Please note: that I have currently written 7 essays on the Sociology of Education and intent to write a few more in the near future. Note that in each case these essays are far longer than could be written under examination conditions and that although they include points of knowledge, application and evaluation I tend to use separate paragraphs for each of these categories rather than to combine several categories in each paragraph  as in the strongly recommended PEEEL approach whereby each paragraph should include Point; Explanation, Example: Evaluation and Link to following Paragraph.

I hope that you find the information in these essays useful but would strongly recommend that you write your own essays using the PEEEL approach or something very similar to it. Obviously, your teachers will advise you as to appropriate essay writing technique.

Essay: Analyse the importance of poverty as an explanation of social class differences in educational achievement

Useful Links


Poverty, Material Circumstances and Educational Achievement

Poverty, Cultural Circumstances and Educational Achievement,

Poverty, Schools and Educational Achievement

On the Interaction of Internal and External Factors influencing Educational Achievement




Useful Links

There are hundreds of articles which address the relationships between poverty and educational attainment, but I hope that students will find the following links useful.


Click here for documentary: Poor Kids.  December 2016

Click here for documentary: Breadline Kids 2018.

Click here for FSM item [BBC 2022].

Click here and here  for abolition of student maintenance grant [April 2016]

Click here for Poverty item [BBC 2022].

Click here for Key Stage 4 performance data for 2018/19- 2021/22. I shall be using this detailed table  later in this essay

Click here for DFE publication July 2023: Widening Participation in Higher Education

Click here  for Guardian coverage of Education Policy Institute Report July 2022.

Click here for Guardian coverage of children in poverty July 2022.

Click here  for Guardian coverage of 2022 GCSE results.

Click here  for Guardian article and  Click here for BBC item and click here for a Conversation article on the persistence of the school attainment gap August 2022.

Click here  for child poverty and ethnicity [ONS 2020].

Click here for BBC item on Poverty and Access to Higher Education. February 2019

Click here for Sutton Trust item on ambition, cultural, social and economic capital. October 2018.

Click here for an article from the LSE Blog by Konstanze Spohrer on the problem with raising aspiration strategies. May 2018/


Sociologists have argued that social class differences in educational achievement can be explained in terms of 4 not necessarily mutually exclusive kinds of theory: IQ theory; theories emphasising social class differences in material circumstances; theories emphasising social class differences in subcultural attitudes and values; and theories emphasising the importance of within school labelling processes. Sociologists tend to be critical of IQ theory for several reasons and point out that there is good evidence to show that social class is a major determinant of educational success even independently of measured differences in IQ. I shall therefore concentrate upon the three more sociological approaches and in each case, it may be argued that the factors which may disadvantage working class students in general are especially likely to disadvantage those working class students who experience poverty.

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. Social theorists working with a relative definition of poverty nowadays usually define poverty to exist where individuals are receiving an income below 60% of the UK median income.]

Click here for UK Poverty 2023 [ Report of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Here is a quotation from this Report.

“In 2020/21, around one in five of our population (20%) were in poverty – 13.4 million people. Of these, 7.9 million were working-age adults, 3.9 million were children and 1.7 million were pensioners.1 Throughout this report, when we use the term poverty, we are using the relative poverty rate, after housing costs, to measure poverty unless otherwise stated. See Annex 1 for more information on poverty definitions.”

For further information on Poverty in the UK

Click here for the Summary DWP publication and then click on Low Income indicators to see trends in relative and absolute poverty to 2022.

Click here and then click on Children in low income households to see trends in the incidence of child poverty.

Click here for Statistics on Child Poverty from the Child Poverty Action Group.

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 April-June 2020 21.9% of the employed population were in routine and semi routine occupations [the occupational groups usually described as working class ] while approximately 5% of the population were classified as  long term unemployed or as never having worked. employed. Also, if we accept theories of the proletarianisation of the routine non manual workers this would suggest that the working class could easily account for more than 30% of the employed population and that many skilled manual workers and their families are not living in conditions of relative poverty. You may click here for charts and tables illustrating the NS SEC data for April-June 2020.


Poverty, Material Circumstances and Educational Achievement

Relative poverty [and, in a limited number of cases, occasional absolute poverty] may have a significant impact on the educational achievement of the many working class students who experience it. Thus, sociologists have pointed out that on average working class students experience a range of material disadvantages in comparison with middle and upper class students and that these material disadvantages are most likely to be experienced by poor working class students. The indirect effects of relative poverty on educational achievement can be shown in data on relationships between free school meal eligibility [an approximate measure of relative poverty] and educational achievement.

