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Social Class and Education Essay

Education is a significant institution in our society as it serves to fulfil many functions and provide opportunities for children. One important role that education plays is carrying out the process of secondary socialization where the education system teaches children the norms and values of society in a way that the family cannot. Education performs certain functions such as providing children with skills needed for work, learning about religious and moral beliefs, national languages and also about the history of the nation. Therefore it can be seen that education performs an important role in children’s lives by socializing them into the future members of society and teaching them about the values of success and achievement which enables them to be open to many opportunities in society (Fulcher & Scott, 2007).

However education combined with social class can create inequalities for children in their lives and this study of inequality within education remains a key area of study in the sociology of education and is also of great importance in shaping educational policies in Britain. Research has shown that inequalities in the education system do still exist in Britain where it has been shown that the higher a person’s social class the higher the levels of achievement an individual is more likely to achieve. It is these types of findings which have led to a large array of study about educational inequalities and why they still persist in Britain’s education system. These inequalities can affect children from lower classes and their life chances through a variety of ways such as through micro and macro causes in society which will be analysed in turn (Haralambos & Holborn, 2007)

Macro Causes

We will first look at the various macro causes in the wider structures of society which causes educational inequalities for children. These include material deprivation.

1. Material Deprivation

This theory highlights the importance of material goods and resources needed for educational achievement. Material deprivation has been defined as including ‘poverty, overcrowding, ill health in parents,child neglect and lack of basic amenities in the home and neighbourhood’ (Silver,1980,p40). It is these factors which seem to affect children from working class backgrounds due to low incomes in the family which prevents them from achieving at school as they lack the basic resources such as books, correct diet and study space in the home needed to succeed in their studies. Also as many of these lower working class families are seen to be in poverty as evidence shows that a high percentage of children participate in part time employment after school hours to improve their situation at home and to relieve some of the financial pressure off their parents . This leads to children aiming to cope with earning money through paid work but also finding the time to study for their school work and gain qualifications (Heaton & Lawson,1996).

Furthermore Halsey Heath and Ridge (1980)examined reasons for inequalities existing in education for the working class and found that middle class children were more likely to go to school and continue on to higher education than the working class and this was partly due to lack of money and income in these households causing differential educational achievement compared to children from affluent backgrounds. However they did argue that material factors was not the only primary factor causing underachievement as children from materially deprived backgrounds have succeeded, they believed that cultural factors such as parental attitudes and encouragement played a key role in children’s educational attainment at school ( Abercombie, Warde & Deem,2001).

We will now look at how cultural factors can have an impact in creating inequalities for children.

2. Cultural Deprivation

Cultural deprivation has been defined ‘as a situation in which parents provide a child with little in the way of linguistic stimulation and take minimal interest in their education and when they have limited opportunity for play or other experiences which are helpful to their intellectual development- in short when their environment is barren and unstimulating ( Silver,1980,p40). This theory recognises that instead of material factors causing inequalities it is the cultural factors in fact that causes working class children to perform differently in schools compared to their middle class peers. It is argued that working class children are disadvantaged because working class subculture fails to transmit the correct norms, values and skills needed for high achievement in education (Fulcher & Scott,2007,p323).

Also low value is placed is placed on educational achievement and working class subculture focuses on immediate gratification where they are encouraged to leave school early and earn money rather than opting for deferred gratification which middle class adopt where education is seen as a path for success later on in life where they can enjoy the benefits of having a high paid job and high statuses (Henslin, 1996,p 190).

J W B Douglas study of ‘ The home and the school’ (1962) supports the cultural deprivation theory. Douglas conducted a longitudinal study in 1962 of 5,362 British children and followed their educational careers up to the age of 16. He divided the students into different social class groupings and found that there was different variations in educational achievement between students who had similar academic ability but came from different social classes. He found that within the ‘high ability group’ the majority of the lower working class children left school in the fifth year compared to only 10 percent from the upper middle class. Douglas argued that the single most important factor causing these differences in achievement between middle and working class children is the level of parental interest and encouragement for their children’s education. He argues that working class parents showed little interest in childrens progress at school whereas middleclass parents encouraged children to do well at school, continue in further education and also paid more attention to their childrens progress through frequent meeting s with teachers.

However overall although we can see that parental interest can effect childrens attainment it cannot be viewed as the only factor in explaining class differences in educational achievement. Blackstone & Mortimore (1994) argued that working class parents were unable to attend parents meetings due to demands of their manual jobs and also working class parents try to encourage their children in education but they lack the certain social skills that middle class parents occupy in order for their children to gain advantages from the school system. So therefore it is important to note that many other factors play a role in creating inequalities for working class children and also that many culturally deprived behaviours could also be due to a lack of money (Haralambos & Holborn, 2006, p737-739).


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