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 Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement [2] : The Schools

Page last edited :26/04/2017

See also Private Education

Click here to access What is preventing  Social Mobility?  By Professor Becky Francis and Dr Billy Wong. See  Pages 5-8 on unequal starting points, pages 9-16 on limited access of poorer pupils to high performing schools and pages 16-19 on the effects of setting and streaming . NEW Link added April 2017. VERY USEFUL

Click here for Sutton Trust Article on how professional parents are able to gain advantages over other parents in the school system [2013 article]

Click here for article on limited access of poor pupils to good primary schools [April 2017]

Click here for article on how free schools help England's richest regions {April 2017]

Click here for BBC item on Schools and Oxbridge entrance

Click here for BBC item on extent to which school attended affects examination results of children eligible for free school meals

Click here for February 2012 BBC Radio 4 Analysis Programme entitled "Do Schools make a Difference?

Click here for recent research from Professor Becky Francis: {UN}satisfactory?: Enhancing life chances by improving "satisfactory" schools {Dec 2011 for the RSA]

Click here for a brief video discussion [about 15 minutes] between Professor Becky Francis and Head of OFSTED Michael Wilshaw around issues of school effectiveness and school inspection

Click here for BBC coverage of report on non-selective secondary schools and clever pupils [June 2013] and here and here for Guardian coverage of criticisms of the report [June 2013]

Click here for Observer coverage of research suggesting that, other things equal, Comprehensive school pupils out-perform Private school pupils at University [June 2013]

Click here for BBC coverage and here for the full report Higher Education: The Fait Access Challenge [June 2013]

Click here and here and here for 2012 data and discussion of  University entrance rates of state school and private school pupils. [August 2013]


 Learning Objectives

  • To understand and to appreciate the significance of and controversies surrounding the following terms: streaming, banding, setting, mixed ability teaching.
  • To be familiar with the ”Interactionist” approach to the Sociology of Education and with some of its strengths and weaknesses.
  • To be familiar with the conclusions of key studies by David Hargreaves, R. Rosenthal and L. Jacobson, Colin Lacey, Nell Keddie and Stephen Ball.
  • To appreciate the significance of some of the findings from studies by Professor David Barber and by Mike O’Donnell and Sue Sharpe
  • To be familiar with some of the conclusions of “Schools Effectiveness Research”
  • To be familiar with recent studies by Dianne Reay and by Emma Perry and Becky Francis  [These links have been added in July 2011.I do not discuss these articles in the following text but you can certainly study them for yourselves!]
  • The same applies to more the more recent research by Professor Francis mentioned above although I do include some findings of this research later in this document.
  • To draw some overall conclusions as to the range of explanations of social class differences in educational achievement.



 In the previous document we investigated a range of studies in which sociologists sought to explain the relative educational under-achievement of working class students in terms of cultural deprivation, cultural difference and disadvantageous economic circumstances.

However although these studies are useful in several respects  they have been criticised in general terms because they were seen as deflecting attention from the organisation of the schools themselves and particularly from the systems of streaming, banding or setting which some sociologists considered to be important determinants of social class [and ethnic and gender] inequalities of educational opportunity.

Click here for  BBC News Report on the 2006-07 Ofsted Report. You might like to follow the link to a brief video connected to the report.


Streaming, Banding , Setting and Mixed Ability Teaching.

Before we can investigate some of the sociological studies related to streaming, banding and setting it is necessary to clarify the meaning of these terms

·        Streaming occurs when the pupils in each year group are allocated to particular forms on the basis of their estimated overall abilities and taught as the same form grouping in all of their subjects. For example in a hypothetical Grammar school , after the First Year pupils might be streamed in the following forms:

o       2A: high estimated ability pupils who were to specialise more in Foreign Languages than in Natural Sciences ;

o       2B : high estimated ability pupils who were to specialise more in Natural Sciences than Foreign Languages;

o       2C: pupils of good estimated ability who nevertheless would not specialise especially in Foreign Languages or Natural Sciences];

o        2D and 2E :Pupils estimated  to have rather lesser academic abilities who might specialise rather more in technical and handicraft subjects.

 Streaming of pupils into forms in terms of their estimated abilities is now relatively rare. 

·        We may illustrate the meaning of Banding and Setting with the following numerical  example involving  a hypothetical  secondary school with Year groups of 150 pupils which are to be allocated to 6 classes of 25 pupils in each  year.

·        If the pupils are allocated to 3 broad ability “bands” [High, Middle and low] of 50 students but no attempt is made to subdivide each band of 50 pupils into higher and lower sets respectively , a system of banding is in operation.

·        Using the above example if the 150 pupils in each Year group are ranked according to their estimated abilities and placed into 6 sets such that the 25 highest ability pupils are in the top set, the next 25 in terms of ability are placed in the second set and so on, a system of setting is in operation.

·        If pupils are allocated to subject groupings on a random basis that takes no account of estimated ability, a system of mixed ability groupings is in operation.

·        It should be noted that when systems of banding or setting are in operation, many pupils will be in similar bands or sets for the majority of their subjects although a minority may be in high bands/sets for some subjects and lower bands/sets for others.

·        It is possible that in any given secondary school ,banding or setting is more likely in Years 10 and 11 than in Years 7, 8 and 9.Streaming, banding and setting may occur also to a more limited extent in primary schools.

