Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement [Part 1]

Page last edited: 22/04/2020





Cartoon: Banksy



Click here for Sutton Trust Report on  COVID 19 and Social Mobility : School Shutdown April 20th 2020 ****


Click here for DFE data relating to 2018/19 GCSE results Some data on ethnicity, free school meal eligibility and  gender can be found on pp7-12  in the main text document  but for more detailed information click on the third link [ Characteristics National Tables]  and then to find Tables CH1 and CH2   which are especially useful  New link added February 2020 

Click here for DFE publication December 2019: Widening Participation in Higher Education

Click here for Guardian coverage of DFE analysis of 2019 GCSE results

Click here for documentary : Poor Kids . NEW link added December 2016***

Click here for a podcast in which Professor Diane Reay discusses Education and Class

Click here for a summary of recent research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which illustrates that many of the social class disadvantages mentioned by researchers as early as the 1950s are still prevalent nowadays.***


Click here for an article from the Times Educational Supplement by Mary Bousted. "Schools cannot fix the impact of poverty alone." NEW link added October 2018***


Click here for an article from The Conversation By Gill Main entitled "Parents and children living in poverty have the same aspirations as those who are better off" NEW link added September 2018

The Childhood Origins of Social Mobility  and Click here for a BBC summary of this  report Links added June 2016




This document is divided into 5 Units and you may use the following links to navigate between them. You may also click on the links at the end of each Unit to return here.

Unit List

·         Introduction

·         Unit 1: Explaining Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement: IQ Theories

·          Unit 2  Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement: Cultural Deprivation

·          Unit 3 : Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement: Cultural Difference

·         Unit 4 Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement:  Material Economic  Differences

·         Unit 5: Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement. Some More Recent Studies



Click here for summary conclusions of this document.


Click here for information on the interaction of external and internal factors influencing student achievement



Learning Objectives

  • To understand  four different main approaches to the analysis and explanation of social class differences in educational achievement [ Unit 4a];
    1. IQ Theories [ Unit1];
    2. Theories of Cultural Deprivation  [ Unit2 ];
    3. Theories of Cultural Difference  [ Unit3];
    4. Theories based upon Differences in Material Circumstances [ Unit 4];
  • To consider the findings of some recent studies [Unit 5].

·         To gain familiarity with the key concepts used in this area of Sociology.

·         To discover the main conclusions of a range of relevant sociological studies.

·         To evaluate some of the strengths and weaknesses of the studies used in these Units.

Please note that the fifth sociological approach focusing on the organization of the schools themselves will be outlined in the following document.



·       Introduction

In a previous document it was shown that significant social class differences in educational achievement exist at all levels of the UK education system. Thus from the 1950s onwards sociologists have regularly pointed to the progressive under-representation of working class students in:  

 higher streams in primary (i.e. middle schools);
 numbers passing the 11+ examination in the era of Tripartite Secondary Education and currently in local education authority areas where selective secondary education continues to exist;
 numbers in higher streams in grammar schools and subsequently in comprehensives;
 numbers remaining in school after the minimum school leaving age;
 numbers passing O levels, gaining high grade GCSE passes and passing A levels;
 numbers enrolled on undergraduate courses;
 numbers involved in post graduate study.

Click here for data on Social Class and Educational Achievement at GCSE Level, GCE Advanced Level and Undergraduate Level .[ This document also contains data on Ethnicity, Gender and Educational Achievement.

My aim in the following 5 Units is to trace the development of the sociological debates around the causes of social class differences in educational achievement via the consideration of several of well known sociological studies ranging from the 1960s to the early 21st Century. I have included materials from some relatively early studies partly to enable students to appreciate the historical evolution of these debates and partly because , on a more practical level, references to the early studies do often appear both in current Sociology textbooks and ,occasionally, in recent research papers suggesting that some familiarity with these earlier studies is still desirable.

Because of the complex and controversial nature of Sociology and the possible limitations of sociological research methods it may be difficult or indeed impossible to state sociological conclusions objectively and with certainty. Controversy certainly abounds in this area of the Sociology of Education but I have tried to present a summary assessment of the relative importance of the different theories and studies which would be widely accepted among most [but not all] sociologists.

Activity. Please answer briefly the following preliminary questions.

1. Consult a dictionary and write down your dictionary’s definition of “Intelligence”.

2. Briefly state how the dictionary definition might be extended to provide a fuller explanation of the meaning of “Intelligence”.

3. Give two examples of positive attitudes that might promote educational achievement.

4. Give two examples of negative attitudes which might inhibit educational achievement.

5. State briefly how levels of household wealth and income might affect educational achievement.

·         Explaining Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement.

Five broad types of theory have been used to explain social class differences in educational achievement. They are:

·       so-called IQ [Intelligence Quotient ] theories  in which it is argued that social class differences in genetically transmitted intelligence contribute significantly to the explanation of social class differences in educational achievement;

·       theories in which it is argued that social class differences in educational achievement may be explained in terms of social class differences in cultural circumstances which, on average, operate to the relative advantage of upper and middle class students in the education system. It will be important here to distinguish between

·       theories based upon cultural deprivation

·       and theories based upon cultural difference;

·       theories in which it is argued that social class differences in educational achievement may be explained in terms of  social class differences in material or economic  circumstances which ,on average, operate to the relative advantage of upper and middle class students in the education system;

·       theories which suggest the individual schools and the UK education system as a whole may well operate to confer relative advantage, on average to upper and middle class students. These latter theories will be considered in the following document entitled “Educational achievement and social class: the schools.”

In your Sociology textbooks you will often find that a distinction is drawn between factors external to the education system and factors internal to the education system which help to explain social class differences in educational achievement although it is important to note also the interconnections between these external and internal factors. You may click here for two very useful podcasts from the Esher Sociology site in which the distinction between internal and external factors is used. It is also important to analyse the ways in which external and internal factors interact to influence students' educational attainments. These interactions are considered at the end of this document.


If required return to Unit List


Unit 1: IQ [Intelligence Quotient] Theories

Click here for a recent contribution to this debate.  Click here and here for other relevant contributions

Click here for Genetics and Education: The Moral Maze  NEW April 2014

Intelligence: Born Smart, Born Equal, Born Different {3 Part Radio 4 Series] NEW April-May 2014

The Life Scientific: Robert Plomin on The Genetics of Intelligence  and click here and here for more coverage of Robert Plomin's research

Click here  and here for related BBC items

Click here for a Guardian article on Grammar Schools,IQ and Genetics. Note among other things reference to the complexity of the statistical methods involved in this debate.NEW March 2018

Click here for an article from The Conversation on Genetics and Educational Achievement. New link added September 2018

Click here for a recent Daily Telegraph item on research emphasising the importance of environmental influences on intelligence

Click here for a recent TES article on Robert Plomin


Sociological and Non-Sociological Explanation

I am sure that you will remember from your Introduction to Sociology  that it is always important to distinguish between non-sociological explanations which focus on the natural, biological and psychological determinants of human behavior and sociological explanations which focus on the social and environmental determinants of human behavior. It is important to remember also that sociologists do recognise that non-sociological explanations do in many cases make important contributions to the understanding of human behaviour but  that they may sometimes wish to question the assumptions underlying non-sociological explanations and to demonstrate that sociological explanation can also  provide part of an overall explanation of most aspects of human behavior. Some of these points may be clarified with reference to sociological attitudes to IQ theories which clearly rely to a considerable extent on the non-sociological explanation of social class differences in educational achievement.

The Principles of IQ Theory

Supporters of IQ theory such as psychologists Arthur Jensen and Hans Eysenck make four important claims which together form the basis of IQ theory.


1.      Intelligence can be defined precisely and measured accurately via IQ [Intelligence Quotient] tests. IQ tests are usually differentiated according to the age of those taking the test  and standardised so as to ensure that a person of “average” ability would score 100 on the tests .[I recently saw a TV clip concerning a young boy who had achieved the exceptionally high score of  170 on such a test. It was, according to his mother, “a blessing and a curse”!]

