Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement: Part 4- Material Economic  Differences

Russell Haggar

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Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement

Part List

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 - Click Here
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
Part 5: Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement. Some More Recent Studies - Click Here


Part 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.

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

Click here for Outcomes for pupils eligible for free school meals and identified with special educational needs and scroll down to pages 9-10pp and click here for a more technical article

Table : Gender, Free School Meal Eligibility and Percentages of Pupils gaining 5 or more GCSE A*-C  Grades including English and Mathematics 2008/9 – 2012/13 [Source : DFE SFR 2011/2012  and DFE SFR 2012/13 GCSE Attainment and Pupil Characteristics: ]

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.

Unfortunately although this latter gap has closed almost noticeably between 2010/11 and 2012 it will obviously take many years to eliminate this gap at this rate


1.      Using information from the above linked source, assess the extent to which children eligible for free school meals lack access to important educational resources.

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 . 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.


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.


Part 5: Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement. Some More Recent Studies - Click Here

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