Tom Doherty 12JA – Sociology Investigation
How Does Social Class Affect Educational Attainment?
My intentions in this project are to demonstrate research into the relationship between class and educational attainment. I will include previous studies by well-known sociologists and the outcomes of their research, as well as creating my own research methods. My research methods will include how I intend to gather information on my study of social class. The Aim of the project is to find relationships between social class and educational attainment and explain the out come, previous studies indicate that working class pupils do less well academically and my project explains the reasons why, and how one might go about gathering useful information about it
It is believed that difference in class culture can contribute to educational success or failure. Douglas believed parental interest was the most important factor in educational success, his research suggested middle class parents showed more interest than working class parents. However, his research has been criticised, as he measured parental interest by attendance at open days, and job difference between middle class and working class parents may account for this. These and other findings came to be known as cultural deprivation, believing that those at the bottom of the class structure are deprived of certain values and skills that are vital for educational success. Computers, printers and new technologies are often not available to working class children and because of this they suffer from a lack of opportunity, ambition, and fatalism. This theory has come under great criticism though, from those who believe that differences between class cultures are insignificant.
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Rather than looking at factors within the family, there are those who believe that it is the class structure that creates this educational inequality, and that equality is impossible in a class-based society. Bourdieu, a Marxist, argues that the role of the education system is to reinforce class differences. This is achieved by promoting the ‘dominant culture´ of the ruling classes in the classroom through use of language, ensuring that working class students will be less likely to understand and be understood. This disadvantages working class students, and by creating educational success and failure, this means that the position of both those at the bottom and top doesn’t change. Basil Bernstein pointed the different speech codes used by the middle and working classes, the ‘restricted code’, which is context bound and requires previous common knowledge between users, and the ‘elaborated code´ which is not context-bound, and does not require previous common knowledge. He believed that middle class children are fluent in both codes, but that working class children are confined to the restricted code, and are therefore placed at a distinct disadvantage, because teachers use the elaborated code. Middle class children are therefore more likely to understand the teacher, and be understood themselves.
Finally, rather than focusing on the societal structure or relationships outside of the school, others, particularly those sociologists of a interpretive viewpoint, focus on factors inside the school; seeing as it is the place of study and learning, believing that this is what determines educational success or failure. This type of approach centres on the concepts of labelling theory and self-fulfilling prophecy, believing that if someone is labelled in a particular way, they will respond to their behaviour in terms of that label, and the person will act in terms of that label, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy. This has been illustrated in studies by Rosenthal & Jacobson, where it has been shown that a teacher perception of a pupil’s abilities strongly affects how that pupil progresses. This labelling doesn’t just apply to class differences; teachers also label those from ethnic minorities.
Participant observation within classrooms would be my form of research, I would spend lessons within a classroom observing the interaction of working and middle classes with the teacher, and observe the labelling theory at first hand, and I would also observe the working class students’ behaviour in comparison to that of middle class. The type of participant observation I would chose would be overt because I believe that covert participant observation is morally and practically unacceptable and that being honest and declaring ones intentions within the classroom would be the best way forward, although to gather information once this has been announced would be very hard because pupils would consider me to be somewhat of an inspector and would act differently, meaning my research would not be accurate, so compromises often have to be made between the two. I would also question pupils from both social classes (determined on their location within the city, and their past record of behaviour, participation etc) about the facilities available within their homes and their parent’s interest in their schoolwork, through indirect questions such as ‘do your parents get on your back about homework?’ as opposed to asking ‘do your parents care about your education?’
For my research to have best results participating in a mixed ability group would best show how social classes attain, behave and participate, although picking a lower stream group which may well contain more working class pupils would show a better view of the attitudes of working class pupils, I feel it is important to include an equal amount of members from each social class to show their interaction with one and other, and how middle class influence working class and vice versa.
In order for my investigation to have success, I would have to perform a participant observation study in which I would become part of a class, as opposed to being seen as somewhat an outsider by pupils. As I would be a distinguished newcomer to the group, it would be very difficult for me to observe the actions of pupils without being noticed by the children. For me to oppose this problem, I would have to spend quite a lot of time with the same class so that they get used to having me around within their lessons, and I become less of an intruder and more of a student in their classes. My beliefs about covert and overt participation would have to be compromised and I would have to tell half-truths about what I am studying, such as ‘I am studying the interaction between pupils in the class, and pupil and teacher interaction’, which is a half-truth, because I am focusing on the working class and middle class and on their behaviour, participation and attainment within the class.
Also I would interview the pupil’s teachers and ask them how they feel the class interacts with one and other, and inquire about any perceived views they may have about middle or working class students.
Hopefully, from the results I would gather from this investigation I could start to address the question of how social class affects educational attainment.
As I start to evaluate my methods of research I can see pro’s and con’s. The pros would be that participation observation is the best way of observing how pupils act and interact with each other. It creates a valid picture of social reality. Getting information solely on questioning the students would not be very accurate, actual observation of behaviour, attention, punctuality, participation and attainment gives a much better set of information. Questionnaires for the students and teachers to fill in, with disguised questions on to help gain insight into the home-lives of the students.
The bad side, the con’s to my practical methods of gathering information is that it is time consuming and I would have to spend many weeks in the classroom for 1) the pupils to get used to me and 2) to gather enough information on both social classes. Participation observation is very qualitive and not quantitive so I might not have any relevance to the occurrences in other schools or cities. The main con to participation observation is that it is not repeatable and that it is a one-off study. This means that the events that occur within the observation become useless because they can’t be proven and they cant be replicated. Questioning the students about their education and what their parents to do contribute may lead some deviant pupils into not participating in the study.
Choosing an ethically and morally acceptable form of research whilst still being valid is not an easy task, but I think overt participant observation would be the best form.