However Click here for FSM item [BBC 2022]  which has data indicating that according to the Joseph Rowntree Federation whereas in 2022 4.3 million children were living in relative poverty only 2.3 million children were currently getting free school meals  while the Child Poverty Action Group estimated that 800, 000 children were missing out. There is clearly a discrepancy between the two estimates, but both show clearly that many, many children living in relative poverty do not receive free school meals.


Key Stage 4 Educational Attainment Levels 2018/19- 2021/22

Pupils attainments at Key Stage 4 are now assessed in terms of a variety of criteria as is indicated in this detailed table from which I have extracted the following data.

FSM Eligibility, Gender and Key Stage 4 Attainment Levels 2018/19- 2021/22: Average Attainment 8 scores and Percentages of Pupils Achieving Grades 4 or better and Grades 5 or better in English and Mathematics GCSEs


FSM FSM all other Boys Girls
Average Attainment 8 score of all pupils 2018/19 34.9 48.6 44.0 49.5
Average Attainment 8Score of all pupils 2021/22 36.9 51.9 46.3 51.4
Percentage of pupils achieving Grade 4 or above in English and Maths GCSE 2018/19 41.4 69.4 61.0 68.4
Percentage of pupils achieving Grade 4 or above in English and Maths GCSE 2021/22 47.0 74.5 66.2 71.5
Percentage of pupils achieving Grade 5 or above in English and Maths GCSE 2018/19 22.5 46.6 40.0 46.6
Percentage of pupils achieving Grade 5 or above in English and Maths GCSE 2021/22 28.4 55.4 47.0 52.7


Activity Using information in the above table on Gender, Free School Meal Eligibility and Educational Attainment answer the following questions.

  1. What was the Attainment 8 gap between FSM eligible pupils and all other pupils in 2021/22?
  2. What was the Attainment8 gap between girls and boys in 2021/22?
  3. What was the gap in achievement of Grade 5 or above in English and Maths GCSE in 2021/22 between FSM eligible and all other pupils?
  4. What was the gap in achievement of Grade 5 or above in English and Maths GCSE in 2021/22 between girls and boys?
  5. Which factor is the more significant influence on educational achievement:  Gender or Free School Meal Eligibility?


Free School Meal Eligibility, A Level and Other 16-18 Examination Results

Click here for A level and other 16-18 results: 2022 [revised]  and click here for excellent table on A Level and other 16-18 results of students eligible and not eligible for free school meals. There is an attainment gap of approximately one half of a grade per A Level subject.



Free School Meal Eligibility and Access to Higher Education

The Gap in access to Higher Education between pupils eligible and ineligible for free school meals remains substantial.

Click here for Widening Participation in Higer Education2021/22 published July 2023

This is a most excellent publication with superb charts and tables. You can create direct links to the information you require, and I have used this facility here.

Click here for FSM eligibility and Access to Higher Education  and  here for FSM eligibility and Access to Higher Education [High Tariff]

The above statistics illustrate that the educational attainments of students eligible for free school meal are lower than those of their peers who are ineligible for free school meals and that differences in attainment levels occur at GCSE Level, at GCE Advanced Level and in access to Higher Education. Although the educational attainments of FSM Eligible students have improved overtime, the differences in attainment between pupils eligible and ineligible for free school meals have remained substantial and it is noted that, for example the slight reduction in the Attainment gap at GCSE Level which occurred in the 10 years prior to the COVID pandemic has been reversed because of the greater adverse effects on the educational attainments of poorer pupils.

Successive Governments have introduced a wide variety of compensatory education measures from the 1960s to the 1980s but despite good intentions education attainment gaps between poor and more affluent students have remained substantial. Further information on Compensatory Education may be found here but I turn now to the analysis of the factors which inhibit the educational attainments of poorer students.

