated with the middle-class and are used by teachers, textbooks and exams.  Restricted codes are associated with the working-class who are therefore at an immediate disadvantage when it comes to academic success.
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External - cultural deprivation 2

  • Bourdieu thinks that middle-class students are at an advantage in education because they possess the right kind of 'cultural capital' (social assets).  For example, classical music and 'serious' literature is taught within schools as opposed to popular culture.  Middle-class families pass on cultural capital from parents to children (cultural reproduction).

  • Evans supports this view by arguing that middle-class mothers use their educational knowledge to give their children a head start in life by incorporating learning into their children's play.

  • Sugarman claims that there are four features of working-class culture which prevent children from succeeding in education:  1. Collectivism: the idea that being with your friends is more important than working on schoolwork alone; 2. Present time orientation: focusing on the immediate rather than working hard for long-term gain (i.e. good results = better job); 3. Fatalism: the idea that there is no point in trying hard at school since it won't get you anywhere anyway; 4. Immediate gratification: the idea that you want to enjoy yourself in the present and not defer fun for the sake of long-term gain.
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Evaluation of cultural deprivation

  • Cultural deprivation theorists generalise a lot about differences between middle-class and working-class life.  They ignore the fact that some working-class families do place a high value on education, and tend to assume that working-class families have no culture, or that it can't be relevant to school - this is ethnocentric (it prioritises the values/culture of a particular group).

  • Aggleton showed how middle-class students can actually resist schooling and leave with poor qualifications.

  • Lynch and O'Neill argue that it is material factors that are often the reason for poor school performance, not cultural factors.
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Internal - factors within school

  • A number of researchers have argued that processes which occur in the school are just as important, or more important, than cultural and material factors at determining educational achievement.

  • Becker argues that labelling is a powerful process in education.  Labelling occurs when behaviour is given a particular meaning, either positive or negative.  Typically this means that working-class students are assumed by teachers to be less bright and less well behaved.  Middle-class students, on the other hand, are labelled as 'ideal students'.  Becker claims that once labelled, students internalise their label and act according to that label (self-fulfilling prophecy).

  • Lacey describes how working-class pupils are denied status at school by teachers and are generally placed in lower sets and streams.  These students go on to form anti-school subcultures who place a low value on education and thus fail to achievePro-school subcultures, however, consist of middle-class students who are placed in higher sets and streams.  These students place a high value on education and are successful in school.
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Internal - factors within school 2

  • White argues that the school curriculum is based around middle-class knowledge, which places working-class children at an immediate disadvantage as this feels unfamiliar to them.  For example, the authors studied in English are middle-class and therefore middle-class students are able to identify more with the language and ideas expressed within the text.

  • Gilborn and Youdell argue that the marketisation of education increases the pressure on schools to achieve good results.  This means that a lot of attention is placed on those who appear likely to be able to succeed, potentially leaving working-class students behind.
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Evaluation of factors within school

  • Labelling theory is deterministic - it is clear that not all pupils live up to labelling by teachers.  Fuller, for example, found that a group of black working-class girls who were labelled as likely failures responded by working harder to achieve success.

  • By concentrating on processes within the education system, sociologists fail to explain where wider class inequalities come from.  They tend not to look at the wider context that gives rise to such stereotypes of the working-class.

  • Many of the studies listed have been based on male peer groups and are less useful for understanding female groups.
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