2.      There are statistical data which indicate that there is a good correlation between intelligence as measured by IQ tests and social class membership such that working class individuals, on average, can be shown to be of lower intelligence than upper and middle class individuals.

3.      There are further data which indicate that there is a good correlation between intelligence as measured by IQ tests and subsequent educational achievement as measured by examination results.

4.      There are also data derived from studies of identical twins reared together and from other studies where the identical twins are reared apart which suggest, according to supporters of IQ theory, that genetic inheritance explains between 40% and 80% of the differences in intelligence between individuals.


In summary, therefore, IQ theorists claim that working class students are, on average, unsuccessful educationally relative to upper and middle class students because they are less intelligent and that they are less intelligent mainly because of their inheritance of “less intelligent genes.”


[It should be noted also that IQ theorists have sometimes used similar arguments to claim that  differences in ethnic educational achievements can be explained mainly in terms of ethnic differences in inherited intelligence and that such claims have ignited massive controversy in which these IQ theorists have been accused of ,at best, poor science and, at worst racism. These issues will be considered in some detail in subsequent documents.]

Sociological Criticisms of IQ Theory

Sociologists recognize that, given the current state of scientific knowledge, it is impossible to determine the relative importance of heredity and the social environment as factors affecting individual intelligence but they are often prepared to argue that IQ theories are flawed in several respects with the result that they overstate the importance of inherited intelligence as a factor explaining social class differences in educational achievement.

Among the criticisms made of IQ theories by sociologists are the following.

1.      It is difficult to define what "Intelligence" actually is although the well known supporters of IQ theory Eysenck and Jensen have defined it as "abstract reasoning ability."

2.      It is open to question whether so called Intelligence  Quotient tests [ IQ tests] can accurately  measure Intelligence .The fact that one can quickly improve one's test scores with a little practice suggests that these tests are unlikely to measure our fundamental intelligence or our potential to develop our intelligence in the future.

3.      These tests may be culturally biased in various ways as where they demand knowledge more likely to be available to upper and  middle class, [and white],  respondents

4.      Related to the above point such tests may therefore be may be testing knowledge rather than intelligence although supporters of testing deny that this is the case.

5.      Test results may vary according to the conditions surrounding the test. In class stratified societies and heavily streamed schools the self-confidence of working class students may have been seriously undermined so that they under-perform in IQ tests much as they have often [although not always] done in the education system more generally.

6.      More straightforwardly, the tests results may fail to accurately measure intelligence  because some respondents may be nervous, unwell or may not take the test seriously

7.      Jensen and Eysenck based their claims that IQ is mainly genetically inherited on their studies of identical twins reared apart .They found that there were small differences in IQ among identical twins although the children were reared in different environments which suggested that the role of environmental factors in influencing IQ was small. Critics soon claimed that these supposedly different environments were actually quite similar and so this undermined the Jensen-Eysenck results. For example in one case the identical twins supposedly living in different environments actually lived with their biological mother in one case and with their mother’s sister in the other.

8.      The complexity of the relative influences of heredity and environment on measured !Q is illustrated in the following recent report of a statement from the Chief medical Officer for Scotland ,Dr Mac Armstrong which suggests  that young children’s apparently inherited intelligence is related to the actual behaviour of their mothers during pregnancy and that their subsequent intellectual physical and mental health is related to factors such as “insufficient breast feeding and lack of intellectual stimulation during the early years.” 

“Poverty hits IQ levels,” First Minister warned “Many pupils in disadvantaged communities are simply less intelligent than others in higher social classes, according to the Scottish chief medical officer. Dr Mac Armstrong has told the First Minister in his annual report on the nation's health that problems can be traced to the early years. Schools, especially in Glasgow, are regularly slated for failing to match the results of others in neighbouring authorities, but Dr Armstrong fingers poverty and social exclusion as the root causes of educational disadvantage.

Recent studies, he states, have shown clearly that, "higher childhood IQ might be related to better general health, the subsequent development of healthier behaviour and the potential to obtain safer and better paid jobs." He adds, "A growing list of factors related to socio-economic disadvantage and low social class are now known to affect the development of a child's mental ability and physical and mental health. These include maternal smoking, drinking, illicit drug use and poor nutrition during pregnancy, insufficient breast-feeding and lack of intellectual stimulation during the early years. Differences in trends of these behaviours among the social classes may at least partly explain the widening gap between the most and least affluent."

(TES, 25 March 2005)



On the basis of these arguments sociologists have concluded that IQ tests cannot provide an accurate measure of intelligence and that it is impossible to determine the relative importance of genetic and environmental factors as determinants of intelligence.

They note also that even if we accept, for the sake of argument that intelligence can be defined precisely and measured accurately via IQ tests, it can be shown that even among children of equal measured intelligence, upper and middle class children are more likely than working class children to achieve educational success. Thus, for example, in his study entitled “The Home and the School”[1964], JWB Douglas demonstrated that middle class children of “average” intelligence were far more likely than working class children of “average” intelligence to pass the 11+ examination which clearly suggests that performance in the 11+ examination was affected by social, environmental factors.

Such criticisms have encouraged sociologists to question conclusions of genetically based IQ theories and to develop their own theories which emphasise the importance of the social factors which might help to explain social class differences in educational achievement. It is to these theories which we now turn.

If required return to Unit List



 Unit 2: Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement: Cultural Deprivation

 It has been argued at least since the 1950s that social class differences in educational achievement might be explained at least partly by social class differences in cultural characteristics. However we must appreciate also that sociologists have approached the analysis of cultural characteristics in different ways so that whereas theories of the 1960s were often based upon the idea of working class cultural deprivation or indeed cultural pathology, later studies such as those undertaken by sociologists such as B. Bernstein, P. Willis, P. Brown, P. Bourdieu, and S. Ball imply that working class students may be put at an educational disadvantage not because their culture is "deprived" or "pathological" but because it is "different".

Furthermore Professor L. Feinstein has presented recent statistical evidence that social class differences in home environment at an early age  do place many working class children at a long -term educational disadvantage  while equally important work from the Institute of Education indicates that although pupils' social class position has important effects on early learning, the quality of pupils' home learning environment, [their so-called HLE], which varies both within individual social classes and between different social classes] has an even more important effect on early learning than does pupils' social class position.

It is important, for theoretical reason, to distinguish between these different sociological approaches to the analysis of cultural characteristics because while earlier theories based upon the concept of cultural deprivation have attracted significant criticism, later theories based upon different analyses of cultural differences have much to contribute to the explanation of social class differences in educational achievement. I hope, therefore, that you will forgive me if I spend time on some rather dated sociological work before turning to the consideration of more recent studies.

Let us first consider the analysis of social class differences in cultural characteristics as possible determinants of social class differences in educational achievement as outlined in the studies of H. Hyman [1967], B Sugarman [1970] and JWB Douglas [1964] all of whom claim in various ways that   working class and middle class people are likely to operate with different overall value systems which in turn give rise to significantly different attitudes to education. These theories are usually taken to imply that many working class pupils are the victims of cultural deprivation although none of the above authors actually use this term.

·         H Hyman [1967]

Hyman recognised that variations in value systems existed within as well as between social classes but claimed in general that the value systems  of the working and the middle classes were significantly different with the implication that working class students and their families were likely to be in various respects "culturally deprived"

The main elements of Hyman’s theory may be listed as follows.

1.      The working class believes that upward social mobility is not necessarily desirable because it may involve moving away from the solidarity and support of the working class community. [The rate of upward social mobility is a measure of the extent to which individuals are able to move upwards in the social class structure, for example from the working class to the middle class or from the middle class to the upper class.]

2.      In any case, based upon experience, upward social mobility is difficult to achieve for working class people. Investing effort and time in formal education to try to achieve upward social mobility may involve significant financial risks of loss of income in the event of, say, examination failure at Advanced or Degree levels and simply aiming to "learn a trade" may seem to be a more realistic, more sensible strategy.

3.       Since long range social mobility is seen as neither desirable nor easily achievable, working class parents and their children are likely to place less importance on formal education as a possible route to this undesirable/unachievable social mobility and this helps to explain why working class students are likely to be less successful in school.

