Study Notes

Classic Texts: Stephen Ball "Beachside Comprehensive" 1981


Last updated 23 Apr 2019

This classic case study into secondary education sought to investigate why working-class pupils underperformed at school.

The classic functionalist argument is that the education system is meritocratic: it helps sort people into the most appropriate jobs. And yet statistics show that people from lower-income families consistently underperform compared with those from wealthier families. Marxists think this is deliberate: that the role of the education system is to reproduce class inequality. But lots of policies have been put in place to try and support children from low-income families in school. If Marxists are wrong that schools deliberately fail working-class children, and functionalists are wrong that schools are meritocratic: what actually is going on?

Ball spent three years in Beachside Comprehensive, carrying out a participant observation. He particularly focused on two groups of students, one who had been banded or streamed by ability, and another that was taught in mixed-ability classes. The banding was well-intentioned. There was a concern among teachers that in mixed-ability classes the brightest pupils were held back and the weakest pupils were left behind, with a tendency that it was the middle swathe of pupils who were focused on. However, Ball found that the process tended to have a negative impact on working-class pupils.

He found that pupils who started school with similar attitudes to study began to diverge when they were banded/streamed. That is when they were put in classes supposedly based on their ability. Streaming is when pupils of a similar ability are in the same, streamed class for all subjects whereas with setting pupils could be in a high set for Maths and a low set for English (for example).

Working-class pupils gravitated towards the lower bands and then became increasingly disinterested in education and "anti-school". The net effect of this was that children from lower-income families left school with fewer qualifications, therefore reproducing class inequalities, apparently by accident. He describes a downward mobility - quite the opposite of what Parsons or Davis and Moore imagined - where attempts at differentiation damage working-class pupils' education and life chances.

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