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Discuss the relationship between social class and educational achievement

Many sociologists have tried to explore the link between social class and educational achievement, measuring the effects of one element upon the other. In order to maintain a definite correlation between the two, there are a number of views, explanations, social statistics and perspectives which must be taken into account. The initial idea would be to define the key terms which are associated with how “social class” affects “educational achievement.” “Social class” is the identity of people, according to the work they do and the community in which they live.”Educational achievement” is the tendency for some groups to do better or worse in terms of educational success.

Research reveals that the higher the social class, the higher the levels of educational achievement are likely to be. The children of parents in higher social classes are more likely to stay on in post-compulsory education, more likely to achieve examination passes when at school, and more likely to gain university entrance. These features painted a true picture of British education in the twentieth century and can be argued to follow this trend today. However, whether there has been any reduction in the inequalities is more debatable, but some research suggests that these inequalities are as great as ever, despite the overall improvements within the education system.

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Many researchers argue that IQ tests are biased in favour of the middle class since members of this group largely construct them. If it is accepted that social classes and other groups have distinctive subcultures and that this affects their performance in IQ tests, then comparisons between such groups in terms of intelligence are invalid.

There is general agreement that intelligence is due to both genetic and environmental factors. Genetically based intelligence accounts for a large part of the difference in social class and educational attainment. Eysenck argues that there is better evidence for the influence of genes on educational attainment than there is on environmental factors. So, there is a relationship between the two factors, however, the contexts of these are unclear.

Halsey et al. conducted one of the most thorough studies of class inequalities in the education of males who had studied in England and Wales. Clear class differences were established which enabled the sample to be divided into three groups according to the father’s occupation. The samples included the service class (professionals, administrators and managers), the intermediate class (Clerical, sales workers, self-employed) and the working class (manual workers in industry and agriculture). Halsey et al. found that there was a correlation between social classes and educational achievement, in that a boy from the service class compared to a boy from the working class had four times as great a chance of being at school at sixteen; eight times the chance at seventeen; and ten times the chance at eighteen. Hence, his chance of going to university was eleven times greater.

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By examining different cohorts contrasts with comparing the social class alone, because there had been some reduction in staying on rates until sixteen or over, but there is little evidence of a reduction in class inequalities. Furthermore, when exploring the relationship of the two factors, other characteristics should be considered, which may affect educational achievement such as attendance. The attendance of the working class and intermediate classes more than trebled, while for the service class is increased by fifty per cent. Halsey et al. found no differences in the reduction of those who continued their education at eighteen or over.

From 1913-1952, the rates of those who stayed on at eighteen more than doubled but it was the service and intermediate classes who gained most, with the working class least. Halsey et al. suggest that “credentialization” has taken place whereby the basic levels of education required to improve the chances of getting a well-paid job have gradually changed. Overall, Halsey found that the rates of attendance at sixteen or over in which the relative chances of the highest and lowest classes were becoming more meritocratic.

More recent figures from an official government survey show that participation rates vary considerably by class. In 1998, eighty per cent of those from professional backgrounds entered higher education at eighteen, compared to just fourteen per cent of those from unskilled backgrounds. Hence, those from the higher class had five times the chance of those from the lower class of going onto a degree-level course.

Interactionalists argue that we need also to look into the classroom, where it is believed that perspective class differences in educational attainment are socially constructed in the classroom. One of the most important views is the way teachers respond to, view and make sense of pupil’s behaviour. Howard Becker (1977) found from interviews with sixty Chicago teachers, that teachers tended to have and share an ideal picture of the ideal pupil: “highly motivated,” “intelligent,” and “well behaved.” The pupils who fitted into this picture were likely to come from the middle classes and those furthest from the ideals were of the working class. Thus, he found that the working-class children were often “labelled” as being “unmotivated” and “unlikely to succeed.” He, therefore, concluded that working-class pupils might be at a disadvantage.

