The educational system is one of the most influential institutions in society as it provides young people with a vast amount of knowledge, attitudes and skills. These are acquired formally through set lessons or informally through the ‘hidden curriculum’ which provides the unofficial and unplanned consequences of school experience. Social Inequality is one of the major preoccupations of sociology. The relationship between inequality and education has been studied for many years. Although it seems obvious that educational success is simply down to an individual’s capabilities and motivation, sociological research shows that the inequalities in social class, gender and race and ethnicity have had a huge influence in the differential achievement within British schooling. The development of the educational system in Britain was first put in place to secure equal educational opportunities for all young people, however despite these efforts, sociological evidence states that not all children with the same ability achieve the same success. Some sociologists, such as Charles Murray have contended with the idea that genetic intellectual potential determines an individual’s performance in school.
This idea is rejected by the conflict theorist’s as they believe social class to be one of the main factors that determine whether a child is successful at school or not, as there are major differences between the levels of achievement of those that are part of the working social class and those apart of the middle class. (Macionis. J, Plummer.K, 2008) One of the main explanations for this is material deprivation. Working class families are financially in a worse position than those of the middle class and therefore are not able to make the most of their educational opportunities.
As they are living in poorer housing conditions they may not have the space at home to be able to complete their schoolwork with full concentration. The lack of financial funds means that many families will not be able to provide their children with the necessities needed to fully develop within education, for example a household computer, sports equipment, or even money for school trips. It may be financially difficult for parents on a low income to support their children in higher education as well. Although student grants have been put in place, many children avoid higher education as they worry about the debt or travel costs.
It also more likely for those from a working class background to be managing education with a part time job, such as paper rounds or shop work, this can cause conflict between the amount of time available for work and the amount of time spent on studying. (Browne. K, 2005) Research suggests that it is not only factors outside of the school that can effect achievement; there are also factors inside the school that have an impact on a child’s educational experiences. Teachers have been known to take into account things such as a child’s standard of behaviour, dress, speech and their social class and background and this reflects how teachers treat particular individuals within the classroom. Teachers are often part of the middle class and the children that share the same values and standards are likely to be seen as ‘brighter’ than those with working class values. The working class have a different focus on their values, attitudes and their lifestyle in society.
This often works as a barrier to the success of the working class. The blame for underachievement is often focused in the direction of the family and community. These material and cultural conditions put working class children at a disadvantage when it comes to achievement in schools. Many of these factors, which have no relation to biological potential, have contributed to the educational class divide in Britain. Sociologist Robert.K.Merton was credited for the term ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ which focuses on a teacher’s attitude towards a pupil, for example if a pupil is labelled as bright and is encouraged and praised by the teacher, the child will feel self-confident and will strive for success. On the other hand if the teacher labels a pupil as ‘un co-operative’ or from a ‘poor’ background, this can cause low self-esteem and the pupil will be likely to fail to achieve much success.
The Neo Marxist’s perspective on class stratification in Britain claims that schools create a ‘false class consciousness’ so it seems that they promote equal opportunities for all, but they really reproduce a capitalist division of labour, preparing young people for class-determined careers in the labour market. Willis (1977) accepts the Marxist’s view on education being closely linked to the needs of the capitalist’s system; however he does not agree with the idea of there being a direct link between education and the economy. (Macionis. J, Plummer.K, 2008) His study found that “poorer children often grow up in environments where people see little hope of upward social mobility and rebel against the system rather than trying to conform with in. In such an environment adults often discourage rather than encourage success at school.” (Macionis. J, Plummer.K, 2008) Social class is not the only inequality in Britain’s schooling. Sociologists have also found a link between gender and academic success. Until the late 1980’s there was high concern about the underachievement of girls. Societies had been structured to consider schooling more important for males than for females.
Although the gap in gender inequality has narrowed in Britain, many women still study traditionally feminine subjects, such as literature whilst men are more likely to study subjects that are seen to be more masculine like engineering. (Macionis. J, Plummer.K, 2008) Sue Sharpe in a 1976 survey called ‘just like a girl’ discovered that the priorities of young girls were ‘love, marriage, husbands, children and then jobs and careers, more or less in that order’. When she repeated her research in 1994, she found that the order had changed to ‘having a job, career and being able to support themselves before having a family.’ (Browne. K, 2005) Weiner (1995) has argued that teachers have more forcefully challenged stereotypes since the 1980’s and sexist images have been removed from learning materials, which could be the reason for the changes in girl’s attitudes towards their own education. The increase in incentives for girls to gain qualifications has been due to a number of reasons, one of them being the women’s movement that managed to achieve a great deal of success in challenging traditional stereotypes for women’s roles in society.