·        It is possible also that in any given school pupils may be banded or setted in some subjects but taught in mixed ability groupings in others



·        How would you describe the system used to allocate pupils to subject groups in the secondary school which you attend?

·        If you were  the Head Teacher at your  school would you have changed the pupil allocation system or left it unchanged? Give reasons for your answer.


Controversies Surrounding Systems of Class Grouping

There are important disputes  as to the educational effectiveness of  streaming banding and setting relative to mixed ability teaching.

Supporters of streaming, banding and setting claim that these arrangements enable pupils of differing abilities to be taught in ways and at speeds suitable to their abilities thus enhancing the progress of all pupils .”Bright” pupils are not held back by the existence of “slower” pupils in their classes and “slower” pupils are not demoralised by the presence of “brighter“ pupils in their classes. In recent years UK government spokespersons have argued increasingly in favour of increased use of banding and setting especially in Secondary schools and many [although certainly not all] teachers are believe that banding and/or setting arrangements are necessary to promote effective learning.

Supporters of mixed ability teaching argue that the allocation of children to bands and sets is often based upon inaccurate and possibly prejudicial teacher assessments of pupils' abilities and/or potential. It is argued that working class pupils are disproportionately likely to be allocated to lower bands and sets for reasons unrelated to their educational abilities and potential and that the consignment of some pupils to lower bands and sets is likely to affect their self-confidence and therefore to restrict their educational progress.

Click here for a critical evaluation  by Professor Chris Husbands of  setting by ability


The Interactionist Approach to the Sociology of Education

Interactionist sociologists are so-called because they focus their attention on the analysis of interactions among individuals in small groups .By the late 1960s in the UK  some  interactionist sociologists were undertaking relatively small scale studies of individual schools and classrooms often based mainly [but not entirely] on observational research methods which in their view would generate more meaningful  data than could be generated by other methods such as questionnaires and interviews. Interactionists were especially keen to focus on the possible impacts  of the systems of streaming, banding and setting on pupils’ educational achievements.

They then concluded that teachers [who themselves originated mainly from middle class backgrounds] were very likely to assess students' academic potential in terms of such variables as their appearance, language, social skills and social class background in such a way that working class children were often perceived by teachers as being on average less intelligent than middle class children. It followed that where streaming, setting or banding systems were in operation,[ which they usually were], working class students were more likely to be consigned to lower streams, sets or bands even when in reality they often had very good academic potential.

Then while the mainly middle class students in the higher streams, bands or sets would be encouraged by positive teacher labelling to work hard , mainly working class students in the lower streams , bands or sets would be regularly labelled negatively  as "dull", "thick" or " a waste of time" [see below]. The use of such labels amounted to the construction of self fulfilling prophecies in that positively labelled students were encouraged to improve their performance while negative labels generated reduced self-confidence and/or increased rebellion among many working class students leading to the limited educational achievements which the teachers had prophesied.



1. Interactionists suggested that the methods used by teachers to allocate pupils to bands and sets were often inaccurate and unfair. To what extent do your own experiences  of school support or  undermine this view?


Several well known interactionist studies were undertaken between the 1960s and 1980s and as examples of the approach I shall concentrate here on the studies of David Hargreaves, Colin Lacey  and Stephen Ball.


·        Social Relations in a Secondary School [David Hargreaves 1967]

In "Social Relations in a Secondary School"[1967], which was  based on research in a streamed boys' secondary modern school, David Hargreaves claimed that pupils' academic potential had often been assessed very inaccurately leading to an inaccurate allocation  of pupils to the streams in existence.

 Many working class pupils allocated to lower streams felt that as a result of their allocation to low streams they had been denied formal academic status within the school. Their responses resulted in the development of powerful anti-school peer groups in the lower streams where pupils would seek to regain status informally by "messing around" and general opposition to teachers' authority. Hargreaves describes the culture of the lower streams as “delinquescent”. Teachers often responded with further ill-considered criticism and a disinclination to prepare lessons effectively for low stream classes which provoked even more pupil rebellion such that even students who wanted to learn would be prevented from doing so in such a difficult classroom environment.

By contrast pupils who had been allocated to the higher streams accepted the aims of the school and were in general prepared to work hard and accept teacher authority without criticism. Hargreaves describes the culture of the upper streams as “academic” and came to the central conclusion  that pupil attitudes to education are influenced less by “home background” than the process of streaming operating in the schools themselves although he did also refer favourably to the conclusions of JWB Douglas' work which suggested that parental attitudes also had a significant impact on pupil progress.

Click here for further details on Social Relations in a Secondary School

One important study which attempted to assess the strength of the self-fulfilling prophesies generated by positive and negative labelling was entitled Pygmalion in the Classroom[1968  R. Rosenthal and L. Jacobson] . The study relates to  all pupils in Grades 1-6 [aged approximately 5-11] in an elementary school  a large American town . These pupils come primarily from " a preponderantly lower class community" although few of the children are "desperately poor" but "the children's lower class status is indicated by cultural impoverishment of language and experience" .[ Quotes from "Pygmalion..."]

