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It is thought that when students are seen to have less potential because of how they are labelled due to social characteristics such as gender or race, they are streamed into lower sets at school and therefore feel as if they are only deserving and capable of a lower standard of academic success. This is referred to as the 'Labelling theory' which claims that a child's achievement can be shifted in the direction of a label that can then become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, stereotypes about ethnic groups may be shaping the schools treatment of ethnic minorities. In the Ball on Beachtown Comprehensive Study (1981), Ball described the way the school divided pupils into three bands. By the second year the middle band had become deviant and formed sub-cultures however when the school abolished banding pupils and taught in mixed ability groups many of the behavioural and disciplinary problems subsided.
Marxists also support this view in saying that this society is not a meritocracy due to the inequality in schools. They believe that the education system is part of the superstructure of society that is determined by the economic base. In the post-second world war period the focus of public concern about differences in educational achievement was class. 'Those who gain mastery of European languages generally come from financially well-off families who can afford to send their children to private schools where the best teachers and educational opportunities exist. This of course creates a great disparity and equity gap between the elite and the great majority of citizens.'
Although some researchers pointed to ethnic and gender differences it was only in the 1980's that attention shifted to these areas. Gilborne and Youdal conducted a study in 2000 on how racial expectations can shape school treatment and the positive or negative impact that this can have on the pupils. They observed that the same behaviour of different ethnic groups was being interpreted and treated in different ways. Among several examples was the case of a black pupil who was suspended from school for watching a fight while white pupils who did the same were not. This may stem from the generalisation that minority black pupils tend to be less civilized and more steered towards violence and gang crime than the white middle class majority.
In addition to this, Egglestons study in 1985 also suggests that pupils were branded according to ethnicity rather than ability. In one school being observed, afro-Caribbean students who achieved the same or better marks than white pupils were still placed in lower ability streams. According to statistics, at age 16, black students score lower levels than other ethnic groups at GCSE and actually declined between 2000 and 2002. Black students are also often grouped into the highest sets in sports as opposed to academic subjects and according to statistics they are the most common group to then become athletes instead of scholars or like working class pupils, more likely to be involved in criminal behaviour later on in life.
In terms of ethnicity however it is argued that the education system alone is not to blame for the academic downfall in minority ethnic groups as there are other factors which may play a part such as significant cultural differences which may hinder a pupil's progress. An example of this may be language barriers as studies show that students who have English as their first language are more likely to succeed. This can however be argued as Indian students have been statistically proven to outdo other cultures in terms of achievement regardless of the fact that they learn English as a second language. Furthermore, in some cultures there is a greater parental interest in the child's education such as in Asian families where a child feels an added pressure due to societal and parental expectations that they should overachieve and this can also therefore play a key role in their academic success.
In post-16 education the Indian ethnic group now achieves higher levels at GCSE than any other ethnic group however Bangladeshi students fall far behind and in terms of gender, girls outperform boys in every ethnic group. Pupils are often stereotyped academically according to their gender as schools often place more value in a girl's education as they believe that because of female academic success rates, they are more likely to achieve and therefore have futures that the education system feels is worth investing in. This creates the self-fulfilling prophecy for girls that they are set to be high achievers and they therefore strive to live up to this role.
The negative impact this may have on male pupils however can be significantly damaging to their academic success as they begin to devalue their abilities and doubt their potential. This can often result in the formation of anti-school subcultures which according to Hargreaves (1967) became very popular amongst male youth. Rebellion and gang-crime surfaces as male pupils retaliate by trying to defy the education system and resort to negative patterns of behaviour and a culture of masculinity.
However, initially women did not achieve higher than men in the past due to a lack of equal opportunities in terms of employment which resulted in them having low academic standards and expectations of themselves. Protest movements then changed this in the 60's and 70's, demanding a fairer society for women and this pressured policy makers to look into this in terms of equal academic opportunities. Girls then began to have a heightened sense of themselves in terms of confidence in their rights and abilities. Sue Sharpe compared the attitudes of working class females in the early 70's and 90's and found that the 90's girls were more assertive, ambitious and committed to gender equality. They were less likely to see marriage and family as the foundation for their lives and instead adopted a more independent, career-driven approach to their focus.
