The impact of the occupation and social class of an individual’s parent on their educational success has long been a focus of sociologists. Success in the educational system in the UK is measured by longevity and qualifications. Sociologists have for many years been concerned with why the attainment gap appears to be so large between working and middle class children. This is as relevant today as ever due to the recent Education Act 2011 where one aim was to ensure higher education was accessible to children of all social backgrounds.
A study measuring the level of pupils achieving 5 or more GCSE grades A*- C in 1989 and 2000 demonstrates that children from a middle class background achieve a greater success in the education system and that the attainment gap has only widened over time. (Youth Cohort Study, DfES) While it would be widely favoured to believe that we live in a meritocratic society, a functionalist theory, where it is believed that everyone enters the education system at the same level and people’s success is determined by their skills, abilities and efforts evidence suggests this is not the case.
Perhaps one of the most striking statistics from a recent study that perhaps disproves the functionalist theory is that ‘Children from poor homes are nearly a year behind before they start school and two years behind by age 14’. (Rowntree Foundation, 2007. ) As recently as May 2012 education secretary Michal Gove “has attacked an English culture that accepts poverty limits the achievements of poor children” (BBC. co. uk 2012).
Although the lack of social mobility is a widely accepted issue the factors influencing such a statistic must be explored. There are two key theories discussed by Bourdieu (1984), a Marxist. Marxists primarily believe that the education system benefits the middle classes and reinforces social inequalities. Bourdieu believed that middle class children not only benefit from the financial advantage of their parents being able to pay for the best independent schools, or tutors to provide extra education, hey also benefit from the cultural capital passed down to them. This is focusing more on the values, behaviours and tastes they are exposed to, such as classical music, visiting theatres’, reading books and the way the language they are spoken to at home all appears to benefit middle class children in preparation for what is being taught and expected from them in education.
Bourdieu argues that social capital available to the middle classes is advantageous; he inferred they had a greater understanding of the system and contacts within allowing them to network with other middle class parents to discuss the best schools, boycott the failing schools, or if a child parents are well acquainted with the school governors or teachers there is a possibility of preferential treatment for example extra encouragement or attention in class. Another sociologist who believed like Bourdieu that language was a contributing factor as to why middle class children progress further in education was Bernstein (1990).
He went as far as to say that the education system is culturally biased towards the middle classes due to them speaking in an elaborated code which is the same language used in schools and by exam boards, therefore middle class children are already familiar with the terminology. Working class children are used to a more restricted code and Bernstein thought that due to not understanding the language they are already behind and therefore potentially switch off, become disengaged and unmotivated.
Bearing in mind that educational success is measured by how long an individual remains in the education system and the qualifications achieved another theory why working class children appear to underachieve is that it is down to parent’s attitudes towards education and working. The Must Try Harder study (Professor Gianni De Fraja 2010) found that , ‘Parents from a more advantaged environment exert more effort, and this influences positively the education attainment of their children’ (Guardian. co. k 29th October 2010) The study finds that a child’s background played a large part in how much effort the parents and schools put into their education.
A possible explanation for difference in attitudes between the classes is that working class parents may have an element of expecting their children to take over the family business or follow in their footsteps as it was good enough for them. Studies have also shown those working class children’s parents attitudes tend to encourage immediate gratification. This suggests they ncourage their children to enter the workplace sooner rather than later.
To start earning over, staying in education. Generally this tends to mean that the working class individuals remain as such due to being unqualified for the higher status, higher salaried jobs. On the reverse, middle class parents encourage deferred gratification. They encourage hard work at school and reap the rewards in later life, with a high level of qualification, a higher status career and in turn a higher salary and thus the class divide remains.
There are several potential reasons behind why working class children enter the workplace so early. A study by Finn (1984) showed that 75% of working class teenagers have to work to support their studies. This demonstrates that working class children may be deterred from entering further and higher education due to a fear of running into financial difficulty, a sentiment echoed by NUT general secretary Christine Blower who stated “Cutting the Education Maintenance Allowance and raising the cost of university tuition fees has meant that for many poorer pupils further or higher education is not an option.
This is a decision based not on their educational achievements but on their family’s economic abilities to keep them in education. ” (BBC. co. uk, 10th May 2012). Having explored internal and home factors as possible explanations to the attainment gap it is important to consider also external factors and the schools and teachers role in this. There is an Interactionist theory to explain educational failure in the working classes, which looks at labelling pupils, which turns into a self fulfilling prophecy and tries to explain bad behaviour by the working class children in classrooms.
Becker (1971) carried out a study on 60 high school teachers and found they judged & treated students differently depending how closely they fitted their idea of an ‘ideal pupil’. The teachers felt the middle class children fitted their ‘ideal pupil’ idea closest based on their work, conduct and appearance. This type of labelling has shown to have a negative impact on children’s achievement and can often be a self fulfilling prophecy. If a teacher is making a judgement that the middle class child is very bright and treats them accordingly, that student will receive a higher standard of work and therefore achieve a higher standard.
On the flip side if the working class child is labelled as unintelligent the teacher is likely to give them a lower, less complex standard of work and that student will only ever achieve a certain level. Both students will internalise the teacher expectations of them and achieve what the teacher initially believed them to be able to achieve. Through labelling and the self fulfilling prophecy the class divide has remained. Furthermore it has been found that when pupils are labelled sub cultures can appear, as demonstrated in Lacey’s study (1970).
He found that where pupils are labelled and streamed into higher and lower ability streams they take on a status similar to their abilities. The students then form a pro school subculture and an anti school subculture. While the pro school subculture echoes the schools values and has gained a higher status through their academic success, the anti school subculture ends up having a poor self esteem and looks to other ways to gain approval and status. The approval that they then look for is from their peers and this usually takes shape in the form of misbehaviour, being rude to staff and a lack of respect of authority and education.
This in turn becomes a vicious cycle as the teacher will continue to focus the extra attention on the pro school subculture students benefitting them further. Other external factors to consider are a schools location. A school in a deprived area or a failing school is likely to avoided by middle class parents, mainly through social culture discussed previously in the internal factors, by default the working class children whose parents have no choice or a lack of belief or understanding in the education system attended these schools.
Potentially through labelling, high teacher turn over rates these schools achieve low qualification rates and the cycle continues. Similarly when comparing state schools to private fee paying schools the class sizes are substantially different. State school class sizes often reach the government limit of 30 pupils to one teacher where as independent schools tend to have around 15 Pupils to one teacher. By looking at the sheer number to time ratio it is clear that in an independent school teacher will be able to provide far more one to one tuition to their pupils.
Having cross examined many theories to ascertain if parental occupation and social class has any bearing on educational success, the evidence from the studies mentioned in this essay demonstrates that social class, although not the only factor is certainly a major influence. This essay has demonstrated that middle class children through cultural and social capital and language codes are already at an advantage by time they start school, this advantage only increase throughout their school years.
Their parents can financially afford to send them to the private schools where class size is smaller and they therefore receive more one to one tuition. Combining those factors with the potential labelling, self fulfilling prophecy and sub cultures of their school lives, the evidence strongly shows that the social class of a child’s background plays an enormous role in there achievement levels in education.
Courtney from Study Moose
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