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One obvious feature of the education system in modern day Britain is the difference in achievement between pupils of different social classes. Social class differences still continue to this day despite major improvements in the education system. In order to investigate children's social class status', we need to define what a social class is. The most basic class distinction is between the powerful and the powerless. People in social classes with greater power attempt to cement their own positions in society and maintain their ranking above the lower social classes in the social hierarchy. Social hierarchy is a multi-layered pyramid-like social structure having a peak as the centralization of power. Social classes with a great deal of power are usually viewed as elites, at least within their own societies.
When examining social class differences in achievement, I am going to take on a sociological perspective. The main comparison sociologists make is between working class and middle class pupils by using parental occupation to determine a pupil's social class. For example, middle class parents traditionally take on careers including doctors, teachers, managerial roles and 'white collar' professions. Whereas working class parents tend to take on a more manual occupation, traditionally they are skilled workers such as plumbers and mechanics or semi-skilled workers such as waitresses and cleaners.
Social class background has profound domination on a child's opportunity of success in the education system. According to statistics taking from the Youth Cohort Study (2007), middle class children on average perform better then working class children. This gap in attainment deepens as children get older. Middle class children achieve higher at GSCE, stay longer in full time education and take the mass of university places. It has largely been argued that wealthier parents can afford to send their children to private schools, which may provide a better education consequently leading to higher attainment levels.
Factors which cause differing attainment levels of children can be grouped into 'internal' and 'external' factors. Internal factors are within schools. These are things such as interactions between teachers and pupils and inequalities between schools. External factors come from outside education, things such as the influence of home and the family background and lifestyle.
There are three external factors which affect education; cultural deprivation, material deprivation and cultural capital. It is argued that we begin to acquire basic values and attitudes which are needed for success in education through primary socialisation in the family. 'Cultural equipment' includes language, self discipline and reasoning skills. However according to some sociologists many working class families fail to socialise their children consequently leaving them 'culturally deprived'. This means they under achieve in school as they do not have the 'cultural equipment' for them to succeed. There are three main aspects of 'cultural deprivation'. Firstly, intellectual development. This refers to the development of thinking, problem solving and reasoning skills. It is argued that many working class homes lack things which stimulates a child's intellect i.e. books, toys and activities. A study carried out by Douglas (1964) supports this. He found that working class pupils scored lower on tests of ability in comparison with middle class pupils. His argument for this is that working class families are less likely to support their child's intellectual development through educational activities in the home whereas middle class parents are more likely to choose toys and materials which encourage thinking and reasoning skills. Thus, leaving middle class children more prepared for school.
Use of language plays an important role in educational achievement. Lower class homes use deficient language leaving children unable to develop the necessary language skills. This is argued by sociologists Bereiter and Engelmann (1966). Children will grow up incapable of abstract thinking and will be unable to explain, describe, enquire and compare due to this. Similarly, Basil Bernstein (1975) also identifies difference in working class and middle class use of language. He categorizes between two types of speech code; restricted and elaborated. The restricted code is used by the working class. It has a limited vocabulary and is based on the use of short, unfinished, grammatically simple sentences. The restricted code is context-bound meaning that the speaker assumes the listener shares the same set of experiences. The elaborated code is used by the middle class. It contains a wider vocabulary and includes longer, more complex sentences. This speech code is context-free as the speaker does not assume that the listener shares the same experiences. These differences in speech codes enables the middle class children an advantage as the elaborated code is spoke by teachers, textbooks and exams.
Finally, a parent's attitudes and values are a key factor affecting educational attainment. When a parent has negative or no views on education this reflects in the child's abilities as they receive no encouragement from home. Douglas (1998) argues that working class families placed less value on education. Also they are generally less ambitious for their children. Working class parents visit schools less often, therefore are less likely to discuss their child's performance with teachers. Consequently, the child is left with little motivation for higher achievement.
Unlike cultural deprivation theorists who see the inadequacy of working class homes responsible for educational failure, material deprivation theorists see poverty and lack of material necessities as the cause of educational failure. Material deprivation refers to the lack of material necessities such as adequate housing and income.
Statistics show that poverty is closely linked with under-achieving pupils; In 2006, only 32% of children who received free school dinners gained 5 or more GCSE A*-C passes compared to 61% of pupils not receiving free school meals. Therefore the chance of children eligible for free school meals getting good qualifications by the age of 16 is still less than a third that of their better-off classmates. Poor housing conditions can also affect pupils achievement, overcrowding in the home can make it difficult for a child to study, families living in temporary accommodation can disrupt a child's education when moving around a lot and poor housing could affect a child's health which would then lead to a decrease in attendance. Marilyn Howard (2001) argues that young people from poorer homes have a more unhealthy diet; this leads to lack of vitamins and minerals which will affect the child's performance at school.