These pupils  were given an IQ test at the beginning of the academic year and teachers were incorrectly told that the test [ fictitiously named the Harvard Test of Inflected Ability in an attempt to enhance its legitimacy] was designed  to predict which children were most likely to make rapid intellectual progress in the coming year. All teachers were then given the names of pupils in their class who had allegedly scored in the highest 20% on the test although in reality these children's names had been chosen completely at random and bore no relationship to their test scores.

Toward the end of the academic year all pupils were given the same intelligence test and the new test score data indicated that for the entire school the 20% of pupils said falsely to be capable of faster intellectual progress had indeed made faster progress : their test scores had risen by 12.2% by comparison with the 8.2% improvement for the remaining 80% of pupils. Here according to Robert Rosenthal and Leonora Jacobson was evidence that higher teachers' expectations even when were misguided could nevertheless result in faster pupil progress.

Pygmalion in the Classroom could be seen as an ingenious [although possibly ethically questionable ] study but it soon attracted some criticisms. Thus it was noted that it was only in the lower grades that the children falsely classified as potential fast improvers did improve more rapidly and there were no such effects in the higher grades possibly because these pupils were better known to their teachers who might therefore be unlikely to change their behaviour in response to the provision of IQ data which they might in any case not take very seriously. Furthermore R. Rosenthal and Leonora Jacobson did not actually observe pupil and teacher classroom behaviour and so they could only speculate as to the relationships between the IQ test data, the change or otherwise in teacher behaviour and its effects on subsequent pupils' performances in the later IQ test. 

Click here for some further discussion of Pygmalion in the class room.


Colin Lacey [who later became a Professor of Education and actually supervised {see below} Stephen Ball's doctoral dissertation] worked as a teacher at the fictitiously named Hightown Grammar School while he also conducted research into its pupils' attitudes and behaviour. His main findings were that although the new boys, having recently passed the 11+ examination ,entered Hightown Grammar imbued with interest and enthusiasm  this was quickly dissipated especially among mainly working class pupils even during the  unstreamed first year and particularly  among again mainly working class boys who were allocated mainly to the lower streams at the beginning of the second year. These boys, despite having passed the 11+ examination soon perceived themselves as having been defined as failures via their consignment to the lower streams and responded in much the same way as their Secondary Modern school peers had done in the David Hargreaves study mentioned above.

Eventually these boys were relatively likely to leave school at age 16 with relatively few GCE Ordinary Level passes and the passes which they did gain were often in technical and /or handicraft subjects rather than the higher status "academic" subjects which were more likely to be passed by mainly middle class pupils in the higher streams.

This is not to say that the existence of streaming within Grammar Schools was the only factor explaining the relative underachievement of many working class Grammar School pupils   and you might like to consider the possible importance of some of the factors  [such as social class differences in economic, cultural and social capital] discussed in the previous document  as factors resulting social class differences in educational achievement. Although Grammar Schools did provide the step-ladder which enabled some working class boys and girls to enter University, they were less likely to do so than were middle class boys and girls.

You may like to click here for recent BBC coverage of some issues around Grammar Schools. 

Nell Keddie's  article Classroom Knowledge[1970] was based upon her research on the teaching of a CSE Humanities course in a comprehensive school in the late 1960s. The year groups in the school were arranged in 3 ability bands and some departments opted for more rigid setting within the bands although the Humanities Department did not. Keddie notes that Band B and especially Band C were disproportionately likely to contain working class students.

The Humanities teachers' views reflected much educational thinking at the time in that they rejected IQ theory, rejected the idea that intelligence was mainly inherited and rejected streaming, banding and setting as disadvantageous to lower band, mainly working class children. The Humanities teachers said they would have preferred to teach in completely mixed ability classes but this was not possible at the time because it simply was not school policy. Theoretically the Humanities course was to be an undifferentiated course to be taught similarly to pupils in all bands.

However Nell Keddie argued that in practice the teachers were not true to their apparent theoretical beliefs and so what emerged in practice was "the differentiation of an undifferentiated curriculum" whereby the teachers did differentiate very significantly in their teaching of children of different bands.

  1. In their discussions they revealed that they did believe that A band pupils were essentially brighter than B and C Band pupils.

  2. They sometimes appeared to confuse the more effective social skills of A band pupils with greater academic skills.

  3. According to Keddie the teachers were working with a concept of the ideal pupil which reflected the characteristics of mainly middle class A Band pupils while they often explained the relative underachievement of lower band working class pupils in inaccurate stereotypical terms...coming from broken homes etc

  4. One teacher allowed Band C pupils to make more noise and to work at a slower pace because this is what he expects of C Stream pupils but it may be exactly these teacher expectations which cause the C Band pupils to work less effectively.

  5. One teacher admitted that s/he was likely to respond differently to questions depending upon whether they were asked by A, B or C band pupils. For example  Nell Keddie asked a teacher whether any pupil had ever asked why they should  study social science and what s/he would do if they did. Here is a part of the transcript of the article at this point.

Teacher:: No but if I were asked by C's I would try to sidestep it because it would be the same question as "Why do any thing? Why work"

Nell Keddie: What if you were asked by an A group?

Teacher: Then I'd probably try to answer.

  6.  Sometimes perceptive questions by C Band students were disregarded because they fell slightly outside the definition of relevance as determined by the teacher.