Adverse economic circumstances may affect the educational prospects of working class students and especially the educational prospects of poor working class students 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 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. Click here for recent information the extent of substandard housing.
  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 at the time apparently encouraged them to leave school early in the hope of raising their status within the family so as to avoid housework.
  7. However it may be necessary now to rethink these conclusions, at least to some extent. For example perhaps many 5th and 6th formers  of all social classes  nowadays  undertake some paid work but  such 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. Also, given the relative educational progress of girls in the last 20 or so years, Finn's conclusion in relation to some working class girls may require some revision although the difficulties which continue to be faced by some working class girls must not be underestimated. Click here for Professor Gillian Richards' article on the lives of working class girls . NEW link added April 2018
  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. Limited education maintenance grants for 16-18 year olds [The Education Maintenance Allowance] were provide by the Labour Government  and may well have encouraged more working class pupils to remain in education beyond the age of 16 but the Coalition Government discontinued the EMA on the grounds that it did not represent value for money . However critics have argued that the scrapping of the EMA was  a retrograde step and that the replacement scheme introduced by the Coalition has been less effective than the EMA. Further information on the EMA may be found here
  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. Moving to more affluent areas with more effective State schools or the choice of successful but expensive Private schools  will not be possible for them while the possible financial sacrifices associated with higher education may be especially alarming and this  may prevent talented  children from poor families from enrolling on  Higher Education courses.
  10. Click here  for What is preventing  Social Mobility? by Professor Becky Francis and Dr Billy Wong  and scroll down to pages 9-16 for detailed information on the under-representation of poorer pupils at Private Schools. Grammar Schools and high performing, socially selective "comprehensive schools "

In summary poorer students are more likely to have a poor a poor diet causing lack of energy, concentration difficulties and illness leading to absence from school; they may not have a quiet comfortable study room; their parents may be unable to afford books, computers, expensive school trips and private tuition; they may be forced to miss school to look after sick siblings if their parents cannot afford to take time off work ; they may be forced to take part-time jobs which reduces the time available for study. Private education will not be an option and the possible financial sacrifices associated with higher education may be especially alarming which may prevent talented children from poor families from entering Higher Education.


Poverty, Cultural Circumstances and Educational Achievement

[This section is taken almost [but not quite] verbatim from my posted essay on "Working Class Subculture and Educational Achievement".]

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

It has been suggested also that in the UK and other industrial countries working class students may be at a cultural disadvantage relative to middle and upper class students and   writers such as Hyman , Sugarman, Douglas, Bernstein and Willis  have  pointed to the cultural disadvantages of working class children in general which may apply in particular to poor working class children.

Hyman argued essentially that by comparison with the middle class, working class people tend to lack ambition because they feel that upward social mobility will take them away from their working class roots; they tend to be fatalistic; they are said to have a strong present time orientation and to be unwilling to defer gratification: they are seen as unwilling  make present sacrifices in order to make future gains. Sugarman supported these ideas adding that working class attitudes derived from their experience of working class manual labour with few promotion prospects and hence no reason to plan for the long term. Douglas added to this line of argument his “evidence” that middle class parents tended to take more interest in their children’s education as measured by their willingness to attend parents’ evenings. Essentially the implication of these theories was that relative working class educational underachievement could be explained by the cultural deprivation of the working class. Bernstein in turn argued that relative working class disadvantage  could be explained in terms of class differences in linguistic codes: middle class and working class people were said to operate with a  so-called elaborated code and a so-called restricted code respectively and Bernstein argued that middle class usage of  the elaborated code would confer educational advantage although Bernstein did also emphasise that these class differences in language usage did not in any way imply that one code was superior to another.

Perhaps the most controversial theory seeking to link educational underachievement with the cultural characteristics of the poor is Charles Murray's version of the underclass theory, publicised in the 1980s and 1990s . According to Murray, a mainly Black and Hispanic  underclass containing mainly ethnic minority members and consisting of about  5% of the population existed by the 1980s  in the USA and similar trends were  well advanced in the U.K. although writing in 1989 in the Sunday Times, Murray stated that an underclass was not yet firmly established in the UK and neither was this emerging underclass mainly composed of ethnic minority members.

Click here for BBC coverage of UK and USA research on lone parent families and here for BBC Radio 4 Analysis coverage of this research..  This research suggests that many lone parent families are likely to experience poverty which adversely affects children's life chances but also that lone parenthood itself may sometimes but certainly not always have adverse consequences for children. You should discuss this research with your teachers. New link added February 2019

Murray stated that not all poor individuals  are members of the underclass for some poor people are well organised and positive. However Murray claimed that in the USA the availability of overgenerous welfare benefits for single mothers encouraged the growth of illegitimate births  and welfare dependency which in turn resulted in fatalism, unwillingness to work, social disorganisation and increased involvement in often drug related criminal activity all of which resulted in the inter-generational transmission of underclass membership. If Murray's theory is accurate it would certainly help to explain in cultural terms why students from the underclass [although not those from among the more positive sections of the poor] are especially unlikely to succeed within the education system.  However as we shall see Murray's theory has also been severely criticised.