Further evidence to support the effects of teacher’s expectations upon their pupils can be found in the famous study of Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968). The teachers of an elementary school were told that they had to identify a number of pupils-the “sporters”-as likely to make rapid progress. Unknown to the teachers, the pupils were selected at random. The results found that a year later, the “sporters” did indeed make better progress than their classmates. Thus, Rosenthal and Jacobson concluded that their progress was due to the way they were defined. In particular, teachers expected more of them and they acted in terms of encouragement. Although their methodology has been questioned, many researchers argue that it is valid and that “labelling” is important, as it is real evidence of the self-fulfilling prophecy.”

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Hargreaves D. (1975) argues that whether a label “sticks” and is accepted by the pupil or not depends on a number of factors such as the extent to which others support the label and the context in which the labelling takes place. Hargreaves suggested that two distinctive sub-cultures emerged within the school: the conformists and the non-conformist delinquents, to protect their self-esteem. Peter Woods argues that schools are more complex than Hargreaves’ work suggests. Like many other Interactionalists, Woods relates his views in a very general way to social class, arguing that middle-class pupils tend to find both the goals and means encouraged by the school to be more in keeping with the cultural values of families than will working-class pupils. Keddie found a relationship between perceived ability and social class. There was a tendency for pupils from higher status white-collar background to be placed in the “A” stream and those from semi-skilled and unskilled backgrounds in the “C” stream.

Another school factors which affect the relationship between social class and educational achievement is the “cultural capital theory” proposed by Bordieu and is strongly influenced by Marxism. This theory does not assume that the culture of higher social classes is in any sense superior to that of the working class. Children from middle and upper-class backgrounds have been socialised into the dominant culture, which is much closer to the values of the school than that of the working-class children, i.e., the school is a middle class favoured institution. Working-class children are filtered out of the education system at the school leaving age through failure in examinations and self-elimination.

Douglas saw parental interest as the single most important factor affecting pupil progress. Middle-class parents were more interested in the progress of their children than working-class parents. Parental interest was measured by visits to the school and how teachers viewed parents. This is an outside school factor, which assesses the lack of parental support. Culture deficit theorists have maintained that working-class families place great emphasis on immediate gratification and the need to find employment at the school leaving age, whereas middle-class families place most emphasis on educational success on post sixteen. Some working-class children may face a culture clash between the values of home and school. Another outside school factor can be conveyed through the Plowden Report of 1967, which said that “maternal deprivation” was relevant to discuss the relationship between social class and educational achievement at its lowest levels.

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Sugarman’s work is again based on factors outside of the school. Sugarman’s study was that of the “cultural deprivation theory,” which implies that children of working-class parents may have values etc, which are not favourable towards school life. Sugarman argues this is because they are socialised into these values by their parents and these values ultimately have their roots in the nature of their parents (manual) work.

Bernstein’s study on speech codes is an example of an outside school factor, which affects educational achievement. Bernstein suggested that schools are conducted in an elaborated code, but children of working-class backgrounds have a restricted code. He suggested that their parents socialise them into this, and goes further to say that this is ultimately the roots in the nature of their parents work. In contrast, the language of the school and teachers are of an elaborate nature.

We could say that the two factors of this debate have no correlation due to the support of the structuration theory. A follower of this theory is Paul Willis, who used the “lads” actively to reject school and school values (such as academic success). This has its roots outside of school in the nature of the fathers and elder brothers’ in manual work. They look up to these figures and see school as “sissy”, un-masculine, unlike the “real” masculine work that their fathers, brothers etc do.

Overall, in conclusion, there can be no definite correlation identified between “social class” and “educational achievement” in that there is much research into this and many sociologists suggest their own theories and have yet not decided whether there is a link or not. However, there does seem to be a correlation of some kind as sociologists either favour it or not. It can be still said that the main relationship between these factors is the higher the social class; the more likely the pupil is going to succeed.

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Discuss the relationship between social class and educational achievement. (2021, Apr 08). Retrieved February 6, 2023, from