   7. Theoretical knowledge was defined by the teachers as of higher status than everyday commonsense knowledge but vital more theoretical aspects of the course were not taught to C     Band pupils because teachers had decided that they were too difficult. Clearly this would adversely affect the C Band pupils' likely examination grades.

Nell Keddie argued that the A Band pupils were more successful on the course because they were more prepared to accept without question the usefulness of the course and the teachers' delivery of it whereas C Stream pupils were more sceptical and often wished to defend their commonsense knowledge in comparison with the teachers' more theoretical knowledge. However since theoretical knowledge was defined by teachers as relatively high status knowledge this again put the C stream pupils at a disadvantage.

Nell Keddie's study therefore demonstrated that even when they were being taught by teachers who were sympathetic to their situation , in practice C stream pupils still faced considerable disadvantages because of how they and their commonsense knowledge were defined by their teachers . As we shall see below some of the teachers in S. Ball's study were far from sympathetic to C stream pupils.


The results of Ball's study, [Beachside Comprehensive 1980] confirmed in several respects that some of the disadvantageous effects of streaming which had existed in both Secondary Modern and Grammar schools continued more or less unabated in Comprehensive schools despite the apparent commitments of supporters of comprehensivisation to greater equality of opportunity than had existed under the system of Tripartite Secondary Education. Ball drew the following conclusions from his researches  at the fictitiously named Beachside Comprehensive School.

·        Many students continued to be allocated to bands often on the basis of their social class background rather than their academic potential.

·        Teachers continued to use positive and negative labels in relation to students in high and low bands.

·        This provoked disruptive behaviour especially among middle band children.

However Ball believed also that the replacement of the banding system by a system of apparent mixed ability teaching would not effectively address all of the problems associated with negative labelling.

When banding was replaced partially by a system of apparently  mixed ability teaching at Beachside Comprehensive Ball did find some evidence of improved behaviour as more difficult children were more widely dispersed rather than concentrated in lower band classes but he also found evidence of informal ability groups  within supposedly mixed ability classes. That is: teachers often sub-divided their mixed ability classes into higher, middle and lower groupings in such a way that the original negative consequences of banding were not removed.

Ball had collected his data at Beachside Comprehensive through a mixture of classroom observation, interviews and questionnaires and some of the teacher comments on children in different bands are reproduced below. Clearly if such opinions were representative of the teaching profession in general in the 1980s, the mainly working class children allocated to “Band 3” might have limited educational prospects indeed if their teachers regarded them as “a waste of time”.



The band 1 child

"Has academic potential... will do O levels... and a good number will stay on in the sixth form...likes doing projects....knows what the teacher wants...is bright, alert and enthusiastic....can concentrate...produces neat work...is interested....wants to get on...is grammar school material...you can have discussions with...friendly...rewarding...has common sense."

The band 2 child

"Is not interested in school work.... difficult to control...rowdy and lazy...has little self control...is immature...loses and forgets books with monotonous regularity... cannot take part in discussions...is moody...of low standard...technical inability...lacks concentration...is poorly behaved...not up to much academically."

The band 3 child

"Is unfortunate...is low ability...maladjusted...anti-school...lacks a mature view of education....mentally retarded...emotionally unstable and... a waste of time."

Source Beachside Comprehensive [Stephen Ball 1980]



1.Are you surprised by the comments in the above extract?

2. Do you believe that such attitudes are widespread within the teaching profession nowadays?



Conclusions of Early Interactionist Studies

It is clear that the interactionist perspective adds to the understanding of social class inequalities in educational achievement. Nevertheless interactionist sociologists' studies attracted several criticisms on the grounds that:

·        they have conducted small scale observational studies which may not generate representative or reliable data because the schools which they investigated may not be typical of schools in general;

·        they may have overstated the passivity of individual students who are assumed to accept relatively unthinkingly the  positive and negative labels which teachers apply to them;

·        they have failed to investigate the  sources of teachers' apparent prejudicial thinking about working class students;

·        they have underestimated the importance of material and cultural factors external to the schools as factors affecting educational achievement. Also the best known interactionist studies are now rather dated.

These criticisms must be taken seriously but at the same time it must be noted that interactionists can also provide credible defences against these criticisms.

Thus in their defence, interactionist theorists argue that:

·        small scale observational methods can be defended on the grounds that they may generate more meaningful, valid  data than can be obtained via interviews or questionnaires;

·         interactionists often do recognise the extreme complexity of the labelling process and do not simply assume that pupils accept unthinkingly the positive or negative labels applied to them by their teachers;

·        the fact that interactionists concentrate on processes operative within schools does not necessarily mean that they have underestimated the importance of external factors.

 Some More Recent Investigations.

As mentioned, the best known interactionist studies are now rather dated but there is evidence from more recent work that negative labelling processes continue to have adverse effects on students.

·        The Learning Game [ Professor Michael Barber 1996]

The Learning Game is an extensive and detailed study of the state of British Education in the 1990s. In the study Professor Barber presents information from a data base constructed by the Keele University Centre on Schools Excellence which has recorded the attitudes of over 30,000 young people to all aspects of secondary schooling in the 1990s.

From the data it is clear that pupils believe that good teachers should be:

·        strict;

·         fair;

·        enthusiastic;

·         able to listen;

·        able to take a joke;

·        always able to mark work promptly with care and attention. 