4.      Middle class attitudes are said to be the exact opposite. Most middle class people are seen as believing that upward social mobility is both desirable and possible and that the achievement of higher educational qualifications is the most important mechanism for the achievement of upward social mobility.


·         B. Sugarman [1970].

Hyman' explanation was extended by B.Sugarman[1970] who argued that insofar as  social class differences in value systems do exist they can be explained as deriving from the different occupational experiences of the different social classes. The main elements of Sugarman’s theory may be listed as follows.

1. Working class people have limited individual long term career prospects such that manual workers may reach their maximum earnings early in their 20s.

2.  Therefore, they adopt a fatalistic, present-time oriented attitude to school, work and life in general which implies an unwillingness to defer gratification now in order to achieve significant goals in the future.

 3. They also believe that economic advance is more likely to be achieved by collective rather than individual means .For example in the 1960s working class   membership of Trade Unions and support for the Labour Party were seen by many working class people as strategies for the collective improvement of working class living standards at a time when opportunities for improvement of individual living standards through education and occupational promotion were rarely available. [ Relationships between social class membership and party political support have always been complex and have become even more so in recent years in that the general relationships between social class and voting behaviour have become weaker and the Labour Party has itself espoused a more individualistic approach to politics especially under the leadership of Tony Blair. All of this suggests that Sugarman's description of working class political attitudes is now rather dated although I cannot pursue these issues further here.]

4. These general attitudes affect their own life choices and also their attitudes to their children's education.

5.  In contrast, Sugarman claims that middle class people believe that individual upward social mobility is both possible and desirable and that investment in education involving "deferred gratification" can substantially enhance the mobility prospects of their children.

Activity. This activity is based upon the studies of Hyman and Sugarman.

1.Briefly define "Social Mobility"

2 .According to Hyman, working class people tend to regard upward social mobility as neither desirable nor easily achievable. To what extent do you agree or disagree with this view? Give brief reasons for your answer.

3. Explain how, according to Hyman, working and middle class attitudes to upward social mobility affect attitudes to education.

4. Explain the terms "fatalism", "strong present time orientation" and "unwillingness to defer gratification".

5. How convincing do you find the theories of Hyman and Sugarman?


·         JWB Douglas: The Home and the School  [1964]

JWB Douglas’ work which had been completed a few years earlier had provided considerable empirical support for the theories of Hyman and Sugarman. Once again the main elements of Douglas’ study may be listed as follows

1. In "The Home and the School", Douglas investigated the Primary school (7-11) careers of 5362 children born in the first week of March 1946 .In a subsequent study entitled "All Our Futures [1968]", Douglas carried out a follow up study of 4720 of the original sample of pupils at age 16+.

2. Pupils in the original sample were classified according to social class background and according to intellectual ability as measured by a large number of tests including IQ tests administered when the pupils were 8 years old.

3. It was found that there were significant social class differences in 11+ examination success even among pupils who had achieved identical test scores at the age of 8.

4. Douglas' explanation for class differences in educational performance stressed social class differences in pupils' health, size of family and differences in school quality but he considered social class differences in parental interest to be most important and increasingly so as the children grew older. Although some working class parents were interested in their children’s education, middle class parents were, on average,  more likely than working class parents to be interested in their children’s education.

5. Parental interest was assessed by the frequency of parents' attendance at parents' evenings and also by reference to teachers' assessments of parental interest. Douglas also concluded that social class differences in early socialisation processes were significant with middle class parents more likely to encourage educational play activities, to set high standards for their children and to reward their children's' achievements in such a way as to prepare them well for school life. Here Douglas was suggesting that differences in pupils’ Home Learning Environment would have a major impact on pupils’ attainment, a point which is emphasised also in much more recent studies, as we shall see later.  

·         Basil Bernstein, Elaborated and Restricted Codes

Another variant of the subcultural approach was the sociolinguistic theory of Basil Bernstein in which he distinguishes between the middle class elaborated code and the working class restricted code. According to Bernstein, the elaborated code used by the middle class permits easier expression of abstract arguments which is very important for educational success whereas  the restricted code is less effective in this respect. It should be noted that although Bernstein has sometimes been accused of support the concept of cultural deprivation he always strenuously denied that this was the case and emphasised that he wished to show that there were social class differences in linguistic codes not that the restrictive code of working class children suggested that they were linguistically or culturally deprived. However critics of Bernstein such as H. Rosen argue that Bernstein's class analysis is oversimplified while W.Labov argues that it is perfectly possible to deal with abstract ideas using the restricted code.

Click here  and here and here for further information on Basil Bernstein's theory

 Activity. This activity is based upon the studies of Douglas and Bernstein

1. According to Douglas what was the most significant factor explaining social class differences in educational achievement?

2. What criticisms were made of Douglas' approach to the measurement of parental interest in education?

3. How does Bernstein use social class differences in language to explain social class differences in educational achievement?


Criticism of the Theories based upon the Concept of Cultural Deprivation

At the time of their publication the theories of Hyman, Sugarman and Douglas were widely believed to offer useful sociological explanations of social class differences in educational achievement but increasingly these theories were criticised on specific methodological grounds and because their authors seemed to have accepted too readily that the relative failure of many working class children could be explained in terms of their cultural deprivation. We may list the criticisms of these theories as follows.

·. Sugarman used questionnaire data to support his theory but the methodological limitations of questionnaires data have led critics to argue that Sugarman failed to collect valid data on social class differences in values and attitudes and also that he gave insufficient attention to intra-class differences in values and attitudes.

· Douglas’ data on social class differences in parental interest derived partly from teachers' and health visitors' perceptions but mainly from social class differences in parents' willingness to attend parents' evenings. However, such methods have been much criticised because working class parents might be less likely to attend parents' evenings for reasons unrelated to parental interest. They may be more physically tired at the end of the working day ; at the time of Douglas' study working class parents may have had more transport difficulties; and their own possibly negative experiences of school  may have discouraged  them from attending interviews with teachers who they may have seen as threatening or unhelpful .Douglas relied also on teachers' or health visitors' perceptions of parental interest but such perceptions may have been misguided and even based upon health visitors and/or teachers' own stereotypical views of  working class children and their parents.

· Also parental and pupil interest is likely to depend upon pupil progress. If, as is suggested later, schools themselves are more likely to define working class students as failures and to consign them to lower streams, it may be this which causes reduced parental interest and if this point is omitted, the victims of educational failure[ the working class children] are blamed unjustifiably for their own failure while  criticism  is deflected away the disadvantaged material circumstances and from the organisation of the SCHOOLS themselves as important explanatory factors in the educational failure of working class children.

· There are several studies which show how the aspirations of unsuccessful working class students and their parents moved downwards as a result of poor reports from school and how working class pupils and parents depend more than middle class parents on the school for an indication of pupil progress. Whereas middle class parents might question the validity of bad reports whereas working class parents might be disillusioned by them.

·  It has further been argued that the description of working class culture in terms of lack of ambition, fatalism, strong present time orientation and unwillingness to defer gratification amount to little more than  inaccurate stereotypes of working class culture. It is claimed also in theories based upon cultural deprivation that middle class parents are more likely to encourage their children to opt for post-compulsory education even though this does result in deferred gratification in the form of current financial sacrifices [and sacrifices of leisure time] in order to reap greater future financial rewards. However, critics would argue that it is difficult to see how middle class university students enjoying interesting courses and wild [or even, in the modern idiom, "wicked"] university social lives with the generous financial support of their parents may be said to be deferring gratification relative to the average relatively unskilled working class teenager poorly paid and insecurely employed in some multi-national fast food outlet.

· By the 1950s and 1960s educational success was rare for working class pupils; they were relatively unlikely to pass the 11+; if they did pass they were relatively likely to be consigned to the lower sets in Grammar schools and therefore relatively unlikely to be especially successful in GCE Ordinary Level examinations and likely, as a result, to leave school at age 16. Given these statistical trends, although many working class parents may well have hoped that their children might be educationally successful, they certainly could not confidently expect that their children would be successful and any negative evidence from the schools themselves such as poor school reports, consignment to lower streams and 11+ failure would have been likely to further undermine working class educational ambition.

