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Education Key Issues

How does social class impact in education? How pronounced is the gender inequality between test results for boys and girls? Read more about the key issues and debates and gain a deeper insight into the future of education.

Social class and education

In 2012, 62.6% of students attained five or more GCSE A*-C grades including English and Mathematics. However, the figure for students from the poorest backgrounds was 36.3% - a difference of 26.3%. However achievement is measured the statistics tell a similar story of social class inequality.

The most obvious explanation for this pattern is the material disadvantages faced by poorer children. They have less space to work in at home, fewer IT resources and revision guides and less access to private tutors in comparison to their middle class counterparts. As they get older, student debt may put them off going into higher education and they are unable to afford the cost of living in London and working for nothing that prestigious internships require.

Sociologists have also identified cultural differences between the classes as an important factor in explaining inequalities of educational achievement. In the 1960s and 70s Bernstein pointed to the importance of language in education. He suggested that the socialisation of working class children led them to use a restricted code where meaning was implicit and grammar not always technically accurate. Middle class children in contrast used an elaborated code, grammatically correct and matching the language used in schools – thus giving them an advantage.

Writers sympathetic to the New Right like Charles Murray have suggested that generous welfare benefits have taken away the motivation to work for a group in society who have come to rely on benefits. This underclass fails to socialise their children into norms and values that support educational achievement and ambition. As a result they experience cultural deprivation and their disadvantage is passed on from generation to generation.

Many sociologists are critical of the New Right view. They argue that there is little evidence to support the claim that an underclass exists. Instead they point to the ways in which middle class culture dominates education and so disadvantages groups who do not share it. Bourdieu used the term cultural capital to describe the advantages experienced by middle class students who share the same norms and values as the education system. Ball et al show how middle class parents use all the advantages they can to ensure their children get into the school of their choice. They are able to visit a range of schools, interpret league tables, write letters and discuss admissions with the school managers. Reay researched working and middle class mothers and found that although both groups wanted their children to be educationally successful, middle class mothers felt much more comfortable in negotiating with schools and teachers.

The organisation of teaching in schools has also been identified as a possible factor in affecting class inequalities in education. Teachers may label working class pupils as being less able and more likely to misbehave, this creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Gillborn and Youdell argue that teachers are more likely to enter middle class children for higher level exams because they are thought to have ‘higher ability.’

See the Policy page on ‘Compensatory education’ for an account of policies aimed at reducing class inequalities in educational achievement.

Ethnicity and education

The most educationally successful ethnic group in British education are those of Chinese origin. In 2012 78.5% of this group achieved five or more GCSE grades A*-C including English and Maths. The least successful ethnic group were Black students who performed 4.2% below the national average. Asian students performed 3.9% better than the national average while the GCSE results of White students were around the national average.

One set of sociological explanations for ethnic differences in achievement emphasise cultural factors. These find reasons for the variations in achievement in terms of the norms and values of different ethnic groups. Chinese families for example, place a very high value on education and exam success adds to the status of a family in the community.

Language can also be a relevant cultural factor. For recent migrant groups with English as their second or possible third language success in the British education system will be challenge although subsequent generations will probably find it easier as they gain experience of English.

Cultural factors have also been used to help explain the underachievement of Black boys in British schools. Sewell suggests that a significant proportion of Black boys are raised by their mothers in single-parent families. The lack of a male role model may cause a minority of Black boys to adopt an aggressive, rebellious form of masculinity that may reject the values of the school and lead to educational underachievement. However, most Black pupils stay on in education after compulsory schooling and this suggests that they may well change their attitudes as they grow older.

Some sociologists have looked to processes within schools themselves to explain low performance by some ethnic minority students. Several studies such as those by Wright and Gillborn have noted that, although teachers try to treat all pupils equally, they often see the styles and actions of Black boys as a threat when no threat is intended. One outcome of this labelling can be the formation of anti-school subcultures.

It is difficult to come to firm conclusions on the issue of ethnicity and education. Cultural factors must have an effect and schools are certainly influential, although most are very aware of the issue of labelling and sensitive to the needs of different ethnic groups.

Finally, the figures on ethnicity and educational achievement are difficult to interpret as gender and social class are also playing a part. Gillborn and Youdell estimate that the effects of social class on achievement are twice as significant as the effects of ethnicity.

Gender and education

Up until the 1980s the concern in relation to gender and education was the underperformance of girls. However, since then the achievement of girls has increased faster than that of boys so that they now outperform boys at every level – for example in 2012 63.6% of girls achieved the English Baccalaureate (Five GCSEs at A*-C including English and Maths) compared to 54.2% of boys.

There are a variety of reasons for the improvement in girls’ achievement. Social changes have meant that there has been a large rise in the number of women in paid employment – up to 67% in 2013 from 53% in 1971 - and, as Sharpe’s research in the 1990s showed, this is linked to women’s desire to have children later in life and to expect a career before starting a family. At the same time schools have become more sensitive to gender issues and now encourage girls to study maths, technology and science (see section on Feminism on the Main Theories page).

For boys – particularly working class boys – the situation has been different. The decline in traditional male work such as mining and the increase in jobs that can be seen as more suitable for women such as office work and caring has threatened traditional male identities. As a result, some have adopted ‘ laddish’ attitudes where working hard at school is seen as not being masculine. Jackson’s research, for example, reveals that boys who are motivated at school often have to work ‘secretly’ so their peers will not look down on them. These anti-school subcultures can therefore be seen as a response to what has become known as the ‘crisis of masculinity’.

Subject choice remains highly gender stereotyped; in 2014, 20,000 more males than females sat A-level Maths and 29,000 boys took A-level Physics compared to under 8,000 girls. These choices lead to different careers which in turn reflect gender stereotypes: a dominance of boys in science and engineering occupations and of girls in health and social care.

It must be remembered that gender differences in educational achievement are relatively small compared to social class differences. Gillborn and Youdell estimate that social class is five times more important than gender in influencing educational outcomes.