The studies of Hyman, Sugarman and Douglas soon attracted criticism but by the late 1970s Willis was still emphasising that working class culture was a key factor in explaining lack of educational success. “The Lads” in his study (12 working class, non-examination pupils in a Midlands Secondary Modern school) actively hoped to find physically demanding manual employment because of their patriarchal beliefs that this was the kind of work which, rather than skilled professional non-manual work , would confirm their manliness.  In this respect Willis was arguing that these working class boys were culturally different rather than culturally deprived. With this view of life, school could offer them little and they responded accordingly by taking an absolutely minimal interest in school, an attitude more or less supported by their parents. However, Willis also recognised that many school students were much more conventional and in some respects if he was seeking to analyse overall working class attitudes to education, it might have been better to concentrate upon the conventional majority rather than upon the rebellious few.

From the  1970s onwards Pierre Bourdieu also rejected the concept of cultural deprivation and focussed instead upon working class cultural difference  as an explanation of relative working class educational underachievement. Using the concept of Cultural Capital he argued that although the cultures of the upper, middle and working classes may well be different, they are nevertheless equally valuable but that the upper class has the power to establish its culture as the dominant culture in society and to ensure that educational ability is assessed mainly in terms of the possession or non- possession of this dominant culture. The possession of the dominant culture is described in Bourdieu's theory as the possession of cultural capital because it is likely to guarantee access to high paid occupations for upper and possibly middle class students whereas working class pupils are disadvantaged in school and in employment because of their lack of cultural capital . The conclusion of this theory is that working class students are not culturally deprived but that they are culturally different and at a disadvantage because educational success depends upon possession of cultural capital which they do not have. [Bourdieu emphasises also that the upper and middle classes possess economic capital {i.e. wealth} and social capital {i.e. useful social connections } which similarly improve their economic prospects and contribute to the reproduction of capitalist class structures.]

It has sometimes been suggested that the meaning of cultural capital is not entirely clear although it might involve some or all of the following elements: middle and upper class parents may provide more educational play activities and hobbies which prepare their children more effectively for school entry; they may socialise their children in ways that enable them to interact more effectively with teachers [many of whom also come from middle class backgrounds]; they may help their children to develop what are considered to be higher level linguistic skills and appropriate cultural tastes in art, music and literature; and because of their own higher educational levels they may be more able than working class parents to help with homework.

Furthermore Bourdieu argues that upper and middle class parents also have access to economic and social capital as well as cultural capital which can be used to advance their children's educational prospects: they can afford to buy houses in the catchment areas of the most effective state schools: they can afford private education if they are dissatisfied with the state system and they can use their social contacts for example to arrange appropriate work experience placements for their children which will advance their future career prospects. Very few working class parents and even fewer poor working class parents possess these kinds of cultural, economic and social capital as is illustrated in  the recent work  Ball, Bowe and Gerwitz in which the authors make good use of   Bourdieu's concepts of cultural, economic and social capital .

Although there are obviously very significant differences among the above theories they all suggest that in various ways working class students in general may be at a cultural disadvantage relative to middle and upper class students and it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that such cultural disadvantages could apply especially within the poorer sections of the working class. However several criticisms have been made of studies of Hyman, Sugarman and Douglas mentioned above and also of Murray's theory of the underclass mentioned above and their conclusions  should clearly not be accepted entirely at face value. 

Firstly, there are methodological criticisms of these studies on which these studies are based.   Hyman and Sugarman relied upon questionnaire data which may have been invalid; differences between working class and middle class attitudes may have been exaggerated and similarities underestimated; Douglas’ measure of parental interest  (attendance at parents’ evenings) is unacceptable for several reasons; Willis ‘research relied on a small number of not necessarily  representative working class students; according to his critics Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital is complex and possibly vague. Also it may possibly be applicable more to success in Arts subjects than in Science subjects and Mathematics .