It is nevertheless argued by some theorists, most notably the American political scientist Charles Murray, that especially within the poorer sections of the working class, some parents and children are unambitious and fatalistic and that such characteristics do help to explain the relatively low educational achievement of some poorer children and the inter-generational transmission of poverty among some families and the creation of an underclass locked into dependency upon the welfare state. Yet other sociologists have been scathingly critical of Murray's theories citing survey evidence that most poor adults would be keen to make career progress if opportunities were available and noting that fatalism and lack of ambition should be seen as a response to ongoing economic disadvantage which itself is seen as the fundamental cause of poor people' difficulties.

As a result of the above arguments most sociologists would argue nowadays recognise that overall working class culture cannot usefully be described in terms of cultural deprivation and that when elements of working class cultural deprivation do seem to exist they should be seen as responses to the situation of economic deprivation not as evidence of working class cultural traits which are set in stone. For example, P.Langley, A. Pilkington and J.Richardson [2005] provide the following strong critique of Cultural Deprivation theory: "Cultural deprivation theory has been strongly criticised. There is evidence that if class differences in culture exist, then they are slight and of little significance. Much so-called culturally deprived behaviour may be due to lack of money rather than lack of norms and values needed for high attainment. For example, working class students may leave school earlier because of low income rather than lack of motivation and parental encouragement."

In any case data from the 2008 Youth Cohort Study shows clearly that although there are still social class differences in pupils attitudes to further education the vast majority of pupils from disadvantaged social backgrounds are do wish to continue their education beyond the age of 16 and that they are usually supported in this aim by their parents all of which suggests that the social class differences in attitudes to education suggested in some earlier studies are nowadays far less applicable.

Young persons’ and parental attitudes to staying in full-time education post 16.  [Survey data for Longitudinal Study of Young People in England collected when the young people were in Year 10 and 6 months into their GCSE courses.]




YP intention to be

 in FT Ed

at age 16/17

Parental aspiration as

to whether YP

to in FT Ed age 16/17








YP’ s ethnic group






Black Caribbean

Black African



















Parental occupation


Higher Professional

Lower professional


Lower supervisory


Other/not classified















This Activity is based on the above quotation from Langley, Pilkington and Richardson [2005] and the YCS Table.


1.      Have these authors underestimated the usefulness of cultural deprivation theory or not?  Give three reasons for your answer.

2.      Comment upon the YCS data on relationships between Young person’s social class, parental social class and attitudes to full time education beyond the age of 16.


If required return to Unit List

Unit 3 : Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement: Cultural Difference

From the 1970s onwards several other sociologists such as Willis, Brown, Bourdieu and Ball continued to claim that, in various ways, social class differences in subculture were still important influences on educational achievement but these theorists wished to emphasise that they rejected theories based upon the assumed cultural deprivation of the working class while nevertheless accepting that there were important cultural differences as between the social classes. As examples of this approach I provide a little introductory information on studies by Willis, Brown, Bourdieu and Ball although, unfortunately, it is quite impossible to do justice to the complexity and insight of these studies in the brief summaries provided here.

By the late 1970s Willis was still emphasising in his study "Learning to Labour; How working class kids get working class jobs" that working class culture was a key factor in explaining the relative underachievement of working class pupils. In his study "The Lads" (12 working class, non-examination pupils in a Midlands Secondary Modern school) were educationally unsuccessful because their working class culture led them to reject actively the types of occupations for which educational qualifications were necessary and to seek actively the unskilled, physically demanding, manual occupations for which educational qualifications were unnecessary but which they believed would confirm their own tradition -based sense of masculinity. Contrastingly the lads' patriarchal view of the world led them to see careers in non-manual work as suitable primarily for women and this alone was sufficient for them to dismiss such careers out of hand.

Throughout the study the working class culture of the lads is presented as vibrant and exciting rather than as culturally deprived and Willis also credits the lads for their realisation that at the time Secondary Modern schools were offering a second class education and second class qualifications [CSE level qualifications] which in any case were unlikely to lead to much career advancement so that their rejection of schooling was easily understandable. It is understandable also when these boys reject the authority of their teachers since they are in their own eyes being compelled to undertake "educational" tasks which they see as essentially pointless. Indeed the main objective of  one boy in the study was to complete his final year of schooling without writing a single word, an objective which he came fairly close to achieving ! . Furthermore when a mother received a letter from the school's headmaster informing here that her son was to be suspended temporarily form school because he had returned to afternoon school in a drunk and disorderly condition, she responded by telling her son that she would be keeping the letter as an indication to future grandchildren that her son  had certainly been "a bit of a lad" in his youth.  An interesting but not necessarily typical working class response, I believe.

Despite its many insights, several possible criticisms have been made of Willis' work although he does show himself to be aware of most of them. For example, the lads’ claims about their leisure exploits based around heavy drinking, violence and sexual conquest are almost certainly exaggerated; the lads are a fairly small % of their year group and insofar as this anti- school culture exists, it may apply only to a minority and not explain why many other more conformist working class pupils still fail. Also the study is based on a small and possibly unrepresentative sample:  there may be variation from school to school, and area to area and the introduction of widespread comprehensivisation could possibly be expected to change working class attitudes to education in the future. Willis admits all of this and hopes merely that his analysis will prove useful even if it does need adaptation to meet changing circumstances. Of course, he also did not predict the introduction of the GCSE which ended the distinction between high status GCE qualifications and lower status CSE qualifications.

Willis' description of the education process as it operated in this particular school for non-examination pupils may have been  entirely realistic but if so, it presents a very dark picture. Examination qualifications are seen as value-less; progressive education is merely another more subtle strategy of social control; all teachers are seen by the lads as their enemies. Equally, Willis presentation of parts of working class culture is a dark one. Parents and children regularly swear at each other; parents often (not always) appear unconcerned with their children’s education or with their future prospects; men working on the factory floor are regularly involved in various forms of horse play in order to deaden the monotony of factory work.

However, the study is clearly a product of its times. It was carried out in the 1970s in one particular, not necessarily representative boys Secondary Modern school and since then we have seen the widespread replacement of secondary modern and grammar schools by comprehensivisation and significant changes to the industrial structure have reduced the availability of unskilled manual work suggesting that even among relatively rebellious pupils attitudes to education and employment would have to change eventually. Or would they?

·         Phillip Brown: Schooling Ordinary Kids: Inequality, Unemployment and the New Vocationalism.1987

Phillip Brown’s study is based on three schools in a primarily but not entirely working class town in Wales. It focuses on differing attitudes to education among working class children rather than solely on the attitudes of the rebellious minority investigated in the Willis study and also considers the likely impact of the rise in unemployment in the 1980s on attitudes to education among a sample of Welsh pupils who would be having to come to terms with the very high rates of youth unemployment existing at the time.

In the early stages of his book, Brown refers in some detail to the work of both David Hargreaves and Paul Willis, arguing that both writers have presented a rather one-sided explanation of the reasons for the relative educational failure of working class students. Thus, he argues that Hargreaves has overstated the importance of school organisation (in this case, streaming) in producing an anti-school subculture among working class (and mainly low stream) students while  Willis has overstated the extent to which working class culture operating outside the school produces an anti-school subculture among working class students inside the school. [I present information on David Hargreaves’ study in the following document].

We can see the difference between Hargreaves and Willis in terms of different sequences of cause and effect. For Hargreaves, failure inside school leads to placement in a low stream which causes an anti school subculture to be produced. For Willis, an anti school subculture derives from out of school factors and this causes failure inside school. Brown has illustrated the difference neatly and is then able to say that both theories contain elements of the truth.

As we have seen , Willis' work was criticised on the grounds that he concentrated almost entirely on only twelve boys in non-examination classes and that the pessimistic view of working class attitudes to education which he presented was far from representative of the working class as a whole. Brown points out that sociologists have always stressed the importance of divisions within the working class (one perhaps slightly dated distinction was between the "rough" and the "respectable" working class) and that, therefore, we should expect a range of attitudes to education within the working class. Also, working class attitudes to education could be expected to vary from time to time and from place to place. Thus, for example, Willis' lads might well dismiss education while many unskilled manual jobs were still available as in the 1970s but by the 1980s, this was no longer the case and so at issue would be whether pupils would respond to this changed situation with a more positive recognition of the importance of education as a means of securing employment or with an even more alienated fatalism caused by the reduced availability of traditional manual employment.

