Social Class and Education

Social class can affect educational achievement in many ways. Sociologists find it important to look at the different factors that attribute to this, and the inequalities which come with differences in social class.

Social Class and Education Social Class and Education

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Table of contents
    • We will start by looking at the relationship between social class and education.
    • We will then consider how social inequality affects educational achievement.
    • Lastly, we will look at the social factors of education inequality, namely, material and cultural deprivation.

    Social class and education in sociology

    Let's first understand what social class before looking at how it is linked to education.

    Social class refers to an individual's (or their parents') socioeconomic background. This is primarily determined by occupation and/or wealth.

    You may have heard of the following terms:

    • working-class
    • middle-class
    • upper/higher class

    We will now consider how social class links to education.

    Relationship between social class and education

    Sociologists would argue that there is a relationship between social class and education; it varies depending on the child's social class background.

    Examples of social inequality in education

    Statistically, pupils with a better social class background are more likely to have greater educational achievement. There are many aspects of someone's class which contribute to their educational achievements, such as class values, hobbies and culture.

    The underachievement of working-class students can be affected by both the home environment and the school environment. Sociologists also see pupils receiving free school meals (FSM) as an indicator of low social class.

    Statistics

    The table below shows the % of FSM eligible pupils achieving 5 or more A*-C grades at GCSE compared to all other pupils. The information has been provided by the Department for Education (2016).

    20142015
    FSM eligible pupils33.533.1
    All other pupils60.560.9
    Difference27.027.8

    The information shows that those eligible for FSM did not achieve the same grades compared to those that were not.

    We will consider why this may be the case.

    Sociological explanations for social class and educational achievement in school

    What does existing research into this topic show?

    Many studies were carried out in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was seen that social class was a key factor in educational achievement in school. Although this was some time ago, the studies and their results are still relevant when analysing the topic today.

    Some key areas that were later identified as also affecting achievement were:

    • The influences of gender and ethnicity
    • Parental encouragement from a young age
    • Teacher attitudes (school environment)
    • Access to educational materials as a child (home environment)
    • Cultural differences and values

    Nature or nurture?

    Some sociologists argue that we are born with our intelligence, whilst others believe it's based on our environment. This prompted the nature vs nurture debate in relation to achievement.

    Nature: this view is based on how intelligence is genetic and can be inherited. Our educational achievement reflects how much intelligence we were born with.

    Nurture: this view sees educational achievement as being based on social factors such as environment, class, ethnicity, gender, family structure and school.

    Do you believe that educational achievement depends on nature or nurture? Why?

    Following from the above, we will now look at the 'nurture' side of the debate; namely, social factors of educational inequality.

    Social factors of educational inequality

    There is a wide range of social factors which affect educational inequality. These can be categorised into two different types of deprivation: material deprivation and cultural deprivation. These factors explain how the home environment can affect educational achievement.

    Material deprivation

    Material deprivation refers to when families and pupils are unable to afford material items such as food, clothes or educational resources. This consequently hinders the pupil from achieving their full potential because they do not have access to basic resources.

    Poor living conditions

    Poor living conditions, such as lack of privacy to complete work, or overcrowding lead to lower performances at school. Such living conditions are most likely to affect working-class children, as they are from lower-income families who cannot afford better housing.

    Lack of nutritious diet

    Studies have shown that a lack of nutrition from a healthy diet can affect academic performance. It can also affect a student's health, which can result in them missing lessons, falling asleep or not being able to focus.

    Lack of resources

    Access to educational resources such as the internet, textbooks and suitable workspaces also stop students from deprived backgrounds to achieve highly.

    The cost of school uniforms and other required materials can mean that poorer children are punished unjustly for not having the correct equipment or sent home. This negatively impacts their academic achievements, as stated by The Child Poverty Action Group.

    Early education

    Many working-class areas experience a shortage of nurseries and playgroups for children to attend before full-time education. The government put in place the Sure Start programme to help make a difference; however, it has seen financial cuts since 2010. This limits the capabilities of pupils from a young age.

    A study of social class inequality in education: Halsey, Heath and Ridge (1980)

    Halsey, Heath and Ridge (1980) conducted a study with over 8,000 boys born between 1913 and 1952. Their research found that there were distinct class inequalities in the education system at this time.

    They divided their large sample into three individual groups, based on the boy's fathers' jobs, to determine class:

    1. The service class: professionals, administrators and managers

    2. The intermediate class: sales workers, self-employed and lower-grade technicians and foremen

    3. The working-class: manual workers in agriculture and industry

    They found that a boy from the service class was 4 times more likely to remain in school by 16, 8 times as likely at 17 and 10 times as likely at 18, compared with a boy from the working-class. The chance of a boy from the service class attending University was 11 times higher than a boy from the working-class.

    Their study showed that working-class pupils were more likely to leave school at the first opportunity compared to middle-class students. This could be because of cultural deprivation (discussed below).

    However, despite the results of the study, it may mean that middle-class children simply have head starts, such as access to resources, materials and opportunities such as private tutors and studying facilities.