Many women now look past traditional roles, such as housewives and mothers and are motivated to gain independence and to do well in their careers. Women on average work hard during their time at school and are more motivated to do well. They put more effort into their presentation as they give up more time to do their school work. (Browne. K, 2005) It is clear that there have been major changes in the gender perception of girls in Britain’s schools and the inequalities between males and females has become less and less. Although certain traditional gender perceptions exist through subject choice, females now have more equal opportunities to gain knowledge within the classroom and achieve success.
However in modern day society the tables have now turned and there has been a sudden ‘moral panic’ over the underachievement of boys. (Weiner, Arnot and David 1997) Swann (1992) found that boys dominated class discussion by often acting inappropriately and interrupting, whereas girls are known to have a more laid back attitude within the classroom and are praised for their abilities to listen and co-operate, which leads to the teacher having a more positive view to girls within the class, helping to produce the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ of girls greater achievement levels. (Holborn.M and Langley.P, 2002)
Mitsos and Browne accept that boys are under-achieving and suggest that it is because men are culturally encouraged to appear macho and tough in society and these types of behaviours take place within the classroom and distract from learning. They also believe that the decline in manual work may result in the working class boys losing motivation as it is getting harder and harder to find jobs. Although these reasons seem valid, sociologists believe that more research has to be done within this area. (Holborn.M and Langley.P, 2002) More recent studies on education and gender have come away from the simple ‘differential achievement’ and now take into account a lot more processes within schools. The active role of the pupil is seen to create gender relationships and the way in which children form ideas on identities is seen to have a bigger impact. We have discussed social class and gender inequalities within Britain’s schools; however we are still to look into ethnicity and race and the effects this has on differential achievement within schools.
Many children from ethnic minority backgrounds tend to not do as well as other members of the population when it comes to education. Similar to the working class issues as majority of ethnic minority groups are part of the working class they face a series of disadvantages in social conditions, such as poor housing conditions and higher rates of unemployment within their home, which can cause a disadvantage in the chances of success. (Macionis. J, Plummer.K, 2008) Ethnic minorities are also at a disadvantage in school as they often suffer from isolation or racism from other pupils or are even discriminated against from teachers. Although, all schools in Britain are now legally obliged to have an anti-racist policy and teachers are now trained in equality legislation, research in secondary schools has shown conflict between white teachers and African Caribbean pupils. Stereotypes of African Caribbean young males have caused teachers to have more positive expectations of other ethnic minority groups, more than others.
This explains the high level of black exclusions from schools and also explains why most permanent exclusions are down to disobedience of some sort, for example pupils refusing to conform to school rules or being verbally abusive to teachers. The Labelling of certain pupils can cause them to comply with what is expected of them, for example disruptive behaviour and therefore leads to major effects on achievement. Phoenix (2001) conducted numerous studies identifying racism in schools; some suggest teachers discriminate against black and South Asian students, treating them in stereotypical ways. (Holborn.M and Langley.P, 2002)
Racism can cause ethnic minorities to feel in some ways rejected from society and therefore racism within schools can cause young people to feel rejected from school as well, which can lead to prevention of achievement as individuals are not able to work to their full potential as they are not happy and comfortable in the school environment. Not all sociologists agree with the inequalities of ethnic minorities in schools. Taylor (1981) argues that the emphasis on faults in the education system should be treated with some degree of caution. Teachers do not necessarily behave in ways that reflect negative stereotypes of ethnic minority groups according to Taylor and that many teachers consider ethnic equality within schools to be of a high level of importance. (Holborn.M and Langley.P, 2002)
There is enough evidence to link differential achievement with inequalities within Britain’s schools. Social class and ethnic inequalities effect the education and success of some pupils to some extent. Although, there have been developments and improvements on equality in society as a whole including educational institutions, there is still a long way to go before all individuals can be provided with equal opportunities of success. There are still clear class divisions within Britain’s schools as the working class are constantly at a disadvantage which prevents them from achieving to their full potential.
Ethnic minority groups have very similar issues that need to be addressed in order for equal opportunities to evolve. However, there have been drastic changes in gender equality in schools and females and males are now being treated equally within the classroom. These changes have occurred within the whole of society as traditional gender stereotypes have been broken. These changes have had positive results as females now strive to achieve success.
Browne, K., 2005. An introduction to sociology. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press Holborn, M., Langley, P., 2002. Sociology Themes and Perspectives. Fulham: Collins Macionis, J.J., Plummer, K., 2008. Sociology. 4th ed. Essex: Pearson Moore, S., Aiken, D., Chapman, S., 2006. Sociology A2. 2nd ed. Fulham: Collins
Girls and Education (online)
Assessed on 07/06/2012
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