Grade Booster exam workshops for 2024. Join us in to Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, London, Manchester and Newcastle Book now

Study Notes

Differential Educational Achievement by Social Class - Out of School Factors

AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas

Last updated 26 Nov 2019

The key out-school factor that might impact differential achievement by social class is material deprivation.

Material deprivation is the inability to afford basic resources. This will mean pupils are unable to afford things like sufficient food, heating or clothing and educational resources, which is subsequently very likely to affect educational performance and lead to underachievement.

Research shows that poor diet and under-nourishment can lead to poor educational performance and clearly poor health and subsequent poor attendance at school has a direct impact on achievement. Access to the internet, books, a quiet place to work are all important material factors.

Furthermore, it is more likely that working-class pupils will need to undertake employment alongside their studies in order to bring in more income into the household. While a small amount of part-time employment can be beneficial educationally, working too many hours can seriously impact educational performance, both because there is insufficient time for study, and also because pupils are too tired to concentrate at school. Pupils from households with higher income can afford educational visits and also to pay for private tuition.

In contrast to material factors there are also cultural factors that can impact educational achievement. Some argue that working-class pupils are likely to be culturally deprived, often because of inadequate socialisation. They argue that the norms and values of many working-class families are not those that lead to getting the best out of the education system. This argument comes both from a Marxist/neo-Marxist perspective (the idea that cultural capital gives middle-class pupils advantages) and from New Right views, that see particularly “underclass” households as reproducing values and attitudes that are detrimental to educational achievement. These arguments have led to some proposing compensatory education policies, which we will consider in the Educational Policies section.

It is argued by some sociologists that there is a significant cultural difference between middle-class and working-class pupils. From a right-wing perspective, one aspect of this is said to be that working-class pupils expect immediate gratification, whereas middle-class pupils understand the benefits of deferred gratification. The impact of this is that working-class pupils prefer to leave school as soon as they can and get a job, while middle-class pupils will delay paid employment in order to attain higher qualifications and get higher-paid occupations as a result. This approach appears blames working-class families themselves for differential achievement by social class. This idea is particularly associated with the sociologist Sugarman (1970) who was influenced by Hyman (1967) who argued that working-class families were less interested in social mobility than middle-class families. This approach to cultural deprivation is presented as an alternative to Marxist, structuralist explanations for why the children of working-class parents tend to go through the education system and enter working-class occupations. It is not, they argue, because the education system exists to reproduce class inequalities, but instead because working-class children do not appreciate how to get the best out of the system. Douglas (1964) argued that working-class parents took less interest in school and education and therefore pushed their children less and indeed often encouraged them to focus on goals outside school and education.

An alternative, left-wing consideration of cultural deprivation comes from Pierre Bourdieu and his concept of habitus. Habitus refers to the norms, values, attitudes, and behaviours of a particular social group or social class. The idea is often, then, associated with the idea of cultural capital. That is, that the middle-class have a cultural advantage in the education system because they have particular attitudes and behaviours that are deemed superior or correct by other middle-class people (and that tends to include teachers, examiners, employers, etc.) For Bourdieu and Bernstein it is not that the cultural norms of the middle-class are better but that they are better rewarded. The knowledge, skills and experiences gained in a middle-class habitus are more useful in education than working-class ones (regardless of which is more useful in other aspects of life).

Another important factor is social capital. Social capital refers to the networks and relationships a person possesses based on class membership, which enables them to build and maintain relationships with others. For example; a middle class individual with high social capital will be able to build and maintain productive positive relationships with teachers. Teachers sometimes know pupils’ parents socially, or are aware of them and have different expectations as a result of this. Pupils can sometimes succeed in educational tasks because of out-of-school social connections who have relevant specialist or professional knowledge.

Evaluating out of school factors

A lot of government policies have been put in place to try and resolve out-of-school factors over many years, and yet the statistics remain stubbornly clear: social class is perhaps the main predictor of educational achievement. Policies directly designed to combat material factors included Educational Maintenance Allowances, Pupil Premium, free school dinners, etc. While some policies have been given longer to succeed than others, it is clear that governments have tried to compensate for this and that, while they may have had various useful impacts, they have not shifted the statistics. Similarly, in terms of cultural deprivation, policies such as Surestart have been put in place to try and deal with issues relating to parenting, etc.

However, while governments and schools will try hard to ensure that those without material means are not disadvantaged they cannot prevent those who do have the material means from purchasing an advantage, whether this be the small minority of pupils who attend fee-paying schools, or the many more who pay for private tuition or are able to buy or access extra resources of various sorts. As such, it is highly likely that wealth or the lack of it will have an impact on education attainment. People would not spend many thousands of pounds on this wide range of educational services if it did not pay any dividends in improved results.

There is something of a chicken/egg situation with some of the cultural factors. Working-class children may have preferred immediate gratification, been less concerned with social mobility and have parents more interested in them finding work than continuing in education because that was realistic. If working-class children predominantly do not succeed as well in school and are less likely to go onto higher education, etc. then such pupils and their parents might be being realistic in not focusing on such goals, rather than suffering from cultural deprivation. Furthermore, it might sometimes simply be a material necessity. A family might need the child’s income and could not afford for them to stay in education any longer than is essential. As such what might at first appear to be a cultural phenomenon might in fact be a reaction to or a result of material factors.

© 2002-2023 Tutor2u Limited. Company Reg no: 04489574. VAT reg no 816865400.