Educational inequality is an important issue for contemporary sociologists. If we are to have a fair and sustainable society, it is important to ensure that all citizens have equal access to resources such as healthcare and education. Whilst this might sound obvious on many levels, it is harder to achieve in practice than you might think. Human nature being what it is, there is a tendency within society for particular groups to colonise key areas of public life, and mould it to fit their particular needs. This can be carried out at the expense of others. It can happen in various ways, and government policy has tried to address different aspects of this over the years through policies of access and equality. The big question for us is whether education always has to reflect in microcosm the inequalities of the society surrounding it, or whether it is possible to challenge such inequalities, reducing the impact of such factors on educational outcomes overall. The general consensus is that if this could be achieved, then it would lead to a more stable and prosperous society.
If you want to do well in our current education system, it is probably best to be born middle class. Researchers such as Sally Power and Geoff Whitty have found in their research that middle class children are more likely to do well at school than any other group. This is because their parents have a good understanding of what is required of children at school and in the examination process. Middle class parents are also very shrewd navigators of admissions processes, which means that they are able to win places for their children at the best schools. They often have access to surplus income, which allows them to pay for independent education, tutoring or coaching if necessary. Their children tend to be encouraged to take part in a greater number of extra-curricular activities, and they are also likely to have better access to transport, which allows them to roam further afield in a quest to find the best educational opportunities.
Schools seem to like teaching middle class children, and this may be because they are perceived as being more behaviourally compliant and school focused, receiving better levels of educational support at home than other groups of children. Interestingly, middle class children are more likely to end up in higher ability sets or groups at school than working class children of the same actual ability, as researchers Madeleine Arnot and Diane Reay discovered. This can happen early on in a child’s school career, often on the basis of very little information indeed. Let me explain a little about how this takes place. Hargreaves, Hestor and Mellor wrote about the way schools ‘type’ children in their study Deviance in Classrooms in 1975. They described how teachers gradually classify and typify pupils over a period of time until they feel they ‘know’ them. They might rely on information such as the pupil’s appearance, how easy they were to discipline, and how well they worked in class. Other researchers, such as Becker, have argued that the way the teacher form an impression is much more rapid, and is based on how near or far a pupil is from an impression of an ‘ideal’ pupil. Becker termed this ‘ideal-matching’, although whether this is the case for all classroom situations has been disputed. For example, in a 1991 article in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, Waterhouse argued that in primary classrooms, teachers actually use a notion of the ‘average pupil’ as a benchmark, and classify pupils around this notion accordingly. While the speed and type of classification remains in dispute, one thing is clear, and that is that teachers do classify pupils, and that this could have an effect on how they subsequently teach them, which could favour the middle classes.
There are other reasons why middle classes can do well within the education system. The parents of middle class children are able to help the school in a number of ways, perhaps by taking part in Parent-Teacher Association fundraising activities, or by becoming articulate parent governors, influential in their local communities. Should things go wrong, schools are forced to be responsive when faced with angry middle class parents, who are able to argue their cases well, and use their knowledge of political processes to back them up if necessary. Well educated themselves, they can be formidable opponents.
On the other hand, working class children tend to do worse at school than middle class children. Bowles and Gintis argued that this is because schools as institutions act as a means of social reproduction. In other words, schools encourage certain patterns within society to repeat themselves. Following this line of argument, we could say that middle class children go to better schools, such as voluntary aided schools, where they are taught to have high expectations of themselves, and to be successful. This is not always the case for working class children, who are in statistical terms more likely to attend lower achieving community schools in many areas of the country. Over time, such differences grow until children’s educational outcomes are determined, statistically speaking, by their social origins. Eventually this is also likely to affect their choice of jobs. Paul Willis writes about the process of failing at school in incredible detail in his 1977 ethnographic study of a secondary school, entitled Learning to Labour. This study tracked 12 boys and showed how they were ‘choosing’ to fail at school, rejecting the school’s prevailing culture.
Amongst others, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu developed a very useful theoretical basis for understanding the hidden processes underpinning all this. He talks about social, cultural and intellectual capital.
- Social capital is the ability to capitalise on past social experiences in order to improve your current position or standing within society.
- Cultural capital is the ability to capitalise on the knowledge of customs and traditions around you to give yourself an advantage within society.
- Intellectual capital is the ability to capitalise on your personal knowledge and abilities.
As Bourdieu might argue, it’s something of a competition, in which the aim is to pass on your own cultural values from one generation to the next. In sociological terms, the strategy for winning would be to make sure that the dominant values of your particular group or tribe are kept at the forefront of any policy. Therefore in the case of education, schools show a tendency to be middle class institutions in which middle class people perform best.
The television series “Supernanny” includes a good example of how these principles might apply in practice during the rearing of children. In one programme, children (and parents) are being told quite explicitly that if you act less impulsively, and avoid giving in to immediate gratification, you are more likely to get rewards, in this case a pretend flower in a pot. In much of the published literature, deferring gratification is described as being a characteristic of middle-class child rearing. Therefore the sub-text here is that members of one social group are being encouraged to adopt the values of another social group, in order to improve their situation. To me, this seems like the transfer of two types of capital: social capital (the ability to manage behaviour in a socially acceptable and high status way via a prescribed set of parenting skills) and cultural capital (the ability to recognise preferred methods of child discipline favoured by the dominant group, in this case clearly not involving smacking, for example). I would argue that this is taking place over and above any psychological rationale to do with behaviour management. Whether this process has anything to do with the relatively liberal middle class values of the television production team, and the likely viewers of the programme, we can only guess. In the meantime we may continue to have problems decoupling class from educational achievement, manifested by the apparent decline of social mobility in the UK since the last quarter of the 20th century. Despite Supernanny’s best efforts.