    Sample considerations

    It's important to consider that the study only used males. If there were females involved, the results could have been different.

    Social Class and Education, three schoolboys in chairs, StudySmarter.

    Halsey, Heath and Ridge's (1980) study showed how boys' achievement was determined by their social class. Unsplash.com

    Cultural deprivation

    It is suggested that most schools are based on white middle-class values, and therefore those who do not fit into this category are disadvantaged. This disadvantage is known as cultural deprivation.

    Bernstein and Young claim that middle-class family culture contains aspects which benefit a child's schooling, such as visiting museums or libraries. These activities encourage extracurricular knowledge and curiosity, which benefits the child in school. Pupils not from a white middle-class background are less likely to have these opportunities and therefore face cultural deprivation.

    Parental attitudes towards education

    Parental attitudes are also another important factor in educational attainment. There are different values associated with the different classes, and each of these has an impact on how students behave in school.

    We can explore these perceived values from the work of Douglas (1967), which was adapted by Sugarman (1970).

    Middle-class values include planning for the future and wanting to control their own lives. They also stress the importance of individual achievement and practice deferred gratification.

    Deferred gratification refers to making sacrifices in the present moment for a better opportunity later.

    Staying in school and continuing to University to achieve a higher-paying job, or doing your homework straight after school so that you have spare time on the weekend, are examples of deferred gratification.

    On the other hand, the working-class are considered to have a fatalistic view that others are in control. They prefer to focus on the current rather than the future, and believe that sticking together will result in improvements. They also practice immediate gratification.

    Immediate gratification refers to desiring immediate results or rewards.

    Spending a wage straight away rather than saving it is an example of immediate gratification.

    Research argued that the different types of gratification resulted in different students. For example, working-class pupils are more likely to drop out of school early to work and receive money immediately. This differs from middle-class students, who believe if they remain in school longer, their reward will be a higher-paying job.

    How do you think you can apply this research to the results of Halsey, Heath and Ridge (1980)? Does this explain why working-class boys were likely to drop out?

    Social Class and Education, child looking at museum display, StudySmarter.

    Taking children to museums is a typical middle-class activity, that benefits a child's achievement. Unsplash.com

    Douglas and Feinstein (1964, 1998)

    Douglas and Feinstein (1964, 1998) suggested that middle-class parents had greater knowledge of how to 'work the system' in schools than working-class parents. They saw this as beneficial to the success of middle-class pupils.

    The parents of these students are more aware of how to tackle sexual discrimination, disagreements with teachers and have the ability to purchase extra books and equipment to excel their child's learning. Some argue that middle-class parents are more interested in the ability of their children and therefore are more involved in their school life.

    Sociologists stress the impact of social class and culture on varied educational achievement.

    Reid (1996) stated that he believed certain differences in achievement could be due to social class and ethnicity combined. He saw that the type of work offered to those arriving in Britain broadly determined their social class.

    His description of the subsequent achievement by pupils from families that moved to Britain came from both social class and ethnicity. He stressed that these differences may solely be a reflection of social class, rather than ethnicity.

    Social Class and Education - Key takeaways

    • Statistically, pupils from a working-class background generally achieve lower than those from a middle-class background.
    • Material deprivation refers to when families and pupils are unable to afford material items such as food, clothes and educational resources. This can negatively affect educational achievement. It is most likely that working-class pupils experience this.
    • Halsey, Heath and Ridge (1980) researched and found that social class determined how long students remained in education, with working-class pupils leaving much earlier than middle-class pupils.
    • Cultural deprivation stops working-class pupils from achieving highly due to the school environment focusing on white middle-class culture.
    • Parental attitudes, which differ according to social class, have an impact on their children's education.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Social Class and Education

    What is the relationship between social class and education?

    Social class can be a key factor when it comes to educational achievement. Statistically, pupils from a working-class background generally achieve lower than those from a middle-class background.

    What is the role of social class in education?

    Many studies were carried out in the 1960s and 1970s when it was assumed that social class was a key factor in educational achievement in school.

    What cultural factors affect social class and education?

    Cultural knowledge can affect educational achievement; this is known as cultural deprivation. Middle-class family culture contains aspects which benefit a child's schooling, such as visiting museums or libraries. These activities encourage extracurricular knowledge and curiosity which benefits the child in school.

    How does school achievement vary based on social class and education?

    Statistically, pupils with a better social class background are more likely to have greater educational achievement. The underachievement of working-class students can be affected by both the home environment and the school environment.

    What role does diversity play in the sociology of social class and education?

    Reid (1996) stated that he believed differences in achievement could be due to social class and ethnicity combined. He saw that the type of work offered to those arriving in Britain broadly determined their social class. 

    His description of the subsequent achievement by pupils from families that moved to Britain came from both social class and ethnicity.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false: "Statistically, pupils with a higher social class background are more likely to have greater educational achievement."

    Which of the following is not a key area affecting achievement?

    Who stated the following?"The cost of school uniforms and other required materials can mean that poorer children are punished unjustly for not having the correct equipment or sent home."

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