Differential Educational Achievement by Social Class - In School Factors
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Last updated 26 Jun 2020
As well as factors outside school affecting the achievement of pupils, depending on their social class, so factors within the school can have a significant impact.
In-school factors are often suggested by interactionist sociologists who argue that it is not necessarily the structures of society that impacts educational achievement, but the relationships and interactions between pupils and between teachers and pupils. Some neo-Marxists agree with interactionists that these relationships can have a significant impact. Some of the theories and studies relating to this are detailed in another study note (Relationships and Processes Within Schools) and therefore this section tends to give more of an overview.
One important example of an in-school factor is labelling. Labelling theory was developed by the interactionist sociologist Howard Becker in relation to the concept of deviance, but other sociologists have developed the concept in the context of education. The broad idea is that teachers subconsciously label their pupils. Some of them are labelled as clever, well-behaved, etc. and others are labelled as trouble, naughty or stupid. The way the teacher will interact with the pupils differently, depending on how they label them and the student will in turn react to that labelling and one way they can react is to internalise it, accept it and live up to it. The important point here is that teachers might be more likely to label working-class pupils (especially working-class boys) negatively and therefore could create low achievement by expecting it.
Another important internal factor is the existence of anti-school subcultures. Theories and studies about this, such as Paul Willis’ “Learning to Labour” are detailed in other study notes, but the key point is that some students (particularly working-class boys, according to Willis) form subcultures within the school that are hostile to the school. For them, praise from teachers is bad, getting into trouble is good. The norms and values of the subculture are of messing about and avoiding work and to welcome poor grades. The subcultures have little interest in achievement and therefore it is unsurprising that the students who are likely to form such subcultures are also statistically likely to underperform.
Another in-school factor is suggested by Basil Bernstein and it is the idea that teachers, textbooks and external examiners use a particular language code (the elaborate code) which middle-class pupils are also able to use, while working-class pupils tend to use the restricted code. Language codes are the different ways people communicate and Bernstein argues that middle-class pupils can switch between casual speech (the restricted code) and the elaborate code that is used in more formal situations. This is simply a result of the language codes used in the home and the life experiences that they have had (and therefore this links with the concept of cultural capital).
Working-class pupils, in contrast, tend to only use the restricted code. That is the code of informal spoken English that often features colloquialisms and idiomatic turns of phrase, non-standard grammar and simplistic sentence structure. The elaborate code often uses unexpected words and phrases, or uses words to mean something different from its usual meaning. This form of language often finds its way into textbooks and exam papers and therefore middle-class pupils are at an immediate advantage. To give an example, from an A Level Politics exam paper from several years ago:
“The powers of the prime minister are considerable.” Discuss.
A significant minority of candidates did not understand the meaning of the word considerable in this context. Whereas many pupils were able to see that this was a question they were well-prepared for (evaluating whether or not the prime minister was very powerful) others got into difficulties evaluating whether or not people considered the powers of the prime minister. The second group had not misread the question but they had tried to make sense of it in the restricted code. The writer of the question would not have tried to trip up the candidates who misunderstood; the meaning of the question was obvious to them because it was in the language code that they routinely used. The students who understood the question would have been surprised that some of their classmates did not: people tend not to be conscious of their own use of language codes. Teachers and exam writers tend to spot if they’ve used unusual or complex vocabulary and provide a definition or glossary. But this isn’t about difficult vocabulary, but about sentences and phrases that use familiar words but in unfamiliar ways.
In fact, teachers will often use sentences and refer pupils to articles and sections in textbooks that are largely meaningless to some of their pupils. This is not because those pupils are less intelligent than those that understand them. If the teacher taught the lesson in French and some pupils in the class spoke French and therefore understood, that is not necessarily because they are more intelligent, they just happened to have learnt that language.
Evaluating in school factors
In reality, it is hard to fully divide factors up between in-school and out-of-school as both impact each other. Something like language codes for instance is really both an out-of-school and in-school factor as it relates both to how people speak at home and in school. Anti-school subcultures might explain why working-class pupils underperform, but the question of why working-class pupils join them is more complex and must at least in part relate to matters outside school.