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Social class and how it affects children aged 7 years and below within the English educational system

This report considers recent research evidence related to inclusive education, and equality of opportunity, in relation to social class and how it affects children aged 7 years and below within the English educational system. A definition of inclusive education relevant to early educational practice will be offered. A literature review will be undertaken, that will principally examine the size of the social class differences amongst young children, and will go on to consider a case study of inclusive practice that was implemented at one English primary school. Recommendations for future research are made.


Since the publication of the Plowden Report in 1967, it has been apparent that social class has a profound effect on the educational achievement of primary school children. In the past two decades, there have been a number of specific legislative changes that have altered the shape of primary school education. With the Education Reform Act(1988), schools have been required to undertake standardised testing of7 year old children in English, Mathematics and Science subjects.

Furthermore, schools have been required to publish controversial ‘league tables’ of performance, alongside national averages, in their school prospectus publications. There have been several policies introduced to reduce the effects of deprivation on young children including Sure Start, and a planned widening of availability of nursery education all in the name of ‘inclusive education’ (Barnes, Belsky,Broomfield, Dave et al, 2004, p 46-9). Indeed, Geertz (2001) has argued that New Labour policy makers strive to “make all families like middle-class families, or at least the ideal-typical middle class family of much educational research” (p 7).

However, there is surprisingly little empirical research evidence available on inclusive education, or equality of opportunity in early educational settings, with most studies focussing on secondary school children. This is also regrettable since Sammons and Sees (1998) have clearly shown that at the age of seven, prior attainment accounts for 26-43% of variance in national assessment results (p 389 – 407).

Therefore, early teaching support of children with special educational needs, or affected by poverty or difficult personal circumstances would appear to be of immense importance to prevent children who start school behind their peers from falling further behind as their school careers progress. This report will critically assess available empirical studies related to the education of children aged 7 years and below within the United Kingdom. Furthermore, it will examine theoretical and philosophical perspectives on early inclusive education, and make recommendations for further research.


The search strategy employed for the literature review involved searching electronic bibliographical databases for relevant research and policy papers related to the topic of inclusive education, and equality of opportunity, and social class issues with English school pupils aged 7 and under. No date restrictions were imposed on the searches, although most papers that were located and subsequently considered in this literature review were published in the 1990’s and2000’s. The electronic bibliographical databases that were searched were ERIC, the British Education Index and Psych Lit.

Abstracts for each paper were inspected on an individual basis to assess their relevance to the literature review. Research papers within the terms of the literature review were then obtained from various library sources. However, it was felt that much of the research on early inclusive education would be found in the grey literature. Therefore, the Education Line database of conference proceedings, provided by Leeds University, was also searched for relevant papers. Finally, a search of the websites of highly regarded academic educational research centres, and government official statistics, was undertaken and further relevant research reports were obtained this way.

Literature Review

Although ‘inclusive education’ has been the buzz word of the education sector for many years, there is a lack of clarity in its definition. It broadly includes reference to a schools receptivity to accommodate the needs of all its pupils, and be “more responsive to pupil diversity”(Fiorina, Rouse, Black-Hawkins and Jull (2004), p 118). Furthermore, Fiorina et al (2004) have argued that inclusion and achieving high standards are not necessarily mutually exclusive goals, with some schools achieving both (p 115).

Stephen and Cope (2003) have further elaborated on the interpretation of inclusive education, drawing distinction between the individual model where the deprived pupil is seen as ‘the problem’ (p 274) to be moulded into the school system, towards a social model of inclusive education. The social model acknowledges that there may be individual characteristics of the child that need to be considered, but also consider the possible institutional and operational barriers that hinder children’s entry and integration into infant schools. In their study, children from middleclass homes were supported by parents when they started infant schoolboy practising numeracy and literacy at home, and through more proactive involvement in school activities (p 273).

Gallannaugh and Dyson (2003) have conducted a study of 25 practitioners working in three English LEA’s to assess what ‘inclusive education ‘development was possible in schools, and make sense of school responses to the inclusion agenda. Some teachers reported confusion over what ‘inclusive education’ was, since many official sources of information focussed on inclusion of children with special educational needs only(p 1).

However, most teachers saw ‘inclusive education’ as provision for all children who were at risk of underachieving within the educational system, a version of inclusive education that is compatible with New Labour’s ‘social inclusion’ agenda ensuring that all members of society participate in the opportunities and activities of mainstream society (Blanket, 1999). A definition of inclusive education that attracted consensus amongst the teachers was “a set of broad values which we understood to be inclusive, and which we articulated as a commitment to equality, and increasing participation of all children (rather than one or other marginalised groups) in common education” (p 2).