Bourdieu (1984) argues that it is a mixture of both cultural and material factors which link to educational achievement. To explain why middle class are more successful, Bourdieu uses the concept of 'capital'. Cultural capital refers to the knowledge, attitudes and values of the middle class, he sees middle class culture as capital as it gives an advantage to those who pass it, just like its wealth. He argues that through middle class children's socialisation, they pick up the language, self discipline and reasoning skills, which the education system requires, to be successful in their academic life. Gewirtz (1995) investigated how cultural capital can lead to differences in educational achievement. Through her study, Gewirtz found that differences in cultural capital lead to class differences in what extent a parent has of choosing a secondary school.
As external factors play an important role in creating social class inequalities in the education system, we also need to consider the role that internal factors play. These internal factors, which come from inside the school, include labelling, the self-fulfilling prophecy and pupil subcultures.
To label a person means to attach a definition to them i.e. in schools, a child being labelled bright or think, troublemaker or hardworking. In schools, children are labelled heavily when they are divided into ability based groups. However studies show that a teacher will place a label upon a child on the basis of stereotypical assumptions about their background and assumed attitudes. Working class children tend to be labelled negatively, whereas middle class pupils tend to be labelled positively. A study carried out by Howard Becker (1971) investigated labelling. Interviews with 60 high secondary school teachers showed Becker that teachers judged pupils according to how closely they fitted with the image of an idealistic 'perfect pupil'. Teachers judged pupils by their individual work, appearance and character. This study showed that children from middle class backgrounds fit the image of a 'perfect pupil' more so than a working class child. This is evidence that labelling of working class pupils puts them at a disadvantage due to their stereotypical negative labels.
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a predication that comes true simply by virtue of it having been made. Labelling affects a child's achievement in school by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. When a teacher labels a pupil, they make predictions about their abilities for example, 'this child will excel'. The child then gets treat according to this prediction i.e. by giving more attention or expecting a higher or lower level of work. Next the pupil internalises the teacher's expectations which becomes part of its self-image. This makes the child become the kind of pupil the teacher perceived them to be. For example, if a child is labelled positively, the child will then gain more confidence and try harder with their work, thus leading them to success.
An investigation made by Robert Rosenthal and Leonora Jacobson (1968) showed the self fulfilling prophecy at work. Rosenthal and Jacobson told the school that they had designed a new test which identified children which would 'spurt' in their academic life. However the test was not a newly designed test, it was a simple IQ test. The researchers tested all the pupils, but went on to randomly pick out 20%. Again, falsely they told the school that pupils in this 20% were 'spurters'. On returning to the school at a later date, Rosenthal and Jacobson found that almost half of those labelled as 'spurters' had made significant progress. This study suggests that the teacher's beliefs about pupils had been significantly influenced by the fake test. The teachers had labelled the pupils as 'spurters' treat the pupils accordingly to their label and the pupils then took on the teachers expectation and excelled. Therefore fulfilling, the self fulfilling prophecy.
Finally pupil subcultures is pupils who emerge themselves as a result of labelling, these grouped pupils often share similar values and behaviour patterns. A study made by Colin Lacey (1970) shows how pupil subcultures play a part in creating class differences in achievement; Lacey shows this through the concepts of differentiation and polarisation. Differentiation is the process of how teachers categorise students according to their levels of ability, attitude and behaviour. Polarisation refers to the process in which pupils react to streaming and labelling processes by moving from either an extremely positive pole to an extremely negative pole. Pupils who are placed in higher streams tend to have a consistent positive attitude towards education, hence keeping to the positive pole. Thus, forming a pro-school subculture. Pupils placed in lower streams have a less positive attitude towards education as they suffer a loss of confidence and self-esteem. This label of failure pushes these pupils to a negative pole. Thus, forming an anti-school subculture.
Since the education reform act (1988), unfortunately there has been greater trend towards streaming and towards a variety of types of schools, some being more academic than others. This diversity has created new opportunities for schools and teachers to differentiate between pupils based on class differences. However not only is this discrimination restricted to class differences since the 1988 reform act, it has since branched off into ethnicity and gender differences.
Gender has been targeted to have a major impact on a child's experience during education. In recent years there has been a vast difference in gender achievement; girls have largely overtaken boys. Data taken from the national literacy trust website shows that in 1975, girls on average were achieving 2% higher than boys. This statistic remained relatively static until 1988 to 1989. In that year GCSEs were introduced, grade inflation began and coursework increased. This was followed by a sudden increase to around 10%; the size of the gap ever since has remained stationary. This shows that from first starting their school life, girls consistently achieve higher than boys.
However one area that has been slower to change is a child's subject choice. Boys and girls are still opting to study traditional 'sex-typed' subjects and courses. There are three main questions that arise about gender differences in education; why do girls achieve higher than boys? why do girls and boys opt for these 'sex-typed' subjects? And 'how does schooling reinforce gender identities?