In his own study, Brown distinguishes between 3 possible working class frames of reference: getting in, getting on and getting out and between Rems, Swots and Ordinary Kids. [“Rems” are essentially lower stream pupils who might be regarded as in some ways in need of “remedial” education; “swots” are higher stream pupils with good chances of educational success and “ordinary kids” are the majority of pupils who while are they not expecting sparkling academic success do aspire to some educational qualifications which will hopefully improve their employment prospects. ]

The Rems’ working class frame of reference involved getting in: that is, minimal interest in school; hoping to leave school as soon as possible, gain unskilled or semi-skilled jobs and begin the process of becoming what they see as a working class adult. Rems are more or less the equivalent of Willis "lads" although in Brown’s study the group did also contain a minority of girls. We may assume that their frame of reference derived from their particular situation in the working class community: they saw school subjects and academic qualifications as boring and irrelevant to the types of jobs that they hoped to attain; they were well aware that CSE qualifications in any case might not be very useful in the competitive job market; they also felt that they had often been poorly treated by teachers. Their views are encapsulated in some of the following statements:

"What are you gonna do with History: you're not going to go out and be a knight or something like that, are you?" Not all this stuff like Pythagoras: it's all stupid, that is. Be fair, go to school for 10 years to be a postman; CSEs are poxy: you are supposed to be nice in school when the teachers are treating you like the scum of the earth, that you are second class."

The “swots” are much as expected:  they are often middle class but some are working class and they are taught in the higher sets. Some of the students actually enjoy the subject matter of their subjects but also they are ambitious in terms of career and see the need to secure 10 good passes at 16+ so that they can continue smoothly to the next phase of their education. They are therefore prepared to work hard even in some subjects which do not actually interest them.

According to Brown, the main thing about ordinary kids is that they are not rems or swots. For the ordinary kids, beyond the basics, much of the school curriculum is seen as irrelevant. Basic Mathematics and English are important (but not the more theoretical aspects) as are practical subjects which might be useful for career purposes. These students are not studying for O levels but believe that reasonable CSE passes can improve their employment prospects. They believe too that such passes, although important, can be achieved without great effort and so, although they do not rebel against school, neither do they work especially hard. "The ordinary kids do what is minimally required to placate the teacher and to pass examinations, particularly when the subject is viewed as a waste of time or boring due to the way in which it is taught or due to its assumed future irrelevance," Ordinary kids who do wish to work rather harder will be subject to considerable peer pressure not to do so. Ordinary kids will also sometimes be critical of rems: "They could have tried, if they had CSEs at least it's something: at least they're trying, aren't they?"

Phillip Brown argued that by the mid1980s secondary schools could be on the brink of serious crisis brought about primarily by the growth of youth unemployment which would undermine the willingness of the majority of working class pupils [the “ordinary kids” in his sample] to work for high grade CSE qualifications as a means of securing employment for example as apprentices and junior office workers.  Since such jobs were increasingly unavailable it seemed possible that more “ordinary kids” would take the more rebellious option thereby generating a crisis of serious and widespread indiscipline in British secondary schools.

I cannot do justice to Phillip Brown’s excellent sociological study in this brief summary and in particular I have not considered his critical analysis of some of the education policy initiatives introduced in the 1980s encapsulated under the heading of the New Vocationalism [although educational policy issues will eventually be covered in other documents ] He seems to have described and analysed the situations faced by many working class pupils in the 1980s with great insight and sympathy but just as Paul Willis’ conclusions appear, to some extent , to have been overtaken by events, we must wonder whether the crisis of secondary school discipline predicted by Phillip Brown, has for the time being, been avoided. 

In relation to the current situation I suggest tentatively that the following points may help to explain current attitudes to education among working class pupils.

1.      It is noteworthy in this respect that overall levels of unemployment in the past 15 years have been far lower than in the 1980s and early 1990s.

2.      More pupils , including more working class pupils are remaining in education beyond the age of 16 and an increasing proportion of working class pupils are also participating in Higher Education so that, using Phillip Brown’s terminology there may well be more working class “swots” nowadays than in the mid 1980s.

3.      Changes in the industrial structure mean that there are relatively fewer skilled and unskilled manual jobs available for boys combined with an increased proportion of routine service jobs which may appeal less to boys than to girls although some boys will have recognised that acceptance of this kind of work does offer them a viable occupational future and will perhaps as a result be especially prepared to study for qualifications in Business Studies and IT.

4.      Consequently it  may be that since levels of employment are relatively high and  jobs for early school leavers are available in service industries, ordinary kids attitudes to education may still be reasonably optimistic except perhaps in areas where employment opportunities are more limited.

5.      Meanwhile there remains a minority of rebellious, mainly male pupils who are unwilling to respond positively to the recent changes in industrial structure and these pupils may find difficulty securing employment once they leave school although the majority will eventually do so.

6.      Nevertheless considerable attention has been given in recent years and months to a category of young people officially described as NEETS: not in education, employment or training. You may click here for a BBC item on the measurement of the numbers NEETS and their attitudes to education. 

·         Pierre Bourdieu and the Concepts of Cultural Capital , Economic Capital and Social Capital


The work of Pierre Bourdieu is theoretically complex and I shall aim here only to provide a brief summary of his ideas here. Further information my be found here. Add link when doc Bourdieu complete. Also have to upload the Bourdieu doc and to include some information on Raymod Boudon. 

Theorists such as Hyman, Sugarman and Douglas aimed to provide explanations of relative working class educational failure which were based upon the concept of working class cultural deprivation and in so doing they failed to consider possible mechanisms through which education systems might be manipulated indirectly by members of the dominant economic classes to ensure that existing class structures are reproduced across the generations to ensure the continued dominance of these dominant economic classes.

The functions of formal education systems are to be analysed in a separate document but we may note here that the functions of formal educational systems and have noted that there are disputes primarily between Marxists and Functionalists surrounding the extent to which formal education systems reproduce existing class structures so that it is clear that Bourdieu’s work is relevant both to the analysis of the functions of formal education systems and to the explanation of social class differences in educational achievement.

Bourdieu has stated that he has been influenced in various ways by Marx, Weber and Durkheim but his analysis of education systems appears to be linked especially with a Marxist framework of analysis of society as a whole which will be covered elsewhere. However I am presenting below the briefest sketch of Marxist ideas in order to provide a context for this brief introductory discussion of Bourdieu's theories. There are certainly difficult issues here that you will wish to discuss further with your teachers! 


In relation to Marxism we may note the following main points.

1.      Marxists are critical of the capitalist system mainly because of the inequalities which it generates.

2.      They argue also that the capitalist system continues to exist partly because there are important agencies of socialisation which discourage us from criticising the capitalist system and trying to change it.

3.      Thus, in simple terms, the Church might tell us that "our reward will be in heaven"; the Family might tell us to concentrate on our own lives without much consideration of wider questions; the Mass Media might give a biased unsympathetic coverage of radical political criticism of the capitalist system ideas and the Education system might encourage us to accept authority without question.

4.      Marxists also tend to argue that because the education system is widely perceived as fair and meritocratic, this leads us to believe that capitalist societies, although unequal, are also fair and meritocratic. The argument is that everyone has a fair chance at school and that therefore the people in the best paid jobs deserve to be there because they have more talent and have worked harder than the rest of us.

5.      The Image above suggests some of the ways in which the capitalist system may be sustained.

6.       However we must of course note that other sociologists reject the Marxist analysis of capitalism and argue instead that the inequalities of capitalism provide the economic incentives which encourage hard work which in turn helps to generate fairly good living standards even for the poorer members of capitalist societies. 

Bourdieu’s analysis of the causes of social class differences in educational achievement may be outlined as follows.