In synthesising research papers on social class related to early education, it is apparent that the term ‘social class’ has been interpreted in different ways by different authors. Sammons (1995) has highlighted that some researchers have attempted to “identify and separate the effects of different combinations of disadvantaging factors, noting that whilst not additive there is evidence of cumulative disadvantage (i.e. experiencing one factor such as low social class or low income on its own is less closely associated with low attainment than experiencing both these factors)” (p 467). Furthermore, Sparks (1999) has classified the different interpretations as including children from low income households, parental unemployment, paternal/ maternal occupation and inappropriate housing environment (p 10).

She has examined research studies that look at each of these aspects, but only a few studies specifically examine the age range of 0 to 7 years. Pupils coming from a low income household, as indicated by eligibility for free school meals, appears to have marked effect on educational achievement at the age of 7 years and above (p 14). Furthermore, West, Pennell, West and Travers (1999) have shown that receipt of income support benefit by the household accounted for 66% of variance in educational achievement at a local authority level (p 10).

Sparks (1999) has stated that “non-school factors are a more important source of variation in educational achievement than differences in the quality of education that students receive” (p 9).However, there is a broad consensus that schools can counteract some of the effects of social deprivation through inclusive educational practice. Indeed, empirical evidence suggests that schools have an independent effect of between 8% and 15%, and school effects are greater within the primary school sector (Reynolds, Sammons, Stoll, Barber et al, 1996 (p 140)). In the UK, research evidence on the effects of pre-school education are mixed (Sparks, 1999, p 12).

However, research studies have indicated that when children receiving nursery education are compared to those receiving no nursery education, pre-school experience has a positive impact on achievement in national assessment tests at the age of seven (Sammons and Sees, 1998, p 400).However, poor families may not have access to quality services in areas where demand for nursery services is high. Middle class families, however, may have the advantage in that they can turn to the private sector provision where necessary.

Smaller studies have shown an association between social class and early pupil attainment. However, stronger evidence is supplied by McCullum (1993) who compared aggregated Key Stage One results for local education authorities in England, against measures of social class obtained from the 1991 Social Census. This study clearly showed that social class, as evidenced through the number of social class 1 and 2individuals in the local population, showed a statistically significant and positive relationship with the Local Education Authority’s Key Stage One test scores, across all LEA’s sampled (p 95).

Furthermore, Thomas (1995) has also shown how free school meal entitlement, and special educational needs, were strongly correlated with performance at Key Stage One (p 280). More recently, Sammons (1995) has studied 2000primary school children longitudinally at 50 ethnically diverse inner-city schools over a 9 year period. The children were monitored from the ages of 7 to 10 years. For the purpose of this report the results will be reported for the youngest of the cohort. The main purpose of the study was to assess primary schools effectiveness at developing cognitive and non-cognitive educational outcomes amongst children.

Detailed records were kept on every child’s background characteristics such as ethnicity, socio-economic status and gender. For the purpose of the study, social class was measured as father’s occupation, and eligibility for free school meals. There were statistically significant differences in absolute attainment at ages 7, and above (p 479), with the biggest effect being in reading rather than mathematics performance. At 7 years, receiving free school meals accounted for just over 7% of variance in reading test performance, while having father working in an semi or unskilled profession accounted for 14.5%of variance, and having a father who was unemployed accounted for8.35%.

However, for mathematics test performance, free school meals accounted for just 1.3% of variance, and having a father in a semi/unskilled profession accounted for 4.22% of variance while having father who was unemployed at the time of the study accounted for 2.57%of variance (p 471). This study was based on pupils attending primary schools in the decade of the 1980’s, and prior to the onset of the National Curriculum. It is the only longitudinal study of its kind that has been published using a British school population.

With high statistical power afforded through the sample size, it is possible tube confident in the results. However, research studies are required that adopt a similar design but that are carried out now that the National Curriculum is an established format of educational provision within primary schools. Studies are also required that examine more dimensions of social class than the ‘outdated’ paternal occupation, and free school meals eligibility.

In 1998, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority introduced a National Framework for Baseline Assessment for all pupils at the start of their school careers. The baseline assessment is a structured series of questions designed to assess pupils’ English ability, in terms of oral, reading and writing ability. In addition, early mathematical understanding is measured through a series of questions that require teachers to judge the ability of the child. Strand (1999) has studied the results of baseline testing of over 11,000 four year old children prior to their entry to primary school reception class. The data cover the period of 1993 to 1997, and are based at Wandsworth Local Education Authority in London.

The results indicate that there are significant variations in baseline test score achievement based around a range of background factors such as age of child, gender, ethnicity and economic status. Measures of interest to the present literature review are length of preschool education by the pupil and entitlement to free school meals, which is the surrogate measure of social class used for baseline testing. Measures of attainment collected by the study were the LARR (Linguistic Awareness in Reading Readiness) test of emergent literacy and the teacher checklist described above. The results show statistically significant, strong correlations between school entrants on baseline measures and their subsequent overall Key Stage 1 achievement, in the region of 0.6 or above.