However, on the negative side and very importantly, there appears still to be clear evidence of negative labelling.

Students comment that, for example:

·        there should be more effort to explain;

·         teachers favour intelligent pupils too much;

·         sarcasm and put-downs are profoundly damaging;

·        some of the male teachers are sexist towards the female pupils.

You could therefore use the Barber/Keele University data as evidence of the continued existence of negative labelling even by the mid 1990s although it should be noted that in this study Professor Barber does not seek to link the issue of negative labelling to issues of streaming, banding and setting.



1. How might the above summary conclusions derived from the Barber study be used to support the conclusions of the Hargreaves , Lacey and Ball studies?



·        Uncertain Masculinities [Mike O’Donnell and Sue Sharpe 2000]


In relation to the analysis of streaming/banding, labelling and self -fulfilling prophecies emphasised by sociologists such as Hargreaves , Lacey and Ball, O'Donnell and Sharpe suggest that their importance as factors explaining social class differences in educational achievement may be smaller nowadays by comparison with when the original studies were undertaken. In their study senior teachers interviewed by O’Donnell and Sharpe showed that they were committed to policies of equal educational opportunities and that they were very  familiar with the potentially adverse consequences for students of negative labelling.


These senior teachers suggested that a school ethos existed whereby any teachers who did engage in such negative labelling could expect criticism from their peers and censure and possible disciplinary action from senior teachers. Equally importantly the students felt that on balance they were treated fairly and respectfully by their teachers while admitting that a disruptive minority of students could still be heavily criticised by teachers.

O' Donnell and Sharpe suggest therefore  that the findings of much earlier studies should therefore not simply be accepted as evidence of what is currently happening in secondary schools and  teachers may on balance nowadays be less likely to label students negatively especially because the teachers themselves are being more closely evaluated in terms of their students' examination grades which are unlikely to be enhanced by negative labelling.However the authors themselves admit that their conclusions have been formed on the basis of interviews with teachers and pupils and that observational studies might still point to the existence of negative labelling much as in the earlier studies.


1. Why do O’Donnell and Sharpe believe that negative labelling is less likely to occur nowadays?

2. Many of O’Donnell and Sharpe’s conclusion are based upon interviews with senior teachers. Would it have been helpful if O’Donnell and Sharpe had also observed some classes?

3. What did the pupils have to say about these issues?  


This, in my view, is an excellent paper. It does contain detailed theoretical arguments but they are very clearly stated I believe that with a little help from their tutors AS and A2 Sociology students could usefully read and summarise this article for themselves. You could then use the conclusions in your own essay work which , in my opinion, would help you enormously .

Click here to access the article....I have highlighted this article because reading it will be really  worthwhile. 

These authors agree with the conclusions of some of the early interactionist studies mentioned above that  some pupils may be allocated to sets not entirely on the basis of ability but on the basis of characteristics related tot heir social class membership such that the setting processes may put some working class pupils at a disadvantage. Click here   for a BBC summary of some of the findings of this study. which to some extent contradict the findings of the O'Donnell and Sharpe study.


Interactionism:  Some Conclusions

 Despite the conclusions of O’Donnell and Sharpe [and the widely publicised views of the current UK Government that banding and streaming are likely to enhance educational progress] many sociologists  continue to give some support to the interactionist approach .Nevertheless they recognise also that it is very difficult  to assess accurately the relative importance of external material and cultural factors and within school  labelling processes as factors causing social class inequalities in educational achievement although some sociologists are increasingly using advanced statistical methods to provide good estimates of the relative importance of the various factors affecting educational achievement. I shall report some of the conclusions of these more recent studies towards the end of this Unit.


School Effectiveness Research

In any case ,however, although interactionist sociologists from the 1960s to the 1980s focused very heavily on  the possible impacts of negative and positive labelling often linked to processes of streaming, banding and setting , it is clear that even if these processes are very significant they are not the only factors affecting the overall effectiveness of schools. In so called Schools Effectiveness Research which became increasingly prominent in the 1980s and1990s it was pointed out that different schools with very similar socio-economic intakes often produced very different examination results thus suggesting that any adverse effects caused by the social class, ethnic or gender mix of schools student populations could to some extent be offset in well organised schools. Professor Barber summarised some important conclusions of a 1995 study  by expert school effectiveness researchers Sammons, Thomas and Mortimore as follows:

 "In a recent study of 94 secondary schools in eight inner city local education authorities it was found that 'the difference between the most and the least effective schools was over 12 GCSE points for an average pupil This is the equivalent of achieving 6 grade B GCSEs as opposed to 6 grade D GCSEs " which represents a very significant differences in achievements with possibly major implications for pupils' future educational careers.

[Source: The Learning Game 1996]

Thus in the opinion of school effectiveness researchers the effectiveness of schools themselves can have a major impact on the educational achievements of their pupils  so that it is vital to discover the factors which contribute to increased schools effectiveness.



1.      What is the significance of the above quotation from the Sammons, Thomas and Mortimore study?

2.      Imagine that you are a Head Teacher at a secondary school situated in a socially deprived area and that examination results at your school are significantly below the national average.

·        Briefly state some of the factors internal to your school which could explain the below average examination results.

