Class differences in achievement

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  • Created on: 15-04-19 11:11

Class differences

Working class pupils in general achieve less than middle-class pupils in education. Children of higher professionals are 2-3 times more likely than children of manual workers to get five or more A*-C grades at GCSE, and about five times more likely to go to university. Sociologists have divided explanations into external and inernal factors. 

Class differences in pupils' home background may play a key role in causing differences in achievement. Home background include many things, but these can be grouped into two different types of factor:

Cultural factors - these include class differences in norms and values acquired through socialisation, attitudes to education, speech codes etc. 

Material factors - these are physical necessities of life, such as adequate housing, diet and income. 

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Cultural deprivation theory

The main cultural explanation for class differences in achievement is cultural deprivation theory. 

  • 'Culture' refers to all the norms, values, beliefs, skills and knowledge that a society or a group regards as important. This culture is transmitted to the next generation through socialisation.
  • Different classes socialise their children differently and this may affect their achievement. 
  • According to cultural deprivation theory, some working-class parents fail to transmit the appropriate norms, values, attitudes, knowledge, skills etc. - that is, the 'right' culture - needed for educational success.

Cultural deprivation theorists see three factors as responsible for working-class under-achievement: language, parents' education and working-class subculture.

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Intellectual stimulation

Working class parents are less likely to give their children educational toys and activities that will stimulate their thinking and reasoning skills, and less likely to read to them. This affects their intellectual development so that when they begin school they are at a disadvantage compared with middle-class children. 

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Bernstein distinguishes between elaborated and restricted speech codes.

  • The working class use the restricted code. This is less analytic and more descriptive, has a limited vocabulary and is formed of simple sentences or even just gestures. It is particularistic - it assumes that the listener shares the particular meanings that the speaker holds, so the speaker doesn't spell them out. 
  • The middle class use the elaborated code. This is more analytic, with a wide vocabulary and complex sentences. It is universalistic - speakers spell out their meanings explicitly and don't just assume the listener shares them. 

Crucially, the elaborated code is the one used in education, by teachers, exams, textbooks, university interviewers etc. This gives the middle class an educational advantage.  

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Parents' education

Feinstein argues that parents' own education is the most important factor affecting children's achievement. Since middle-class parents tend to be educated, their children gain an advantage.

  • Parenting style Educated parents emphasise consistent discipline, high expectations, active learning and exploration. Less educated parents' inconsistent discipline means children have poorer motivation and problems interacting with teachers. 
  • Parents' educational behaviours Educated parents are more aware of what helps children progress, e.g. they form good relationships with teachers and see the value of educational visits. 
  • Language is an essential part of education. The way parents communicate affects children's cognitive development.
  • Use of income Educated parents spend their income to promote children's development, e.g. on educational toys.
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Working-class subculture

Barry Sugarman argues that working-class subculture has four key features that act as a barrier to educational achievement: 

  • Fatalism: a belief in fate - that 'whatever will be, will be' and there is nothing you can do to change your status. This contrasts with middle-class values, which emphasise that you can change your position through your own efforts. 
  • Collectivism: valuing being part of a group more than succeeding as an individual. This contrasts with the middle-class view that an individual should not be held back by group loyalties. 
  • Immediate gratification: seeking pleasure now rather than making sacrifices in order to get rewards in the future. By contrast, middle-class values emphasise deferred gratification, making sacrifices now for greater rewards later. 
  • Present-time orientation: seeing the present as more important than the future and so not having long-term goals or plans. By contrast, middle-class culture has a future-time orientation that sees planning for the future as important. 

HOWEVER, critics argue that working-class parents don't attend parents' evenings because they work longer hours, or because they feel inferior to the teachers - not because they aren't interested in their children's education.

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Criticisms of cultural deprivation theory

  • It ignores the importance of material factors such as poverty.
  • It ignores the impact of school factors, e.g. negative labelling by teachers.
  • It blames the victim for their failure. Critics argue that the working class are not culturally deprived - they simply have a different culture from the school and this puts them at a disadvantage.
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Material deprivation

Material deprivation or poverty can cause working-class under-achievement because of factors such as:

  • Poor housing Overcrowding or cold and damp rooms mean pupils have nowhere quiet to do homework. Similarly, being homeless or living in temporary accomodation may mean frequent moves and changes of school.
  • Poor diet can lead to illness, absences from school and lack of concentration in class due to hunger.

Low income Such problems are often caused by low income. This can affect educational achievement in several ways. 

Not all poor children fail - those with supportive parents may have high levels of motivation. Material deprivation theory also ignores factors in school such as teacher labelling and streaming, which may cause under-achievement. 

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Financial costs of education

  • Poorer families can afford fewer educational opportunities, e.g. trips, computers, private tuition. Children may be stigmatised or bullied for lacking the right uniform or latest fashion items.
  • Higher education Callender and Jackson found working-class students more debt averse. They saw more costs than benefits in going to university (e.g. tuition fees) and this influenced their decisions. When at university, they receive less financial support from their families. 