Furthermore, the test battery are highly predictive of both English and Mathematics achievement in Key Stage 1 assessments in the individual subjects, with correlations in the region of 0.55 for mathematics, 0.55 for reading, and 0.49 for writing. The combination of the LARR objective measure of literacy, and the teacher checklist, together make the best overall indicator of later achievement for the children, compared to either test in isolation. Amount of preschool education received by children also significantly predicted Key Stage One achievement in all subjects. Furthermore, children in receipt of eligibility for free school meals were noted to score, on average, over five whole points less than their peers on baseline tests. Their mean scores were 29.7 (SD 11.4) compared to 34.9 (SD 12.2) for non-entitled children (p 20).

In a further study, Strand (1997) tracked the educational progress of1669 Wands worth school children who had completed baseline assessments during 1992 and 1993. He considered the important of school effects, which is importance to social class considerations in the sense that schools are located in specific catchment areas that can be defined according the level of deprivation in the local community. The same assessment materials were used for this study as in Strand (1999). The pattern of achievement described for children eligible for free school meals at school entry was one where they started below other peers, in terms of baseline testing, and gradually fell further behind as time went by; as reflected in their Key Stage One performance (p 479).

Composite measure of school effects of child performance at Key Stage One was taken to comprise of seven factors including gender ratio of school population, proportion of pupils with eligibility for free school meals and percentage of bilingual school pupils. Strand (1997)found that where there was a high rate of free school meal eligibility, this was one of the statistically significant factors, along with gender ratio and proportion of ESL pupils in school composite effects. “These compositional effects are significant even after each individual pupils baseline scores, sex, FSM entitlement and ESL background have been taken into account” (Strand, 1997, p 479).

This means that school performance as a whole, as well as individual pupil progress, would appear to be associated with the proportion of free school meal claimants in the school population. Indeed, “It can be hypothesised that schools with a low proportion of socially disadvantaged pupils may have some benefits associated with their context: they may receive greater help from parents, have fewer disciplinary problems or an atmosphere more conducive to learning” (p 485).
Buchanan-Barrow and Barratt (1998) have considered how young children understand school, and how this is affected by socio-economic factors, along with gender and birth-order.

They suggest, “The school constitutes, in microcosm, a multifaceted and multi-layered society with an extensive and complex system…in order to operate successfully in this system, the young pupil needs to acquire an understanding of the connections between such important system-concepts as rules, roles, power and community” (p 250). A total of 112 children were included in the study from the age of 5 and upwards, at two primary schools in London. The first school had a free school meal ratio of 3% and was therefore broadly classified as a middle class school. The second school had a much higher free school meal ratio of 49% and the intake population was largely working class. Parents and teachers completed questionnaires, and the children were interviewed about their understanding of the power structure in the school, and their attitudes towards their school.

In general, young children had the most positive attitudes towards school of all children studied. Furthermore, there were no differences in the attitudes towards school by socio-economic class, but there was a significant correlation between child and parental views on the school. The importance of the head-teacher in the power structure was evident in the responses of all children, butane understanding of the purpose of the class teachers was patchy until the middle primary years. The researchers closely examined the responses of the children at both schools for social class effects on comprehension and understanding of the school.

At the middle-class school, the responses of the children followed general age trend patterns where children’s knowledge and understanding increased with years. However, for the working-class school, the pattern of responses were more complicated. Children were much less likely to discuss the role of parents, and children in the organisation and function of school compared to children at the other school. This suggests that children are not feeling ‘included’ in school, with a strong sense of membership that children often report at the middle class school (p263). Examination of parental responses to the questionnaire revealed broadly similar responses between schools, but working class parents reported feeling more welcome at the school than middle class parents.

As Buchanan-Barrow and Barratt (1998) have suggested, “Since middleclass parents are likely to be readier to take issue, more assured of their ability to achieve their aims and better equipped to make their feelings known, it might be expected that the staff might be more wary of their interventions and less warm in their welcome. On the other hand, working class parents, without the same sense of empowerment, maybe seen as less threatening” (p 263). This is an important study in that it reveals age-trends in children’s understanding of school, and their place within the power structure and function of the school.

According to Piaget cognitive theory, age-related differences in understanding are to be expected, as a combination of increased cognitive abilities with age. However, constructivism alone does not explain the individual differences in responses. The age related findings in the children’s responses may not be due to developmental changes in cognitive ability alone. In particular, social-interactional factors may have an important contribution to children’s understanding of the school, with parents, teachers and children’s interactions about the school being mediated by the age of the pupil.

A social representation perspective would emphasise the individual differences in responses according to social class, gender and so forth (Elmer and Hana, 1993). However, this study showed that the acquisition of social knowledge and social understanding was more individual, than collective (p 265).