1.      The central concept in Bourdieu’s theory is not cultural deprivation but differential possession of cultural capital.

2.      He argues that there are cultural differences between the social classes but that one cannot state objectively that upper and middle class cultures are superior to working class culture nor that working class students and their families are culturally deprived.  

3.      Here, unlike say Hyman, Sugarman and Douglas, Bourdieu does not concentrate on class differences in parental interest or attitudes to social mobility but on social class differences in the possession of knowledge and skills [i.e. social class differences in cultural capital] which are necessary for educational success.

4.      He argues that because the upper class dominate society in terms of wealth and power, they are able to impose their culture as the dominant culture upon the rest of society and to ensure that educational ability is assessed mainly in terms of the possession or non- possession of this dominant culture.

5.      This dominant culture represents Cultural Capital for those who possess it because it can be used within the education system to transmit class privilege across the generations from parents to children so as to reproduce class advantage across generations.

6.      Class privilege may also be transmitted inter-generationally via the inheritance of wealth [economic capital] and  via the use of social connections  [social capital] which can be used to facilitate the access of upper and middle class young adults to middle and upper class occupations.

7.      The upper and middle classes are said to possess much more cultural capital than the working class and it is these differences in cultural capital which, according to Bourdieu are the main factor explaining social class differences in educational achievement.

8.      Cultural capital might imply for example a better knowledge of classical music or of "great" literature; it may imply the possession of what are considered by teachers to be higher quality linguistic skills; or it may imply a more confident presentation of self.

9.      Critics of the theory have suggested that the precise meaning of "cultural capital" is a little vague and in this they are probably correct. However some practical applications of Bourdieu's theory are provided in the recent work of Professor Stephen Ball and these practical applications of Bourdieu’s concepts are especially important for our purposes.

·         Stephen Ball : Class Strategies and The Education Market [2003]

In his 2003 study Stephen Ball argues that upper and middle class children are likely to be more successful in education because upper and middle class parents can deploy economic capital, cultural capital and social capital to ensure that their children have educational advantages not available even to relatively affluent working class families and certainly not available to the poor.

·         Economic Capital

1.      Upper and middle class parents can afford to purchase relatively expensive houses in the catchment areas of successful state schools thus helping to ensure that their children will be able to attend such schools while working class children are more likely to attend less successful schools.

2.      If upper and middle class children are having educational difficulties their parents can afford to purchase additional relatively expensive private tuition for their children.

3.      If upper and middle class parents are dissatisfied with the quality of state education in their local area they can more easily arrange for transport to state schools located further afield, or they can relocate closer to more effective schools or they can opt to have their children educated privately. Private secondary education may be unaffordable for working class parents, costing as it may around £6000-£ 8000 per year even for non boarding pupils. Click here for information from  a recent [2013] Sutton Trust Report suggesting that "almost a third of professional parents have  moved home for a good school

·         Cultural Capital

1.      Upper and middle class parents are often relatively well educated and will almost certainly be able to help their children with homework if this proves to be necessary.

2.      They are likely to have the confidence to believe that any educational difficulties experienced by their children can be resolved through discussion with teachers and are unlikely to assume that such difficulties are evidence of their children’s' limited academic abilities.

3.      They are more likely than working class parents to be able to interpret the fairly detailed statistics on school performance which are nowadays published and therefore better able to make an informed choice of schools for their children.

4.      If popular schools are oversubscribed upper and middle class parents may be able to create favourable impressions which help to secure entry for their children to over- subscribed schools.

5.      They may socialise their children to present themselves sympathetically in the eyes of mainly middle class teachers.

6.      They may provide leisure activities for their children [such as Music, Drama and additional sporting activities] which enable the children to present themselves more effectively, for example in University interviews.

·         Social Capital

1.      Upper and middle class parents may be in social contact with other upper and middle class parents who can help them to evaluate the relative effectiveness of different schools prior to school choice.

2.      They may know of particularly effective private tutors.

3.      They may be able to arrange particularly useful work experiences or contacts with personal friends who are university lectures which will enable their children to prepare far more effectively for university entrance.

Using these ideas enables us to clarify more clearly the distinction between theories based upon cultural deprivation and theories based upon cultural difference. In theories based upon cultural deprivation, working class parents and their children have been presented as "lacking in ambition, fatalistic, unwilling to plan for the future and with a strong present time orientation" all of which contribute to relative educational failure. It is possible that ongoing economic hardship can help to generate such attitudes in some families but many sociologists argue that the vast majority of working class parents   are ambitious for their children but that they cannot translate their ambition into effective help because of their limited economic, cultural and social capital. I hope that the following activity will clarify further the distinction between theories based upon cultural deprivation and theories based upon cultural difference.


Parent Power: Sutton Trust Report 2018  by Rebecca Montacute and Carl Cullinane


Click here to access the above report. In the introduction to the Report you will find a very good summary of the various factors which enable affluent, well educated parents to secure  a range of educational advantages for their children  much as was suggested in the above study by Professor Stephen Ball.


 Activity: Cultural Deprivation and Cultural Difference

1.      Briefly explain the terms economic capital, cultural capital and social capital.

2.      Would you agree that, broadly speaking middle class families are likely to have more “cultural capital” than working class families? Give reasons for your answer.

3.      How might social class differences in the possession of cultural capital help to explain social class differences in educational achievement?


Click here for a detailed article by Goldrthorpe and Co.


If required return to Unit List




·         Unit 4 Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement:  Material Economic  Differences

I can remember a conversation in the1970s with an elderly gentleman who told me that he had passed the Grammar school entrance examination in the early 20th Century but had been unable to take up his place because his parents could not afford the associated traveling and uniform costs. Indeed neither could they afford the requisite new pair of shoes for him. Such cases were far from uncommon and it has been argued persuasively that working class education opportunities have always been restricted by economic inequality and poverty and that this continues to be the case even in the early 21st Century.

However before analysing the possible effects of poverty on educational achievement some preliminary investigation of the nature and extent of poverty in the UK is first necessary and for these purposes we must first distinguish between absolute and relative poverty. Absolute poverty is said to occur when individuals lack the money necessary to ensure their basis physical survival whereas relative poverty exists where individuals have insufficient money to participate fully in the life of their society. Absolute poverty is associated mainly with "Third World " countries although it is possible that pockets of absolute poverty still exist in the UK. The UK Government provides statistics on the extent of UK poverty measured in both absolute and relative terms both before and arfter housing costs In 2017/18 the extent of poverty varied between 15% [absolute poverty before housing costs]  and 22%[ relastive poverty after housing costs] Click here for recent data on the extent of UK poverty


There are hundreds of articles which address the relationships between poverty and educational attainment and I present a brief selection of such articles below.


 It may not be practical for Advanced Level Sociology students to follow up all of links which I have listed above but it could possibly be a useful class exercise to invite  individual students to summarise one of the above articles and to report back to their fellow students???

You may also  click here also for another more detailed document on Poverty and Educational Attainment 


The adverse effects of poverty on educational attainment are often measured via the comparison of the examination results of pupils eligible and ineligible for Free School Meals [FSM]

Table : Gender, Free School Meal Eligibility and Percentages of Pupils gaining 5 or more GCSE A*-C  Grades including English and Mathematics and achieving EBacc in 2016-7 and 2017-18

2008/9 - 2017/18 [Source : DFE SFR 2011/2012  and DFE SFR 2017/18 GCSE Attainment and Pupil Characteristics: ]

Pupil Category

% gaining 5 or more A*-C GCSE Grades inc English and Maths in 2008/9

% gaining 5 or more A*-C GCSE Grades  inc English and Maths in 2009/10

% gaining 5 or more A*-C GCSE Grades inc English and maths in 2010/11

% gaining 5 or more A*-C GCSE Grades inc. English and Maths in 2011/12

% gaining 5 or more A*-C GCSE Grades inc. English and Maths in 2012/2013

% gaining 5 or more A*-C GCSE Grades inc English and Maths in 2013/14

%gaining 5 or more A*-C GCSE Grades inc English  and  Maths in 2014/15

% achieving the EBacc [with9-4 grades in English and Maths]   2016/17

% achieving the EBacc   2017/18

Boys FSM










Girls  FSM










Total FSM










Boys NFSM/Unclassified










Girls NFSM/Unclassified










Total NFSM/Unclassified










All Boys










All Girls










All Pupils










Gender Gap-F-M










Total NFSM-FSM Gap










These data may be updated via the following links

Click here for DFE data relating to 2018/19 GCSE results Some data on ethnicity, free school meal eligibility and  gender can be found on pp7-12  in the main text document  but for more detailed information click on the third link [ Characteristics National Tables]  and then to find Tables CH1 and CH2   which are especially useful  New link added February 2020 

Click here for Guardian coverage of DFE analysis of 2019 GCSE results

Click here for DFE publication December 2019: Widening Participation in Higher Education



Research on Wastage of talent among pupils eligible for Free School Meals/Pupil Premium [Sutton Trust] NEW June 2015 

Also click here for Guardian coverage of a recent study from  FFT Datalab which indicates that some schools use  Offrolling as a means of improving their examination statistics and that this process hides the true extent of class inequality of educational achievement.   

