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AS Unit 2 - Education

7) Explaining social class differences in education and achievement

The working class consistently perform far worse in exams than the higher class pupils, this could be for many reasons as shown above

 Sociologists have identified 3 groups into which all these factors affecting education can be placed:

  1. Material Factors
  2. Cultural Factors
  3. Factors within school

Material Factors

Material factors explain how social and economic situations can affect a child’s development.

  • Douglas found that poor housing conditions (i.e not enough space) can lead to lower attainment
  • Poorer diet of working class families can lead to damaged cognitive development
  • Low income means books and resources can’t be brought
  • Difficult to be able to afford higher education (travel and fees) – especially with raised tuition fees and cuts to EMA
  • Poorer families might not be able to send child to pre-school which can help development and thus attainment
  • Pupils from poorer families are more likely to have part-time jobs as they can’t afford not too, this takes time away from studies
  • Many schools rely on donations from parents, if the school is in a less-affluent area they will receive less money and provide a worse education, affecting childs attainment

These factors will normally coincide with the others, leading to one, much greater, problem.

Cultural Factors

Cultural factors are things like values, attitudes, languages etc. If a child is in a social group deprived of these factors he could underachieve.

  • Douglas said the most important factor affecting a childs attainment was parental interest in the child’s education. This is because if the parents lacks this they wouldn’t be able to encourage and help their child with their studies in the same way others do. This affects working class children more because their parents tend to be less well-educated.
  • Similarly parent’s level of education plays a big role in the child attainment. If the parent is well-educated he can help the child with school work, also they will be able to help the child by knowing what resources to buy, taking them to cultural events etc
  • Bernstein’s Restricted and Elaborated speech codes says that working class children are less likely to have intellectual and developed langauge, or they have a restricted speech code. This could lead to lower attainment, perhaps because they could struggle more in written exams etc
  • Bourdieu’s Habitas states that the working class have lower cultural capital, they have less access to more intelligent culture. For example they would watch documentaries instead of sitcoms or read novels instead of magazines, this could be largely due to being socialized in a certain way. This then leads to lower attainment as they have not got the level of cultural intelligence middle class students do.
  • Bourdieu’s Habitas also states that the working class have lower social capital. This means they have less social networks and influence. This means working class students wont know the “right people” too talk to and they wont get the same extent of help that knowing these people can bring.

Criticisms of cultural explanations

  • Exaggeration – They tend to exaggerate the differences between attitudes of social classes
  • Overlooking the effect of material factors – Douglas said that working-class parents don’t have as much interest as middle-class parents; however it could be that they are interested, they just cant show that interest due to long working hours, lack of knowledge etc.
  • Ignoring the role of schools – a lot of these points don’t take into consideration the effect school itself can have, it could be that middle class pupils do better because of the way they are treated in school, not because of their background.
  • Risk letting schools “off the hook” – If we completely blame parents and home situations then it does not pressure schools into changing and improving, even though it may be their fault completely

Factors within school


About Sam Cook

A blog set up to help A Level students revise Sociology


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