Secondly the theories of Hyman, Sugarman and Douglas implied that because working class pupils and their families were fatalistic, unwilling to defer gratification and had a strong present time orientation they were culturally deprived. However critics argued that when working class students and their families appear to lack ambition, they may be being realistic rather than fatalistic about their educational prospects. Their experience tells them that they are unlikely to be successful; they may fear the prospect of failure more than middle class students and their parents. Also, working class ambitions may be reduced as a result of poor school reports which demoralise them whereas  middle class parents are more likely to respond by trying to remedy the situation, for example by purchasing books and /or private tuition. Furthermore working class parents may themselves lack the education to help their children as much as they would like. : they may not be able to turn their ambitions for their children into effective help:

In any case it has been pointed out [for example in Family Background and Educational Success by [Claire Crawford, Lorraine Dearden, John Micklewright and Anna Vignoles 2016] that  around half of the poorest 20% of 14 year old children still expect to apply to university.

Admittedly this is considerably lower than the 80% of the richest 20% of children who intend to apply, and it is also the case that for the poorest children the percentage intending to apply to university does fall between the ages of 14 and 17 to about 55%  but this is surely not indicative of overall limited aspirations among poor pupils. 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. This study reinforces the conclusions of the above mentioned study by Claire Crawford, Lorraine Dearden, John Micklewright, and Anna Vignoles 2016.

Thirdly several sociologists have been critical of Murray on the grounds that he has neglected more structural explanations of poverty, that he has neglected research indicating that the culture of the poor is not significantly different from the culture of society in general. that he has neglected the fact that many people move in and out of poverty such that no permanent underclass exists and that the scaling down of welfare benefits as proposed by Murray would surely worsen the situation for the poor in the short term and in the long term despite Murray's belief in "trickle down economics.". Thus these sociologists deny that Murray has provided an accurate explanation of poverty and deny also that the relative educational underachievement of poor students can be explained mainly by their own negative fatalism.

In the early 21st Century it has been suggested by some social analysts [such as those associated with the Centre for Social Justice in the UK] that negative attitudes to work are transmitted from generation to generation in some families which results in the intergenerational transmission of unemployment and poverty which in turn generate negative attitudes toward education. However research by Professor Tracy Shildrick and others indicates that there are very few families  where unemployment has been the norm for three generations while Professor Meg Maguire has pointed out that a very large proportion of individuals living in poverty are also in paid employment but receiving low wages.

Fourthly although many sociologists have considerable sympathy for the work of Willis and Bourdieu, Willis' study is unrepresentative of contemporary working class students because it concentrates on a very small number of non-examination Secondary modern school boys in the 1970s. These pupils' subcultural characteristics are not necessarily typical of the working class as a whole and attitudes to work may have altered because the hard physical work preferred by Willis'" lads" is no longer widely available leading most but not all working class boys to adopt different attitudes to future employment although, of course serious problems remain for working class boys who cannot adopt to the changing labour market circumstances.. Critics of Bourdieu argue that the concept of cultural capital is rather vague and that it is far from obvious that the possession of some kinds of cultural capital [such as higher level linguistic skills and willingness to engage with "high culture" are necessary to success especially at First School, Middle School and early Secondary School levels  although they  may possibly be very helpful especially in the study of the Humanities at Advanced Level and in  Higher Education. However other aspects of cultural capital involving preparation for school, inculcation of pro-school attitudes and help with homework  may well be useful at the lower educational levels.


Poverty, The Schools and Educational Achievement

Sociologists have argued also that relative working class educational achievement can be explained partly by processes of streaming/banding/ setting  and labelling and self -fulfilling prophecies which operate in the schools themselves which may also disadvantage working class students and, in particular, poor working class students. As examples of such work we may use the studies of Hargreaves, Keddie and Ball.

Hargreaves argued that low stream pupils were denied academic status within the school and that they therefore tried to regain status among their peers by misbehaviour and unwillingness to work which led to the development of anti-school subcultures in lower streams. Additional problems arose because if students were labelled by teachers as "worthless louts" or suchlike, this would encourage more misbehaviour, more teacher criticism and subsequently more misbehaviour. Also, it was possible that "better" teachers were assigned to higher sets and that teacher preparation for lower set students because these students were seen as incapable of real progress. In general terms therefore, lower set students were labelled as failures and the system of setting created the conditions for the self-fulfilling prophecy in that by allocating students to lower streams, the teachers actually created the conditions which ensured failure.

