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Differential Educational Achievement by Social Class - The Statistics

AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas

Last updated 26 Nov 2019

The government collects a great deal of data about educational achievement. However, it does not directly collect in relation to social class. Social class is a notoriously difficult concept to operationalise as there is some disagreement about how classes should be defined and measured.

However, one useful way to consider education data is to look at achievement in relation to those who are eligible for free school meals (FSM). FSM eligibility is means tested based on household income.

Measured in this way, it is clear that there is a significant achievement gap between those eligible for FSM and the rest. At GCSE level that gap has been quite consistent at between 26 and 28% for the last decade. For example, in 2014/15 60% of pupils not eligible for FSM got 5 GCSEs at A*-C, compared with 33% of those who were eligible. While this is a shocking difference (those with a higher household income are almost twice as likely to get 5 GCSEs at A*-C) some suggest that these figures might even understate the differential achievement as pupils from higher-income households are also more likely to take the more challenging “e-Bacc” subjects at GCSE, whereas for much of this period schools were able to get improved GCSE scores by entering lower-ability pupils for less challenging courses including some BTEC courses which counted for multiple GCSEs and included no examinations.

Other studies have suggested that some progress is being made with narrowing the achievement gap, although they present a complex picture where in fact things are getting worse for the most disadvantaged pupils, despite some progress on class differential achievement overall.

Over the coming sections we will read about a number of achievement gaps in UK education, but today it is still social class which is by far the biggest determinant of educational outcomes.

There have been various attempts to explain these differences. A view that is unpopular among sociologists is that intelligence (and so-called intelligence quotient - IQ) is inherited, genetically, and therefore middle-class pupils are simply more intelligent than working-class pupils because they have more intelligent parents. This leads to a classic nature vs. nurture debate. People point to research by both Jensen and Eysenck including a study which found that identical twins reared in different environments have very similar IQs, although their study has been criticised extensively. Jensen argued that 80% of intelligence was genetic. There have been multiple criticisms of the reliability and validity of IQ tests. Can any test really measure IQ? Most tests also test knowledge of the style of questions asked. People can improve their IQ score by practicing the tests: practice does not actually make them more intelligent. Therefore, if you have been introduced to similar sorts of questions or conundrums before you will appear to be more intelligent than those who have not. An alternative “nature” argument is one where material circumstances and the environment go hand-in-hand with nature: poor health, including poor diet during pregnancy, can impact IQ, according some doctors.

Sociologists accept that they cannot discount genetic or other natural phenomena but are able to confidently explain that it does not provide anything like the full picture. For example, Douglas (1964) was able to demonstrate that a middle-class child of “average” intelligence was much more likely to pass the 11+ exam than a working-class pupil of “average” intelligence. The 11+ was an exam which determined which secondary school children attended and was meant to separate the academic from the practical. (We shall consider this in further detail in the Educational Policies section). So something happens to children, relating to their social class, that impacts their educational achievement.

Sociologists seek to explain these differences as being a result of either in-school (or internal) factors or out-of-school (or external) factors. This in turn relates to whether this relates to structural factors – the way society is organised – or to processes that occur within schools themselves.

Sociologists further look at material and cultural explanations. That is, whether the differences are because working-class children have less money than middle-class children, or because they have different attitudes or values.

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