These gender differences can be put down to external factors i.e. factors outside the education system, and internal factors i.e. factors within the education system. Factors outside a child's school life heavily impact their educational attainment as we have explored earlier on. One major factor which can be argued has a huge influence on girl's attitudes and high achievement levels is the impact of feminism. Since the 1960's the feminist movement had challenged the stereotypical female role as a subordinate to males. Although feminists argue that full equality is yet to be attained, they have gained extensive success in improving women's rights and opportunities. However most importantly, the feminist movement has raised women's self-esteems and expectations. These changes have changed the 'old' traditional stereotype and have influenced many girls to have higher ambitions in life. Thus, influencing girls to exert themselves vigorously in their education life.
Similarly, changes in family structure and changes in women's employment have also lead women to question their role as females and think deeper about what they want out of life. For example a lone parent household, can affect a girls attitude as they see their mother taking on the role of homemaker as well as a breadwinner, independently providing for the family as well as taking on housework and emotionally work to support her children. This sets an example to a young girl. She will perceive her mother as a role model and will want to be like her. She will want to be independent and hard working when she grows up. Also changes in women's employment encourage girls to be more independent and hardworking. The 1970 Equal Pay Act made it illegal to pay women's less than men for work of equal value, and the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act outlaws sex discrimination in the work place. Over 70% of women now work enabling girls to see their future in paid work rather than housework.
Factors inside school also play an important role in explaining the gender differences in achievement. Equal opportunities policies enforce gender equality in schools consequently leaving girls to have the same opportunities as boys, enabling them to progress more. Policies such as GIST (girls into science and technology), which was launched in the 1980's, were introduced to encourage girls into perusing non traditional careers. Similarly, the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988 partially removed gender inequality by making boys and girls study the same subjects. Also, female school teachers are an influence to young girls. Girls see female teachers as something to aspire towards therefore cancelling out traditional life goals.
Coursework in schools also give girls an advantage. It is a common fact that girls take more care with their work and are better at meeting deadlines therefore they will do better in coursework compared to boys. Statistics show that the peak of the attainment gap between girls and boys happened in the late 1980's. This is when GCSE's and coursework was introduced in schools. Also, selection and league tables aid girls. Since girls academically achieve better in school, marketisation policies have constructed girls into desirable recruits. This enables girls to be attracted to more prestigious schools, producing a self-fulfilling prophecy, meaning they will consequently achieve better.
Whilst exploring the increasing achievement in girls, it is necessary to assess boys' performance. It can be arguable that this differentiation in educational attainment is not due to the exertion on girls, but due to the failure of boys. Once again, factors which cause this can be grouped into external and internal. External being boys having poorer literacy skills and the decline of traditional male jobs, and internal being the feminine aspect of education, the shortage of male primary school teachers ad 'laddish' subcultures.
Boys spend a lot of free time playing on games consoles and football etc, thus doing little to develop their language and communication skills. This results in their lack of literacy skills. In contrast with this, girls tend to have a 'bedroom culture' which involves staying in with friends and talking amongst each other. The decline of traditional male jobs, such as heavy industrial jobs i.e. iron, steel, shipbuilding and mining careers, gives the impression to boys that there is little prospect for getting a 'real' job. This affects their motivation to gain good qualifications, affects their attainment levels, and then finally affects their self-esteem as their see themselves as failures.
Internal factors which affect boys' achievement in school could be put down to the shortage of male primary school teachers. This decreasing lack of strong role models results in boy's insufficient effort in their school life. Also 'laddish' subcultures can contribute to boys' under-achievement. A study conducted by Debbie Epstein (1998) on group of working class boys showed that they are likely to be mocked for appearing to be 'swots' in school. This causes boys to underachieve as they will not be working to their full potential in fear of being harassed.
Apart from there being a gap in gender achievement levels, there is also a gap in subject choice and gender identity. Despite the improvement of girls achievements compared to boys, there still tends to be diversity in subject choice. Girls go for traditional 'girl subjects', for example textiles and languages, and boys going for traditional 'boy subjects', for example maths a physics. Schooling also reinforces gender identity through the curriculum and interaction between pupils and teachers.
Segregated gender subject choices are highly noticeable after a child leaves school as a student has greater freedom for choice. Statistics show that in A level choices, 'boyish' subject like computing have a class which consists of 90% males, whereas subjects like English that are seen as 'girlish' have 69% females in classes. Explanations for these gendered choices could be put down to peer pressure, early socialisation and gendered subject images. If a student wishes to do a subject that falls outside of their gender domain, then they will usually avoid it as it will attract negative responses from peers. Early socialisation also has an effect as children learn which behaviour is expected of males and females in society and include this in their decision on subject choices. Finally gendered subject images have an effect on subject choice. Some subjects naturally give off a masculine or a feminine affect, for example computer subjects as it involves working with machines which is generally a male domain.