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Cultural capital theory

This approach combines aspects of both cultural and material explanations. Marxists such as Bourdieu argue that middle-class pupils are more successful than working-class pupils because their parents possess more capital or assets. This capital comes in two forms:

  • Economic capital The wealth that middle-class families own
  • Cultural capital The attitudes, values, skills, knowledge etc. of the middle class

Educational capital The middle class use their greater economic and cultural capital to give their children an advantage by using it to obtain educational capital - qualifications. This allows their children to get middle-class jobs and more economic capital, thus reproducing the advantages of the middle class from generation to generation. 

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School factors and achievement

Factors and processes within schools and the education system also influence class differences in achievement. Most sociologists who have studied the role of school factors are interactionists who focus on small-scale interactions between teachers and pupils. They identify a number of related causes of under-achievement: labelling; the self-fulfilling prophecy; streaming and pupil subcultures.

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Labels are meanings or definitions we attach to someone or something to make sense of them - e.g. middle-class pupils are labelled 'bright', 'motivated', 'cooperative' etc. Becker argues that teachers label middle-class children as 'ideal pupils' and prefer to teach them rather than working-class children. 

The key idea of labelling underlies many of the other processes within schools that cause under-achievement. 

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The self-fulfilling prophecy

A prophecy is a prediction made about something or someone. The key feature of a self-fulfilling prophecy is that it comes true simply because it has been made. 

Teachers can create self-fulfilling prophecies through the labels they attach to pupils. Studies of labelling show that 'what teachers believe, pupils achieve'. That is, while teachers believe middle-class pupils to be bright, working-class pupils are likely to be labelled negatively and thus fail. 

Labelling theory is too deterministic: not all pupils who are labelled as failures fulfil the prophecy - some reject the label and succeed. Nor do all teachers label working-class pupils negatively.

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Streaming is an extreme and institutionalised form of labelling. It works by putting all pupils of similar ability together into the same class or 'stream' for all subjects:'bright' pupils are grouped together in the top stream, 'thick' ones in the bottom. Lacey describes streaming as 'differentiation' - a way of separating the sheep from the goats and then educating them differently. Streaming often creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: 

  • Douglas found that the IQ of pupils labelled as lessable aand placed in the bottom stream, actually fell over time, whereas that of pupils put in the top stream increased. 
  • Those placed in lower streams may be denied access to the same curriculum - e.g. not being put in for higher level exams. 
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Pupil subcultures

A subculture is a group whose beliefs, values and attitudes differ to some extent from the culture of wider society. Pupils may form their own subcultures in response to labelling:

  • Pro-school subcultures are usually formed by pupils in higher streams. They accept the school's values and goals of hard work, regular attendance, respect for teachers etc. Typically they enjoy school, participate enthusiastically in its activities and intend to continue in education. 
  • Anti-school subcultures are often formed by those in lower streams. They reject the school's values and often invert them. They dislike school, flout its rules, disrespect teachers, avoid doing schoolwork, play truant, sabotage their uniform etc. 


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Pupil subcultures

Status and subcultures Lacey argues that lower-stream pupils form or join anti-school subcultures because school deprives them of status by labelling them as failures. Therefore, these pupils create their own status hierarchy: they gain status from their peers by rejecting the school's values and breaking its rules. 

Pupils subcultures often lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy: members of pro-school subcultures work hard and are successful, while those in anti-school subculture mess about, truant and fail. 

Focusing on internal factors may mean we neglect the role of home background factors such as poverty and cultural deprivation. An adequate account of under-achievement needs to take these into consideration too. 

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Class identities and achievement

Archer uses Bourdieu's concept of habitus to understand the relationship between puppils' working class identities and underachievement.

Habitus is a social class's habitual ways of thinking, being and acting, e.g. lifestyles and expectations about what is normal for 'people like us'. The middle class has the power to define its habitus as superior and impose it on the education system, so the school holds middle-class values.

Symbolic capital and symbolic violence School commits symbolic violence by devaluing working-class pupils' habitus, judging their clothing, accent, interests etc tasteless, illegitimate and inferior, and denying them symbolic capital (recognition and status).

'Nike' identities Symbolic violence leads pupils to create alternative class identities and gain symbolic capital from peers through consuming branded goods. However, this leads to conflict with the school's middle-class habitus.

'Losing yourself' Succeeding at school means being inauthentic, changing how you presented yourself to fit in. 'Nike' identities are authentic but they cause conflict with school

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Working-class identity and educational success

Ingram found 'fitting in' was a problem for working-class grammar school boys. They experienced a tension between their neighbourhood's habitus and that of their middle-class school. They faced being judged worthless at school for wearing 'street' clothes or worthless in their community for not doing so.

Self-exclusion from success Evans found that even successful working-class girls faced hidden barriers. They felt their identity would not 'fit in' with the habitus of elite universities. The girls had a strong attachment to their families and intended to remain at home to study.

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Educational policies

What goes on in schools isn't just a product of what teachers decide to do. It is also greatly influenced by governement policies, and these can have an important effect on class differences in achievement. For example, some sociologists argue that marketisation policies have increased the amount of streaming in schools.

Likewise, policies on issues such as grants, fees, maintenance allowances, the school leaving age, compensatory education etc have an impact on home background factors such as material and cultural deprivation. 

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