Also click here for information from the Sutton Trust which indicates that recent changes to GCSE courses have led to slight increases in inequality of educational achievement, And click here for BBC coverage of the Sutton Trust research

It is also necessary to assess the extent to which working class people are in general likely to experience poverty. This is no simple matter not least because of disputes around the nature and measurement of the various social classes. On the basis of the NS SEC classification of occupations  in December 2017 21.9% of the employed population were in routine and semi routine occupations [the occupational groups usually described as working class ] while a approximately 5% of the population were classified as  long term unemployed or as never having worked. employed . Also if we accept theor

Nowadays it is the children of the poorer sections of the working class whose educational prospects are most likely to be affected adversely by disadvantaged economic circumstances although even the children of some relatively "affluent" working class families may experience some disadvantages as a result of their economic circumstances.



Eligibility for free school meals is generally regarded as a reasonable but far from perfect indicator or relative poverty and we must always remember that the effects of poverty on educational attainment operate through several distinct but inter-related processes. Children eligible for free school meals live in poor families where a range of useful educational resources may be unavailable but as a result of their poverty they are also more likely to live in socially deprived neighbourhoods served by relatively ineffective schools .

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

Children eligible for free school meals living in less deprived neighbourhoods and attending “good” schools are more likely to achieve fairly good results. Furthermore as will be shown in a subsequent document on “Race” , ethnicity and educational achievement, free school meal eligibility depresses the educational achievements of white pupils much more than those of some other ethnic group pupils, most notably Chinese, Indian and Bangladeshi pupils. 


 Adverse economic circumstances may affect the educational prospects of working class children in the following ways.

1.      Working class babies are more likely to be born with a low birth weight and to develop more slowly in the pre-school early years of their lives.

2.      There may be fewer pre school play groups or nurseries in working class areas.

3.      The educational development of some working class children may suffer may suffer as a result of under- nourishment, sickness, tiredness and absence. In some cases they may be forced into school absence in order to look after sick siblings because mothers are in paid employment but are unable to   afford to take time off work.

4.      Some working class children may live in dilapidated housing and may not have their own rooms for quiet study.

5.      Their parents may be unable to afford useful books, educational trips and personal computers.

6.      The findings of D. Finn (1984) showed that children from poor families were likely to have less time available for their studies because they were involved in child labour of various kinds. such as baby sitting, shop work, paper rounds, warehousing etc and also that working class children, especially working class girls were especially likely to be involved in housework, a factor which apparently encouraged them to leave school early in the hope of raising their status within the family so as to avoid housework.

7.      Although many 5th and 6th formers  of all social classes  nowadays  undertake some paid work this work may be   more likely to interfere with the studies of working class students than of middle class students who may be able to discontinue work well before important examinations and so on.  Click here for a recent [March 2015]   Observer report showing that taking part-time jobs can to undermine pupils' GCSE attainment levels.

8.      In "Origins and Destinations"[1980],  Heath, Halsey and Ridge pointed to the cost of supporting students between the ages of 16-18 when no maintenance grants were available as one of the major obstacles to equality of opportunity in Britain. At the time of writing this was considered to a problem especially for girls because it seemed probable that families who were in financial difficulties might give sons rather than daughters priority when it came to the financing of post- compulsory education. Despite the advance of educational opportunities for females, this point may still be relevant in some traditionally minded working class households. However limited maintenance grants for 16-18 year olds have subsequently been provided and may well have encouraged more working class pupils to remain in education beyond the age of 16.

9.      Some working class parents may be able to afford a little private tuition for their children but few can afford to opt for full time private education. It has also become increasingly clear that an increasing number of richer middle and upper class parents are likely to use their economic capital to purchase houses in the catchment areas of relatively successful and popular middle and secondary schools in the State education sector thus enhancing their children's educational prospects relative to those of working class children who are more likely as a result to be taught in less successful schools.

Our conclusion must surely be that the combined effects of factors 1-9 are likely to result in considerable difficulties for many poor children and that even “comfortably off” working class families  face economic difficulties relative  to middle and upper class families which may affect adversely the educational prospects of children from  from relatively comfortable working class backgrounds.


Activity: Imagine three families A, B and C, each with two teenage children aged 13 and 15. In family A the husband is an unskilled worker who is usually in full-time employment  but occasionally unemployed and the wife is a part-time shop assistant; in family B the husband is in full-time employment as a plumber and the wife is in full- time employment as a secretary; in family C the husband is in full-time employment as a teacher and the wife is in full-time employment as a lawyer

1.      Would you necessarily expect the parents in Family A to be fatalistic, lacking in ambition and with a strong present orientation?  If they were, how might this be explained?

2.      On average, although not in every case, the children in Family A would be relatively unlikely to be successful in education. Give three possible reasons for this.

3.      Give three possible reasons why the children of Family C  might be more successful in education than the children in Family B.

Return to Unit List



·       Unit 5: Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement. Some Further Studies 

In Units 4 and 5 we have seen that sociologists have analysed the causes of social class differences in educational achievement in terms of theories emphasising cultural deprivation, cultural difference and material disadvantage. It has been noted whereas early  theories based upon the concept of cultural deprivation have attracted considerable criticism sociologists nowadays are more in sympathy with theories based around cultural difference linked to social class differences in cultural capital and social capital  and theories emphasising the material and economic disadvantages experienced by considerable numbers of working class families and their children.

The following  studies provide more recent information around the issues considered in these notes.  Professor Feinstein’s work is now widely reported in several Advanced Level Sociology textbooks . The subsequent studies may be less well known but nevertheless provide useful fairly recent contributions t0 the debates surrounding the ongoing existence of social class inequalities in educational achievement. 

·          Recent Research from Professor Leon Feinstein.

Professor Leon Feinstein agrees class differences in educational achievement may be explained in terms of competing theories emphasising differences in inherited intelligence, social class differences in cultural and material circumstances and within school factors and states that his aim is not to assess the relative usefulness of these theories but to demonstrate that , for whatever combinations of reasons, the  relative educational development of working class children is restricted even in their pre-school years. This suggests that social class differences in cultural and/or material circumstances external to the schools themselves do help to explain social class differences in educational achievement.

Professor Feinstein's research demonstrates suggests that  even before children begin Nursery School the intellectual development of working class children appears to be slower than that of their middle class peers and that this is the case irrespective of the initial levels of the children's measured intelligence. His research findings indicate that children’s educational progress between 22 and 42 months is related both to their test scores at 22 months and to their parents’ socio-economic status [SES: i.e. their social class position.] In particular his data indicate that children with high test initial scores but low parental SES are overtaken by 42 months by children with low test scores but high parental SES, thus demonstrating that parental SES has a significant impact on pupil progress. He demonstrates further that pupil educational levels at 22 and 42 months are good predictors of pupil’s educational achievement at age 16.

Professor Feinstein concludes that further investigation of the effects of differing parenting techniques is necessary given the extent to which educational development varies so significantly even before children enter nursery school but also that wider investigations of patterns of social disadvantage are necessary to assess the reasons why patterns of achievement at ages 22 and 42 months are such good predictors of educational achievement in later life.