·        Briefly state some of the factors external to your school which could explain the below average examination results.

·        How would you feel about the situation if your results were below the national average for all schools but above the average for schools in areas as socially deprived as your area?

·        How would you feel about the situation if your results were below the national average for all school and below the average for schools in areas as socially deprived as your own?


Conclusions on Schools Effectiveness Research

Although the conclusions of Schools Effectiveness Research do seem to be very plausible the critics of Schools effectiveness research have argued that it deflects attention from the impact of socio-economic inequality on educational opportunity and encourages governments to believe that educational opportunities for disadvantaged groups can be improved without radical measures to tackle the socio-economic inequality which, according to many critics of government education policy, is the underlying cause of educational inequality. Even if New Labour governments have had some success in the reduction of child poverty the extent of economic inequality as measured by statistics on the distribution of income has barely changed at all since 1997 and, as we have seen, there are very strong correlations between social class membership and educational achievement. 

Perhaps it is reasonable to conclude that if disadvantaged pupils are to be given fair educational opportunities both school based reforms and  effective widely based social reforms to reduce social inequality and poverty are both necessary.

Click here for a Guardian article on Schools Effectiveness Research

For further recent information [Feb 2012] click here for February 2012 BBC Radio 4 Analysis Programme entitled "Do Schools make a Difference? NEW LINK

Click here for recent research from Professor Becky Francis: {UN}satisfactory?: Enhancing life chances by improving "satisfactory" schools {Dec 2011 for the RSA]. NEW LINK added April 2012

In this study Professor Francis points out that under the terms of the OFSTED school inspection system schools may be judged outstanding, good , satisfactory or inadequate and that in 2010 14% of secondary schools were judged outstanding, 36% good, 40 satisfactory and 9% inadequate. However she points out  also that there are concerns that children attending "satisfactory" schools may be educated considerably less effectively than pupils attending outstanding or good schools and that pupils from socially disadvantaged backgrounds are disproportionately more likely to attend "satisfactory" secondary schools  and disproportionately  less likely to attend outstanding or good secondary schools by comparison with pupils from more affluent backgrounds.

Consequently many children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds are doubly disadvantaged: they may face material and cultural disadvantages deriving from their social background and they are more likely to attend relatively ineffective secondary schools. 

Click here for a brief video discussion [about 15 minutes] between Professor Becky Francis and Head of OFSTED Michael Wilshaw around issues of school effectiveness and school inspection. NEW LINK added April 2012   


 Secondary School Choice

In their study "Markets, Choice and Equity in Education " [1995]  Ball, Bowe and Gerwitz criticised Conservative education policies designed to provide parents with a wider choice of schools for their children because in their view middle class parents and their children would be especially likely to benefit from this choosing process because they possess the cultural and economic capital to choose more effectively. With regard to parental choice, Gerwitz, Ball and Bowe distinguish between mainly middle class "privileged choosers" and mainly working class "semi-skilled and disconnected choosers" admitting however that these categories are , to some extent ideal types and that many parents may be difficult to classify exactly.

Privileged choosers are overwhelmingly middle class and are likely to opt either for private education or for the more successful state schools. To achieve this objective they may have purchased expensive houses in the catchment areas of effective state secondary schools; they may have chosen Middle Schools which are known to have especially good links with effective secondary schools ; they can afford to organise any necessary transport arrangements if the required schools are some distance away; they are both willing and able to take the time to assess information relating to examination results and related issues; they are comfortable in discussions with teachers and also ready to challenge them if they feel it to be necessary; they are familiar with sometimes complex application processes all of which puts them at an advantage in securing their children's entrance to the more effective schools.

By contrast "disconnected choosers" are primarily working class and are more likely to opt for their local neighbourhood school which consequently is likely to have a more working class intake. These parents certainly do show considerable interest in their children's education but their choice of secondary school is often not seen as especially important because "they typically see all schools as much the same". For this reason they are very likely to choose the secondary school in their own neighbourhood partly for reasons of convenience and partly because financial and time constraints inhibit their abilities to organise transport to more distant schools. They may also be influenced by friends, neighbours and relatives with similar views and their choice of school may to some extent reflect their sense of belonging to their own local, working class community. Thus the authors conclude that " choice is very directly and powerfully related to social class differences" and that " choice emerges as a major new factor in maintaining and indeed reinforcing social class differences and inequalities".

The ERA has also had important implications for the organisation of schools themselves as they must give more attention to marketing methods if they are to maintain student numbers and especially if they are to attract the middle class children who are most likely to boost league table performance. Individual schools may have some freedom of manoeuvre to decide upon their response to the implications of the ERA and if Governors, Head teachers and senior staff are very committed to the ideals of comprehensive education and do not face strong competition from rival schools the impact of the ERA may be limited . However  this is unlikely  and Ball et al suggest that the 1988 Education Reform Act  has influenced school policy in several ways: it is more likely that resources may be diverted from actual teaching to improvements in the school buildings; new reception areas may be built; more professional prospectuses may be designed; open evenings are carefully choreographed; music and drama may be given a higher profile partly in and attempt to appeal to middle class parents.

