Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement
Introduction - Click Here
Part 1: Explaining Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement: IQ Theories - Click Here
Part 2: Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement: Cultural Deprivation
Part 3: Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement: Cultural Difference - Click Here
Part 4: Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement: Material Economic Differences - Click Here
Part 5: Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement. Some More Recent Studies - Click Here
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 , B Sugarman  and JWB Douglas  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 
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.
- 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.]
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 .
Hyman’ explanation was extended by B.Sugarman 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.
- Working class people have limited individual long term career prospects such that manual workers may reach their maximum earnings early in their 20s.
- 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.
- 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.]
- These general attitudes affect their own life choices and also their attitudes to their children’s education.
- 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 
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
- In“The Home and the School”, Douglasinvestigated 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 ”, Douglas carried out a follow up study of 4720 of the original sample of pupils at age 16+.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- Furthermore even if ambition remained strong, the difficult financial circumstances or the so-called “situational constraints” which many working class parents face may prevent them from realising their ambitions: thus they may be financially unable to support their children’s, education as fully as they would wish, unable to translate their ambitions into effective practical support for their children and unable to liaise effectively with the schools. Meanwhile many working class children may opt for employment rather than post-compulsory education because they may not wish to be an ongoing financial burden to their relatively poor parents.
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  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.]
This Activity is based on the above quotation from Langley, Pilkington and Richardson  and the YCS Table.
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 16.1. Have these authors underestimated the usefulness of cultural deprivation theory or not? Give three reasons for your answer.
Part 3: Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement: Cultural Difference - Click Here