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Social Class, Gender and Ethnicity Essay

In what ways do social class, gender and ethnicity intersect with educational attainment and participation? Provide some examples to illustrate.

Nearly thirteen years into the new millennium and so many of the gaps most noticeable within the education system in the twentieth century have been closed. Attainment and participation in both primary and secondary education is now almost equally open to boys and girls from around the world, and tertiary education is even seeing a bias in women’s attendance over men. However, despite these positive changes, social class, gender and ethnicity still have a major impact on education and intersect with not only attendance, but with personal achievement too.

Since the industrial revolution in the mid 1700s, our world has changed dramatically. Education, through new technologies and the creation of new jobs, has become a compulsory and necessary part of our lives. With focus on economy, politics and individualization rather than the traditional household and religious roles of life, we have become much more dependent on knowledge, as education provides multicultural experiences for many different classes that home life would just not be able to do.

First of all I am going to investigate social class and it’s impact on educational achievement. Worldwide, 121 million children are denied access to education, especially in low-income countries and there are many reasons for this. It can depend on their teachers, peer influence, parental guidance, financial situations, willingness to learn and willingness to succeed. Children from lower classes or those in poverty, while they may still avail of free public education and may be forced into compulsory education by the law, they still do not have to try to attain anything or to achieve anything in school. Teachers may not give them the attention they deserve because of their social class; their parents may not be supportive and may not care how well they do, this can lead them to lose motivation and interest in their education due to a lack of attention.

There are other reasons too, for example, children from bad backgrounds or living in bad areas may be influenced by their peers to dismiss school or to not try in school because it is not deemed “cool”. On the other hand, children from affluent or privileged backgrounds are also susceptible to this because of lack of direction or attention from parents who may be working frequently. Some students do not attain good results in school because they adopt the attitude that can be described as, “Real Englishmen”, where they feel they are better than the teachers and can effortlessly achieve good grades in school. (Mac an Ghaill, M. 1994.)

Middle class parents are also in a better position to take advantage of increasing school choice. It is unfair on the lower social classes because they have limited access to certain (oversubscribed) schools due to set admissions criteria. For example, a private boarding school such as Glenstal Abbey School in Limerick, charges fees of €15,100, which limit attendance of the school to certain groups. In 2011-2012 this was the number one school in Ireland according to the Sunday Times Magazine, and the majority of students there attained great leaving certificate results. Children in lower classes cannot afford to go to private schools such as this without scholarships, which are also limited, so they don’t have the same opportunity as upper class children to achieve good results. Hence their social class intersects with their educational attainment.

Social class can have a major effect on educational attainment. Both regional and national results’ averages can be brought down drastically by students who, for some reason or other, do not try in school. It could be the wealthy kids who don’t care, or the lower class children who are not supported. Either way, there has been a fall in the standards of results in recent years due to weaker students sitting the same tests as those who get the necessary attention and are motivated to do well.

Gender can also have an impact on attainment. On average, the gap in academic achievement between girls and boys is about ten percent, with girls leading. According to statistics, women are higher achievers than men in school. Studies in secondary schools on gender and stereotyping were done in Trinidad + Tobago. In one of the schools, there was a larger female proportion of teachers. They tried many methods of teaching the males but they came to the conclusion that females, “do not know how to approach the male of the species,” they couldn’t deal with boys. (Exploring the Bias, Page, E.) It could be suggested from this study, that boys do not learn well from female teachers and therefore do not do as well as females in exams.

Ethnicity intersects with educational attainment also. There are those who are studying abroad to get a better education, but also those who have immigrated into countries in Western Europe and North America who do not have great command of the English language. This ethnic diversity within schools and universities has led to a whole new change in statistics and attainment of students. Within the U.K. 16% of higher education is taken up by ethnic minority undergrads. Indians and Pakistani/Bangladeshi are all higher achievers than White British students. However, for blacks, and for black Caribbean boys, their educational attainment is very low.