Insofar as successful schools succeed in attracting increasing numbers of mainly middle class pupils via careful marketing of the good examination results the  financial resources available to less successful schools in mainly working areas will decline leading to declining educational opportunities for the mainly working class pupils who still opt to attend these schools. The processes of increased parental choice under the terms of the  Education Reform Act 1988 were therefore likely to result in increased inequality of educational opportunity.

Click here for a recent Guardian article on extent to which parents are prepared to move house into catchment areas of popular schools. NEW Link added September 2015

It is clear also that although examination results vary considerable as between different schools this does not necessarily mean that schools with the better examination results are the more effective schools. We must note also that the characteristics of the pupil intakes of these different schools are significantly different and that differences in pupil intakes of different schools will have a major impact on individual schools' examination results. Pupils with high prior attainment at primary level are most likely to gain good results at secondary level; girls achieve better results than boys; Chinese and Indian pupils are the most successful ethnic groups; children eligible for free school meals are less successful than pupils ineligible for free school meals; pupils living in deprived neighbourhoods are less successful than those from affluent neighbourhoods; children from lone parent families, children whose parents themselves have limited educational qualifications, pupils with special educational needs and pupils in care are all  less likely to be educationally successful.

In their recent study [published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation] of the factors causing relative educational failure among 16 year old state school pupils Robert Cassen and Geeta Kingdon have calculated that once differences in pupil characteristics have been allowed for, differences in in school quality contribute 14% to the overall explanation of educational failure ,a result which they point out is very much in line with other research studies. This suggests clearly that if the extent of educational failure is to be reduced ,educational reform, important as it is, must be combined with wider social reform. 

Click here for BBC summary coverage of recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports on patterns of educational achievement. 

Click here for a summary of Robert Cassen and Geeta Kingdon's research paper. This research paper is technically complex and even the summary is very detailed such that you may at this stage prefer to rely mainly on the previous link to the shorter BBC summary which effectively emphasises the key findings of a recent series of Joseph Rowntree publications  including the research of Robert Cassen and Geena Kingdon.

Update March 2015 

Despite the criticisms of the quasi-marketisation of education advanced by Ball, Bowe and Gerwitz [see above] and others this process accelerated under Labour governments  [1997-2010] and under the current Coalition government [2010-15] both of which continued to claim that quasi-marketisation could drive up educational standards including the standards of the more disadvantaged pupils.

One of the most significant aspects of this process has been the Academies Programme  which was introduced by the Labour Government in 20023 and accelerated significantly under the Coalition Government. A large number of studies of Labour's Academies programme have been undertaken although it is generally agreed that it is too some to evaluate the effectiveness of new academies opened by the Coalition. Many of the Coalition's academies  are converter academies which differ in important respects from the sponsored academies  opened by Labour although a fairly large number of Coalition academies are also sponsored academies.


In Feb 2015 The House Of Commons Education Select Committee published its  Report on Academies and Free Schools. {Click here for the full report on Academies and Free Schools   and scroll to Section 2  pp 10-24 for the section on Academisation and Pupil Progress]

The members of this committee have been advised by Professor Stephen Machin who has himself conducted important and highly respected research on the possible effects of academisation on pupil attainment some of which is summarised in my own summary document on Academies. The Committee concentrate their research primarily on the effects of sponsored academisation on pupil progress arguing that it is to soon too assess the effects of the Converter Academies.

Their key conclusion is that "Current evidence does not allow us to draw firm conclusions on whether academies are a positive force for change. According to research we have seen, it is too early to judge whether academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children. This is partly a matter of timing. We should be cautious about reading across from evidence about pre-2010 academies to other academies established since then."

 With regard to the Sponsored Academies and attainment  the main points included in the Report include the following.


  •  There is evidence that rates of improvement in GCSE pass rates [5 or more A*-C GCSE pass rates] have been faster in sponsored academies.

  •  However given that attainment levels in sponsored academies started from a lower level some narrowing of the attainment gap between sponsored academies and non –academies was to be expected.

  •  It is also important to note that despite some relative improvement attainment levels in sponsored academies have remained below the average national level  although this is entirely predictable given that the original sponsored academies were set up in areas of relative social deprivation

  •  In any case there as significant differences in attainment levels as between individual  academies and between academy chains. The ARK and Harris chains have been especially successful but others have not.

  •  here is evidence that although the main benefit of academisation is said to be increased individual school autonomy many academies are not actually modifying school practices very significantly.

  •   Insofar as attainment levels in sponsored academies are improving more rapidly this may be due to the fact that academy students have been entered disproportionately for “GCSE Equivalent” courses rather than actual GCSE courses. Attainment levels in sponsored academies tend to be muchlower when only GCSE courses are considered.

  •  Although the DfE argue that the rate of improvement in GCSE pass rates of pupils eligible for free school meals is faster in sponsored academies than in comparable non –academies this has been disputed by other analysts such as Henry Stewart.

  •   It has been argued, most notably by O. Silva and S. Machin, that sponsored academies have done little to improve the attainment levels of pupils considered to be in the lowest 20% of the ability range.

  •   There is evidence of strong improvement in non-academies suggesting that academisation  is certainly not the only route to school progress.

  •   There are claims that high quality leadership, high quality teaching and sufficient capital resources are more important determinants of pupil progress.