Additional criticisms of setting, banding and streaming were made by Nell Keddie in "Classroom Knowledge" (1970) where she claimed that a supposedly undifferentiated Humanities course was delivered differently according to the sets of the students and that, for example, teachers chose not to teach the more complex, theoretical ideas to mainly working class, lower set students on the assumption that these students would not understand them. Obviously this was likely to restrict these students’ progress. Stephen Ball (Beachside Comprehensive 1980) is also critical: he presents evidence that teachers were continuing to label low band students extremely negatively as for example, "a waste of time" while the reverse was true in relation to higher band students although  he did also raise the strong possibility that even if so-called mixed ability teaching was introduced, there could still be informal setting within individual classes such that this so-called mixed ability teaching would not necessarily overcome the problem of labelling and self-fulfilling prophecies.

Nevertheless in  Uncertain Masculinities {[2000] M.O'Donnell and S. Sharpe argue tentatively  and possibly over-optimistically argued that negative labelling is less common nowadays. If this is true the prospects for all working class children including poor working class children might gradually improve .However recent data indicate that pupils eligible for free school meals are still disproportionately likely to be placed in lower sets  and that in some cases their academic abilities have been underestimated . For evidence of these points click here to access pages 16-19 of What is preventing  Social Mobility?  By Professor Becky Francis and Dr Billy Wong. [Really worth a click!!] Also the following very recent article suggests that streaming and setting processes may well be based on inaccurate assessments of ability which disadvantage poorer pupils. Click here for recent research on teacher's subconscious biases against poor pupils in relation to mathematics  and reading ability NEW link added June 2015

Further information on Labelling Theory may be found here


On the interaction of the external and internal factors influencing educational achievement

It is clear in any case 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!]



It is very well known that working class students, educational achievements are on average lower than those of middle class students and sociologists explain these social class differences in educational achievement in terms of some combination of material disadvantage, cultural disadvantage and processes operative in the schools themselves such as streaming, setting, banding and negative labelling . It does seem likely also that it will be students from the poorer sections of the working class who are most likely to suffer and to achieve poorer examination results as a result of these disadvantages. However relative working class educational achievement cannot be explained solely in terms of poverty because approximately one half of working class chief income earners are skilled manual  workers whose children do not usually experience relative poverty as usually defined. Nevertheless the children of skilled manual workers are on average less successful in education than middle and upper class children. and this is to be explained in terms of fundamental economic and social inequalities as between skilled manual  workers and their families and those at higher levels of the class structure. Finally in relation to educational achievement in general it is important to consider interrelationships between class, gender and ethnicity. It is true that students eligible for free school meals are on average  likely to achieve lower educational qualifications than those students who are not eligible for free school meals. However poor girls achieve higher qualifications than poor boys  and while the differences in educational achievement of white students vary greatly depending upon eligibility or ineligibility for free school meals this variation is far smaller among ethnic minority students who therefore seem to be more successful in offsetting the potentially adverse effects of poverty on educational achievement.

Some Additional Links

The following links were used in earlier versions of this essay. I have retained them here but it is unnecessary for Advanced Level Sociology students to follow up on these links for examination purposes

Click here for Guardian coverage of poverty and internet access

Click here for links to a series of articles in the Guardian "Breadline Britain " series focusing on pupil poverty. June 2012

Click here for BBC item on the educational disadvantages of bright but poor pupils July 2012

Click here for important new academic study [December 2013] suggesting that lack of money has important direct adverse effect on poor pupils' educational attainment . July 2014

Click here for a summary of recent recent research from the Institute of Education on Persistent Poverty and Children's Cognitive Development. The summary contains  a further link to the full research paper and additional links to summaries of other very  useful studies from the Institute of Education . June 2012.  

Click here for links to a series of articles in the Guardian "Breadline Britain " series focusing on pupil poverty. June 2012

Click here for BBC item on the educational disadvantages of bright but poor pupils  July 2012

Click here for BBC item on limited impact of the Pupil Premium  September 2012

Click here and here and here for 2012 data and discussion of  University entrance rates of state school and private school pupils and on University entrance rates for pupils eligible for free school meals . August 2013

Click here for important new academic study [December 2013] suggesting that lack of money has important direct adverse effect on poor pupils' educational attainment . July 2014

Click here for a summary, [including a link to the full research paper], of important research from University of Manchester on Children and the Bedroom Tax.  December 2015

Click here and here for the first two of a three part series on Poverty and Education posted on the Reclaiming Schools Blog. NEW links added November 2015