Also, for migrants, language barriers provide huge difficulties for attaining good results. From 2000-2009 in Ireland, the proportion of students from immigrant backgrounds who speak languages other than English rose from 0.9% to 3.5% (OECD 2010). This had a major impact on results and overall average grades. Irish native students had higher reading scores, higher maths scores and also higher scores in science than first-generation and second-generation migrants. (OECD PISA, 2006)

This is similar around the world. This shows how ethnicity affects student achievement through language barriers and lack of support. There has, however, been a strong focus on language support, especially in Ireland in recent years due to the increase in student mobility. There has also been a text book and curriculum analysis in Ireland where in both primary and secondary education, the promotion and celebration of diversity and values are appropriate to a pluralist society. (International Sociology, 27(4) 574-59.) This, in my opinion, is good for the learning and attainment of students of different ethnic backgrounds because they are more accepted into Irish society by native students.

In terms of participation in education, social class is highly linked. Factors such as finance and parenting/ family interest in educating their children are quite important in school attendance. Lower classes do not have as much choice, especially in higher/ third level education as it is often too expensive. There have been many debates regarding third level fees. Free primary education in many countries worldwide has also increased the amount of enrollments. Even more good news is that regarding gender, most countries have also achieved gender parity in primary school education. Moving from primary to tertiary enrollment shows a few things to us, that secondary rates are subsequently lower than primary, largely in Sub-Saharan Africa. Also, tertiary education has quite low worldwide education participation rates; generally in developing countries the amount of people in tertiary is not high. Social class has a large amount to do with this.

Poverty is one of the main factors preventing people form attending university. Although gender intersects with participation in education around the globe, the WDR 2012 Team found that, “In most countries with moderate or high total inequality in educational outcomes, less than one-fifth of inequality stems from gender”. Non-attendance instead, has to do more primarily with rural residence or poverty. Gender however, does relate to reasons for participation in education and also non-attendance. Most countries have achieved equal male and female involvement in primary education. At the same time, some countries lag behind, namely many African countries such as Niger, Chad, Benin and Togo. (Source: WDR 2012 Team) There is also, based on World Development Indicators, a greater amount of male participation in both primary and secondary school, although, females dominate third level tertiary education.

Between 1970 and 2008, the number of female tertiary students in the world increased from 10.8 million to 80.9 million. (WDR 2012 Team.) Empirical evidence suggests that from the early 1980’s onwards, when returns to women’s education increased, so did parental investment in the schooling of girls. Along with this, free primary education in many countries reduced the gaps in enrollments. With the continuous worldwide increase in women’s rights, “equal access to school has been a foremost concern.” (Gender and Stereotyping in Secondary Schools, Page, E.)

Recorded in 2009, it was noted that, “Girls still constitute about 55% of the estimated seventy five million children who are not enrolled in primary education.” (UNESCO, 2009.) Finally, ethnicity has little limit to educational prospects but is still intersected with participation because “Minority ethnic population don’t participate in Higher Education in a uniform way.” (Connors, H. 2004) Instead, they have strong positive parental support and a commitment to education that allows them to go abroad to further their studies and set no limits on what they can achieve.

In conclusion, all of these factors (Social class, gender and ethnicity,) intersect with educational attainment and participation in different ways. Both lower and higher classes have disadvantages in attaining high results, while upper class people have an edge that they can afford the fee paying schools known for high achieving students that lower classes cannot pay for, which enables their children to achieve good leaving certificate and a-level results in Ireland and the UK. Gender is another thing we cannot control but can still lose out on in terms of educational attainability that girls achieve higher results than boys. Also, ethnicity has an impact in that migrants such as Indians and Chinese have higher results than natives of countries such as England and North America.

However, due to language barriers they are somewhat restricted in grades at the same time. Social class also affects participation in education through poverty as does gender, with many of the Sub-Saharan African countries leaving girls at educational disadvantages in enrollment. Finally, ethnicity does not put limits on students and where they can go to school, for example, 16% of English undergrads are ethnic minorities. However, like gender and social class in the poorer countries, it is hard to participate in education if people are from certain ethnic backgrounds due to injustice, inequality and disadvantage.


* Mac an Ghaill, M. (1994) The Making of Men: Masculinities, Sexualities & Schooling * * Page, E. Jha, J. Commonwealth (2009) Exploring the Bias: Gender + Stereotyping in Secondary Schools * OECD (2010) PISA 2009 results learning trends: changes in student performances since 2000 *

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