With regard to Converter Academies the main conclusions of the Report are as follows

  •   The vast majority of Converter Academies were high performing schools , often with relatively socially advantaged intakes and so one would have expected continued improvement in such schools irrespective of academisation.


Academies, The Conservatives and the General Election

  • Not withstanding the conclusions of the Select Committee David Cameron has announced that if the Conservatives win the forthcoming General Election his Government intends to target “mediocrity” within the education by means of further expansion of academisation , a proposal which has quickly attracted criticism from educationalists.  Click here  and here for BBC coverage and here for Guardian coverage of Conservative plans for further mass academisation.

·           Click here  and here and here for articles on Academies from The Conversation

·         This concludes the section on Academies for the time being. There will be continuing controversies as to their effectiveness for the foreseeable future which you can follow in the press and broadcast media. For example you may click here the Guardian’s regularly updated archive of articles on Academies.

  •  Free Schools

Another important extension of quasi-marketisation by the Coalition has been the introduction of Free Schools which are a special type of Academy.

 Click here for Free Schools Q and A  and here for  a BBC item for and against free schools and here for a critical item from the New Statesman and here for BBC coverage of a Conference for supporters of Free Schools and here for Observer coverage of Labour policy in relation to untrained teachers in Free Schools and Academies. Click here for an Independent article on the variety of Free Schools and here  and here for a similar Guardian articles.

The setting up of Free Schools was proposed in the Conservative Manifesto of 2010 and given approval in the Academies Act of 2010 which also paved the way for existing state primary and secondary schools to become Academies. Free Schools are established as Academies independent of Local Authorities and with increased control of their curriculum, teachers' pay and conditions  and the length of the school day and terms. They may be set up by groups of parents , teachers, businesses, universities, trusts and religious and voluntary groups but are funded by central government. Note also that several Free Schools have been set up by chains which already run several Academies and that some Free Schools have transferred from the Private to the State sector.

21 Free Schools were set up in In England in September 2011 and as of September 2013 174 Free Schools were in operation.  One Free School was closed in December 2013

[Click here for information from the BBC]

The New Schools network has been set up as a charity with government funding to advise groups wishing to set up Free Schools and such groups are also very likely to contract an Education Provider to deliver the educational services necessary for the running of the schools although such education providers are not currently allowed to make a profit out of the running of the schools.

Click  here for the New Schools Network website and here for some complexities of statistics and here for further information

The Government's decision to fund the setting up or Free Schools can be seen as an important aspect of its general support for the operation of a quasi-market in education. Thus it is argued that in localities where parents or teachers or other groups believe that the local authority schools are unsatisfactory they will now have the opportunity to set up Fee Schools and that increased competition between the new Free Schools and existing local authority schools will drive up overall educational standards as has occurred , according to the Government, in Sweden where such a system is in operation. Furthermore the UK Government claim that the introduction of Free Schools will increase equality of educational opportunity for disadvantaged pupils currently being taught in under-performing local authority schools. [However, as is indicated in some of the links critics argue that the UK Government's interpretation of the Swedish experience with Free Schools is not entirely accurate.

The UK Government's case in favour of Free Schools is essentially that the operation of the quasi -market will drive up average educational standards and that disadvantaged pupils will benefit from this but the scheme has also been subjected to substantial criticisms as listed below.

1.   It is claimed that they will be set up disproportionately in affluent neighbourhoods and that they may attract "better" teachers from local authority schools

2.   They may be set up in areas where local authority schools are already undersubscribed thus wasting resources.

3.   They may attract the better performing pupils from local authority schools thereby undermining them

4.   The combined effects of points 1-3 may be that they lead gradually to the development of a two-tier education system.

5.   There is a danger that although Free School Education Providers are not currently allowed to make a profit this condition could be relaxed in the future leading to the indirect privatisation of parts of the education system.

6.   Free Schools do not need to employ qualified teachers [which to some extent negates the second part of point above.

7.   They may give too much freedom to faith based schools or fundamentalist agendas although the UK Government point out that safeguards ensure that  such schools must teach a broad and balanced curriculum and that creationism must not be taught as a valid scientific theory   

Click here for  a BBC item for and against free schools which provides further very useful information relating to the above 7 points.


Click on the following links for additional information  if required

Click here for BBC coverage of critical OFSTED report on Muslim Free School

Click here, here and here for BBC coverage of possible Coalition conflicts over Free Schools and Academies

Click here for full and regularly updated Guardian coverage of Free Schools [ 433 articles as of December 14th 2013]

Click here and here and here and here and here for further information from the BBC.

Click here and here for items from the Daily Telegraph .

Click here for NAS/UWT opposition to free schools

 Click here for a detailed video by the late Mike Baker although you have to register with Teachers' Media and then search for Mike Baker to find this]



Summary and Conclusions : Social Class Inequalities in Educational Achievement

In this and the previous document  we have investigated a considerable number of relevant sociological studies of social class inequalities in educational achievement and considered the strengths and weaknesses of the different approaches to the analysis of this issue.

On the basis of this work we may draw the following broad conclusions.

Nevertheless it remains very difficult to assess with any certainty the relative importance of the various factors contributing to social class inequalities in educational achievement.

In the following documents information is provided on relationships between Gender and Educational Achievement and Ethnicity and Educational Achievement.