Click here to see graphic presentations of some of Professor Feinstein’s key conclusions.


1.      Carefully explain the first of the diagrams in Professor Feinstein’s study.

2.      Carefully explain the second of the diagrams in Professor Feinstein’s study

3.      Suggest reasons why the intellectual development of working class children appears to be slower than that of middle class children in the early years of life.




Eight Further Recent Studies

Return to Unit List

Summary and Conclusions

1.      Click here for a document  indicating that despite the increased educational achievements of working class students that significant social class differences in educational achievement continue to exist at all levels of the UK education system.

2.      Social class differences in educational achievement have sometimes been explained in terms of social class differences in intelligence which some non –sociologists claim are mainly inherited.

3.      Many sociologists are critical of these so-called IQ theories and for a variety of reasons.

4.      Relative working class educational underachievement has been explained also in terms of theories which seem to imply that some working class children and their families may be in some respects "culturally deprived." Many sociologists have criticised theories based upon the idea of cultural deprivation.

5.      The theories of Willis, Brown and Bourdieu suggest that in various respects there are cultural differences among the social classes but that cultural difference is not the same thing as cultural deprivation.

6.      Professor Stephen Ball has utilized some of Bourdieu’s concepts in an attempt to explain the relative educational advantages of the upper and middle classes in terms of their possession of economic, cultural and social capital not available to working class parents and their children.

7.      Other theorists have emphasised the ways in which adverse economic circumstances may disadvantage working class children especially children from the poorer sections of the working class.

8.      I have provided information from three recent research studies into social class differences in educational achievement.

9.      We turn to the importance of the schools themselves in the following document.  However there is strong evidence that the factors external to the education system discussed in this document are more significant determinants of educational attainment than the internal, within school factors which are discussed in the next document.

There are disputes within Sociology as to the relative importance of cultural and material factors as determinants of educational attainment but there is nevertheless substantial agreement that the combined effects of these "external factors" are very significant. Thus for example in a 2007 study  Robert Cassen and Geeta Kingdon  argued that although schools do make a difference "while students' social and economic circumstances are the most important factors explaining their educational results about 14% of the incidence of low results is attributable to low school quality"  and "disadvantaged kids are more likely to attend poorly performing  and can miss out on best teaching due to the 5 A*-C target." [However this target has recently been replaced by the Progress 8 target]

Also Professor Stephen Ball in his study The Education Debate [3rd edition 2017] stated that there is  good evidence that the variance in student attainment can be explained primarily by factors external to the schools and that although it is clearly important to investigate how changes in school organisation and teaching practices can improve the prospects of disadvantaged students it may be that "educational inequality might be better tackled not inside schools or families but by addressing poverty and inequalities in health housing and employment."

This view is reiterated in the recent study by Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin entitled Social Mobility and Its Enemies [2018]. Here the authors argue that while it is obviously true that all schools provide some education for all of their students  and that some particularly effective schools compensate to a considerable extent  for the adverse effects of some students' social background, "The truth is that schools can only do so much. They are governed by the 80/20 rule; on  average 80% of the variation in children's school results is due to individual and family  characteristics, while the remaining20% is due to what happens in school. Some schools are producing better results with very similar intakes of children. But the idea that teachers on their own  can cancel out extreme inequalities outside the school is fanciful."

Nevertheless it must also be recognised that researchers are trying very hard to investigate the causes of differences in school effectiveness  and that if a way can be found to spread best teaching practices to all schools this could significantly increase equality of educational opportunity. I have included the 4th and 5th links below to give a flavour of  the School Effectiveness approach  but Advanced Level Sociology students obviously need not familiarise themselves with the details of this research for examination purposes.

  1. Click here for Do schools make a difference from 2012
  2. Click here for BBC summary coverage of recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports on patterns of educational achievement. 
  3.  Click here for a summary of Robert Cassen and Geeta Kingdon's research paper 2007
  4. Click here for a detailed 2015 DFE paper in which the School Effectiveness approach is used.
  5. Click here for a 2012blog post from Professor Becky Allan

 The Interaction of External and Internal Factors

Within -School internal influences on educational attainment are discussed here and here but it is clear that internal and external factors interact in various ways to influence educational achievement. This may be illustrated as follows in the case of social class differences in educational achievement

Also click here for a very useful podcast from Kate Flatley on interaction of external and internal factors.

  1. The early subcultural theories of Hyman, Sugarman, and Douglas suggested that, in comparison to middle class parents,  working class parents gave less attention to their children's education because they were subject to fatalism, a strong present time orientation and an unwillingness to defer gratification all of which meant that they were unlikely to plan for their own or their children's longer term futures. Insofar as these theories are accurate they may inhibit working class educational progress which may mean that they are more likely to be allocated to low streams with further adverse consequences for their education. However later theorists have called these ideas into question , claimed that nowadays social class differences in attitudes to education are more limited and that social class differences in educational achievement can be better explained in terms of social class differences in the possession of cultural. economic and social capital. However insofar as teachers believed these earlier theories this may have persuaded them to label middle class and working class pupils positively and negatively respectively
  2. Bourdieu emphasised that middle class pupils were more likely to possess the kinds of cultural capital  which would facilitate educational success. Here it is possible that teachers interpret the possession of socially determined cultural capital  as evidence of biologically determined higher intelligence which increases the likelihood that working class pupils will be negatively but inaccurately labelled and consigned to lower sets and streams for invalid reasons.
  3. Bernstein argued that working class and middle class pupils were likely to operate with restricted and elaborated language codes respectively  and middle class students' possession of the elaborated code may mean that they can more easily understand school text books and follow teachers' language which is also more likely to use the elaborated code.  Although Bernstein's theories have been called into question by other theorists [e.g .William Labov]  teachers might well label pupils in terms of their fluency or otherwise in the elaborated code which they mistakenly take to be evidence of higher intelligence.
  4. In some cases teachers might label working class students negatively on the basis of their dress, appearance, demeanour or behaviour none of which necessarily reflect their academic potential. Working class parents may not be able to afford new school uniforms on  a regular basis; working class parents may find it difficult to interact with middle class teachers; and their possibly  boisterous behaviour is not necessarily evidence of lack of intelligence.
  5. Working class students educational attainments may be restricted due to adverse material circumstances which mean they may be more often ill and therefore absent from school and more likely to be  to be tired at school. They  may not have a quiet room for study or  a home computer which means that they are unavble to complete homework effectively.. Such factors  mean that these working class students are more likely to be allocated to low streams which may have further adverse consequences for their progress.
  6. It is also the case that if pupils are negatively labelled in school this may help to exacerbate already existing social class differences in cultural circumstances Thus , for example, if a working class child should fail the 11+ or be placed in lower sets  or receive negative school reports  s/he may well be demoralised but the working class parents  may also come to believe that their child's academic abilities are limited and they may therefore be discouraged from encouraging their child to persevere at school and/or from spending money on educational resources for their child.. Conversely if a middle class child is negatively assessed in any way middle class parents may be less likely to take these negative assessments at face value, may question the competences of the child's teachers  and /or employ private tutors to offset the child's negative performance.
  7. There are substantial variations in the examination results achieved by different comprehensive schools  and it has been shown that  middle class parents are able to use their greater resources of cultural, social and economic capital to secure entry for their children to more successful schools in ways not available  to many working class pupils.. Children who gain access  to the more successful schools may be exposed  to a more optimistic school culture  which may encourage both pupils and parents to   believe that educational success is possible. The culture of the successful school is likely to reinforce an achievement- oriented middle class culture  but it may also increase the ambitions of working class pupils and their parents. Entrance to a less successful school may have the reverse effects. Thus cultural, social and economic capital affect school choice but school choice may also influence cultural attitudes and values. [For illustrative purposes and on a brief autobiographical note when I was 10 years old neither I nor my parents would have dreamed that 3 years later they  would be buying me a Latin dictionary for Xmas. Thanks Mr Browne  and thanks mum and dad!]