Another way in which the education system impacts pupils through stereotyping in terms of gender is with the hidden curriculum. Studies show that there are often significant differences in the subject choices made by males and females. For example, women are more likely to choose subjects such as nursing, sciences and health and social care whereas men are more inclined to chose more masculine jobs such as engineering and the civil service. These differences in choice are often claimed by sociologists to be a result of public images of jobs being gender divided and primary socialisation shaping the minds of young children according to societal norms and expectations of their gender. For example, through traditional fairytales in which women play the inferior, vulnerable, compassionate character whereas the man dominates in what is stereotypically the strong, dominant, heroic role and this as a result sets the foundations for a stereotypically engineered society where the woman is a housewife and the man is breadwinner.
Another factor that often determines a pupil's chance for success is their class. Students are commonly stereotyped by their financial backgrounds and encouraged or scrutinized accordingly. An example of this would be where students from working class backgrounds are streamed into lower sets, being labelled as underachievers and thus once again resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Oxford Mobility Study (Halsey et al.) concluded that a male pupil from the higher class compared to a male pupil from a working class background had 40 times more chance of attending a public school, 12 times more chance of attending a direct grant school, 10 times more chance of being in school at the age of eighteen, 11 times more chance of attending university and 3 times more chance of attending a grammar school. It is however claimed that the underachievement of working class pupils is also due to factors other than educational categorization such as household income limiting their options in terms of places of study, healthcare and academic resources as in some cases, families are unable to afford the best education and the best equipment for their child and this can therefore also play a significant part in the academic shortcomings of working class pupils.
Contradictorily, some sociologists claim that the negative labels that the education system places on students can in fact drive them to excel academically as they try and defy these labels in a pursuit to achieve top grades and prove the education system wrong. Also, students from working class backgrounds may work harder in order to make the most out of their studies as they know that they are limited and it is more rare and difficult for them to have these privileges as opposed to middle class students who tend to take these academic opportunities for granted.
In order to investigate these theories I applied my knowledge of research methods and techniques to construct ethnographic research which included a survey which was then carried out in a local primary school. The feedback I gained from these was then emphasised by a focus group study with 6 pupils aged 10-11 years and an unstructured interview with the group after a day of observation. In observing these primary school students I found that male pupils were often divided from females and given special attention as it was assumed that they required extra help. A short after class quiz also took place on the day where the class was split in two according to gender but unexpectedly the boys won. It could however be argued that the outcome of this activity was predetermined as the boys team was allocated a member of staff to assist them where needed whereas the girls were left to participate independently and on their own merit as they were seen to be more capable. This contributes to the difference in treatment of the two gender groups and as a result, the boys became reliant on the help of a teacher and doubted their potential as individual pupils.
In observing this classroom quiz there were ethical factors I had to consider such as whether or not it was appropriate to observe these children in their natural environments or how natural the environment may actually then be with a spectator and how the feeling of being observed may impact the behaviour of those students on the day. An example of this would be in the study by Ronald A King (1984) 'The Man In The Wendy House: Studying Infants' Schools.' King hid in the Wendy House observing pupils behaviour in a covert manner, when he was spotted however, students began to feel uncomfortable being watched and their behaviour changed as a result of this.
In order for me to avoid the limitations of participant observation such as the 'Wendy House effect', I decided that 'The best place to hide is in the light'. I openly took part in the children's games and activities throughout the day, posing as a teaching assistant therefore creating a rapport between myself and the students in a pursuit to gain their trust and have them behave in a natural, uninhibited manner without knowing that they were being observed for research purposes. This increased the accuracy of my research and heightened my sense of understanding when we then moved on to the interviewing process. A strength of participant observation is undoubtedly that I was able to interact with the students on a personal level and therefore gain a deeper insight into the course of their behaviour. I however had to remain objective whilst not compromising my cover in order to achieve an accurate and non-bias account of what goes on in schools today. It is a common mistake that through participant observation one can lose sight of their objectives in being a non-participating observer to then instead becoming a non-observing participant.