Gallannaugh and Dyson (2003) have provided a useful detailed case study of how inclusive education can work at improving primary schoolchildren’s educational achievements. They collected data from one primary school (‘Broad mead’) in an urban area, primarily serving families of the local council housing estate where the eligibility for free school meals was above national averages. The school decided to address the specific issue of underachievement in writing ability during Key Stage assessments.

The school had identified a group of middle ability school pupils who were failing to meet national expectations. School staff did not feel that poor teaching maybe the cause of the problem, and many teachers cited specific and concerted efforts by teachers to improve writing standards using a range of teaching strategies. However, “the school’s response to the problem was to problematize some of its existing practices. To some extent, this appeared to be a result of the realisation that customary practice simply did not ‘work’ in the sense that despite all efforts to hone teaching skills, the school had apparently reached a ceiling in attainment” (p 3).

The school had moved towards a more experimental approach in the curriculum, and included new teaching strategies to help pupil learning such as thinking skills techniques. However, the actual underlying purpose of introducing a specific intervention was unclear, with more emphasis on anxiety about school performance compared to national standards, as opposed to inclusion for all. Nevertheless, it represented a departure from standard practice. Over the course of the project, the experience of implementing new approaches and of their impact on children’s learning led teachers to rethink their ideas about educational/ personal outcomes that are important to children.

The original aim had been to improve achievement standards in writing, but the intervention had also appeared to impact on child self-esteem, learning in other subject areas, and educational confidence. The teachers reported that they valued these additional attainments in their own right amongst their pupils. Teachers had identified that the children had very limited learning techniques and strategies, and had therefore decided to focus on teaching children how to learn, in parallel to the curriculum subjects.

When the research team interviewed teachers about why they felt their pupils had struggled in writing skills, it was generally felt that the critical barrier to raising all aspects of literacy was due to the fact that children entered school with very limited language skills that affected their access to most subjects. The head teacher felt that ‘catch up ‘once they started school was insufficient to counter the effects of poor literacy environment at home, and lack of family communication about education at home. This lack of preparation for school was complicated by local cultural factors such as socialisation of boys from working class households into the role of the ‘northern lad’ who was expected to behave stereotypically, and not necessarily express an interest in education.

In summary, “some children came to school from families where education was not valued, with limited experiences, and(particularly in primary schools) limited language skills” (p 5). Gallannaugh and Dyson (2003) provide two competing perspectives on the work at Broad mead primary school. In one sense, teachers were willing to implement new teaching strategies as they had ‘internalised’ the demands of the national curriculum and school assessment system, but also the characteristics of working class children that make them deficit (p 7).

This could be regarded as anti-inclusive practice since it aimed to socialise working class children into middle class ideals. However, an alternative perspective on the work at Broadmeadis that the school resisted the pressure and constraints of current educational policy, and found time to try out alternative learning strategies, which children self-reported as beneficial. Furthermore, teachers’ deficit view of the working class children was increasingly challenged as they were equipped with new skills to allow them to demonstrate their true abilities.


Recent Government policy has moved towards emphasising inclusive education, particularly in the early years. However, there is a danger that policy will remain mere ‘rhetoric’ unless there is evidence based research to provide teachers with practical skills to provide equality of opportunity for their pupils. Research studies have consistently shown that working class children are regarded as the ‘problem’ that must be adapted to the middle class educational environment of the infant school classroom.

However, a social model of inclusive education that acknowledges individual difficulties in adaptation, as well as institutional barriers to learning maybe a more constructive approach. Teachers working within English schools are constrained in the classroom by their need to meet national curriculum requirements, and achieve required standards from their pupils. Conversely, teachers recognise that some children enter infant school poorly prepared forth demands of formal education through their home backgrounds, and require additional support. Implementation of special strategies to enhance the language, communication and thinking skills of children, such as at Broad mead school, maybe one solution.

However, children of lower social class backgrounds may require long term intervention if ‘inclusive education’ is truly ‘inclusive’ throughout their school careers. This literature review has revealed the lack of research studies to support teachers’ implementation of effective strategies to promote learning amongst young children from deprived backgrounds. To date, research studies have concentrated on identifying the size of the discrepancy in performance between school pupils. The next step is to develop longitudinal, vigorous research programmes within English infant schools to inform evidence-based teaching practice.

Furthermore, there is a need to explore the concept of social class, and how it affects young children, in more detail, and to understand how it interacts with other risk factors such as English as a second language. Sparks (1999) has shown that factors, such as social class, are associated with educational attainment, amongst young children. However, it is less clear about what aspects of social class are causal, and not merely correlated (p 10), and there is a need to investigate the specific aspects of social class that maybe associated/causing educational difficulties for children.


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