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

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

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


Part  5:

Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement. Some More Recent 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 four studies provide more recent information around the issues considered in these notes. In relation to these studies teachers will know that Professor Feinstein’s work is now widely reported in several AS Sociology textbooks so that it is clearly directly relevant to examination preparation. However studies 2, 3 and 4 might perhaps best be used more as optional extension work designed to illustrate the ongoing importance of social class inequalities in educational achievement.

Recent Study 1: 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.

To see graphic presentations of some of Professor Feinstein’s key conclusions - Click Here


For Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain: Gillian Evans [2006]  Click here  November 2021

For University.s not for me: I'm a Nike Person [Article By Louise Archer and Colleagues 2007]   Click here  November 2021


Eight Further Recent Studies

  • Click here to access What is preventing  Social Mobility?  By Professor Becky Francis and Dr Billy Wong. See  Pages 5-8 on unequal starting points, pages 9-16 on limited access of poorer pupils to high performing schools and pages 16-19 on the effects of setting and streaming
  •  Click here for Underachievement by white working class children by Garth Stahl. In this article Garth Stahl discusses the issue of working class attitudes to educational achievement in considerable detail June 2015 
  • Click here for an item from Revise Sociology which links to a useful Thinking Allowed programme featuring Garth Stahl .This item includes  some further very useful analysis of the programme contents
  • Click here for summary of research by Prof Louise Archer et al [ King's College London]: Poverty of Aspiration is largely a myth   October 2015
  • Click here for an article by Heather Rolphe : Low aspirations do not explain why working class children fall behind. October 2015
  • Click here for a thought provoking article by Garth Stahl on the nature of white working class aspiration and click here for an article by Prof. Tony Sewell and click here for further comments from Garth Stahl.. The differing emphases of these articles may generate useful discussion.
  •  Click here for BBC Coverage of OFSTED view that white working class parents lack aspiration.


Summary and Conclusions

  1. 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.
  2. Many sociologists are critical of these so-called IQ theories and for a variety of reasons.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. I have provided information from three recent research studies into social class differences in educational achievement.
  8. 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  factors are discussed here and  external factors are discussed 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!]


  • Some Additions September 2022
  • Click here for Education in Inequality: The Deaton Review which has links to all the following papers
  • Click here for IFS seminar presentation on Educational Inequalities and the Deaton Report
  • Click here for IFS article on Private Schools and Inequality for the Deaton Report [F Green]
  • Click here for IFS article on Education Inequalities for the Deaton Report [Christine Farquharson, Sandra McNally, Imran Tahir]
  • Click here for IFS article on Measuring and understanding contemporary English educational inequalities for the Deaton Report [ Diane Reay]
  • Click here for Inequality in post 16 Education for the Deaton Report [S. Field]
  • Click here for The stubborn persistence of educational inequality for the Deaton Report [Richard Breen]
  • Click here for Conversation article on the Deaton Report and Education