Throughout the day I observed the students in terms of the way they were treated not only by staff but by each other and found that certain groups were formed during lunchtimes which consisted of a handful of students from the same class or culture. Teachers observed these groups and labelled students according to their associations. This contributes to my theories of anti-school subcultures and how minority ethnic groups and divided classes who are grouped together develop different attitudes towards schooling according to the way they are singled out by their teachers or conform to their relating peers. For example, I observed during playtimes that white middle class students and girls in particular, tended to play in a more civilised manner in a secluded "quiet area" which was used for reading, talking and painting whereas working class boys and mainly black pupils would behave in an undignified manner, play fighting and exchanging bad language in the main playground. Serious violent behaviour would often surface amongst these groups, resulting in detention for or a call home. It however became apparent that although such behaviours also took place in quieter areas of the playground amongst higher class individuals, these were disregarded or went unnoticed as staff placed themselves amongst working class pupils who they perceived were more likely to cause trouble.
Towards the end of the day, 6 pupils were chosen at random from the class to partake in a focus group where my survey was then conducted in an informal, relaxed atmosphere so that the children would feel safe, at ease and not obliged to give any kind of particular answers due to expectational pressures. This method is very useful under these conditions and I therefore chose this in order to gain accurate and personal interpretations from students about the way they are treated in the classroom and how it may have long term impacts on their behaviour. One black, male student (MBS) expressed; "Mum and dad said I was good enough to be here, but sometimes Miss says I shouldn't come to class because I'm never going to do good. My scores aren't bad all the time, the same as most the other boys really. So I thought maybe it's just me, maybe I'm just bad."
The students answered the questions in a civilised manner in the structure of an open interview as they could then be more easily able to express their views and opinions or have difficult terms and questions explained or broken down for them. I also chose this informal approach of research so that I was better able to draw accurate responses from the students by probing them and allowing more dominant characters to speak first, thus breaking the ice for the more timid ones to come forward. This however was not always the case as often the louder pupils would over-dominate the discussion in fact making it more difficult for the quieter ones to shine. It was therefore necessary that I kept a moderate-level in order to not be overbearing but still hold an authorative position so that I could maintain a degree of control in the group.
A problem I faced during this focus group study however is keeping the short attention spans of these young pupils engaged. It therefore helped to have built a close relationship with these students throughout the course of the day as I could then refer back to earlier activities, making the study relevant to them and their interests and keep them entertained. The focus group allowed me to engage with the students on a personal level and hear about their experiences at the school. I observed their interactions with one another, also making notes on what kind of clique's seemed evident amongst the group such as by the middle class students conforming to one another and agreeing in unison to particular views about the school. I prepared the responses to my questions in a divided format by gender, class, and ethnic backgrounds in order to have a more specific view of the attitudes of particular groups. I then analysed my data accordingly to find that the white middle class majority of students felt comfortable with their teaching environment but it was the minority groups that suffered and boys seemed to have a very laid back approach to their studying as they felt they were not expected to overachieve.
I coded my data in terms of categories such as female students being FS, male students being MS, middle class students being MCS, the working class being WCS and students from minority ethnic backgrounds being BS (Black or Afro-Caribbean students), WS (White, English students), AS (Asian students such as Indian and Chinese), PBS (Pakistani and Bangladeshi students) and OS (other various mixed background students). For example, I would often see positive responses and positive behavioural patterns that were common of WMS (white, middle class students) and more negative, isolated comments from PBWS (Pakistani & Bangladeshi working class students). In my findings I gathered that pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds had a more timid approach to answering questions and seemed less keen on the practises that go on in the classroom. Many of the students made comments about feeling left out. For example, a 10 year old Chinese pupil (AS) when being asked what subject she most enjoys at school said; "I like best when we do reading because everyone has to read loud, even me. Most the time only the big girls get to talk but today we had reading time and then it was me and everybody listened." Other questions that were put forward to the students were; "Are the teachers helpful to you here?", "Can you relate to your classmates?" and "Do you all get a chance to be heard in class?".
Students talked about speaking but not being heard and behaving in a certain way because that's what their teachers and peers expect of them. It becomes evident therefore from my research that there are many underlying social and ethical issues within schools in modern society. Educational inequality is knowingly and unknowingly being practised in classrooms on a daily basis and lays foundations for the academic limitations and shortcomings of categorized students, who as a result, are placed at a great disadvantage being faced with an injustice that could still be at play for many years to come.