Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement [2] : The Schools-Introductory Links and Early Investigations

Russell Haggar

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Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement [2] : The Schools

Page last edited :26/04/2017

See also Private Education

Parts List

Part One: Some Introductory Links Followed By Early Investigations 
Part Two: Some More Recent Investigations - Click Here
Part Three: School Effectiveness Research - Click Here
Part Four: Secondary School Choice - Click Here
Part Five: Summary and Conclusions - Click Here


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.  April 2017. VERY USEFUL

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

Click here for BBC item on Schools and Oxbridge entrance

Click here for BBC item on extent to which school attended affects examination results of children eligible for free school meals

Click here for February 2012 BBC Radio 4 Analysis Programme entitled “Do Schools make a Difference?

Click here for BBC coverage of report on non-selective secondary schools and clever pupils [June 2013] and here and here for Guardian coverage of criticisms of the report [June 2013]

Click here for Observer coverage of research suggesting that, other things equal, Comprehensive school pupils out-perform Private school pupils at University [June 2013]

Click here for BBC coverage and here for the full report Higher Education: The Fait Access Challenge [June 2013]

Click here and here and here for 2012 data and discussion of  University entrance rates of state school and private school pupils. [August 2013]

 Learning Objectives

  • To understand and to appreciate the significance of and controversies surrounding the following terms: streaming, banding, setting, mixed ability teaching.
  • To be familiar with the ”Interactionist” approach to the Sociology of Education and with some of its strengths and weaknesses.
  • To be familiar with the conclusions of key studies by David Hargreaves, R. Rosenthal and L. Jacobson, Colin Lacey, Nell Keddie and Stephen Ball.
  • To appreciate the significance of some of the findings from studies by Professor David Barber and by Mike O’Donnell and Sue Sharpe
  • To be familiar with some of the conclusions of “Schools Effectiveness Research”
  • To be familiar with recent studies by Dianne Reay   [The link have been added in July 2011.I do not discuss the articles in the following text but you can certainly study them for yourselves!]
  • The same applies to more the more recent research by Professor Francis mentioned above although I do include some findings of this research later in this document.
  • To draw some overall conclusions as to the range of explanations of social class differences in educational achievement.


Some Early Investigations.

 In the previous document we investigated a range of studies in which sociologists sought to explain the relative educational under-achievement of working class students in terms of cultural deprivation, cultural difference and disadvantageous economic circumstances.

However although these studies are useful in several respects  they have been criticised in general terms because they were seen as deflecting attention from the organisation of the schools themselves and particularly from the systems of streaming, banding or setting which some sociologists considered to be important determinants of social class [and ethnic and gender] inequalities of educational opportunity.

Click here for  BBC News Report on the 2006-07 Ofsted Report. You might like to follow the link to a brief video connected to the report.


Streaming, Banding , Setting and Mixed Ability Teaching.

Before we can investigate some of the sociological studies related to streaming, banding and setting it is necessary to clarify the meaning of these terms

  • Streaming occurs when the pupils in each year group are allocated to particular forms on the basis of their estimated overall abilities and taught as the same form grouping in all of their subjects. For example in a hypothetical Grammar school , after the First Year pupils might be streamed in the following forms:

o       2A: high estimated ability pupils who were to specialise more in Foreign Languages than in Natural Sciences ;

o       2B : high estimated ability pupils who were to specialise more in Natural Sciences than Foreign Languages;

o       2C: pupils of good estimated ability who nevertheless would not specialise especially in Foreign Languages or Natural Sciences];

o        2D and 2E :Pupils estimated  to have rather lesser academic abilities who might specialise rather more in technical and handicraft subjects.

Streaming of pupils into forms in terms of their estimated abilities is now relatively rare.

  • We may illustrate the meaning of Banding and Setting with the following numerical  example involving  a hypothetical  secondary school with Year groups of 150 pupils which are to be allocated to 6 classes of 25 pupils in each  year.
  • If the pupils are allocated to 3 broad ability “bands” [High, Middle and low] of 50 students but no attempt is made to subdivide each band of 50 pupils into higher and lower sets respectively , a system of banding is in operation.
  • Using the above example if the 150 pupils in each Year group are ranked according to their estimated abilities and placed into 6 sets such that the 25 highest ability pupils are in the top set, the next 25 in terms of ability are placed in the second set and so on, a system of setting is in operation.
  • If pupils are allocated to subject groupings on a random basis that takes no account of estimated ability, a system of mixed ability groupings is in operation.
  • It should be noted that when systems of banding or setting are in operation, many pupils will be in similar bands or sets for the majority of their subjects although a minority may be in high bands/sets for some subjects and lower bands/sets for others.
  • It is possible that in any given secondary school ,banding or setting is more likely in Years 10 and 11 than in Years 7, 8 and 9.Streaming, banding and setting may occur also to a more limited extent in primary schools.
  • It is possible also that in any given school pupils may be banded or setted in some subjects but taught in mixed ability groupings in others


Activity·        How would you describe the system used to allocate pupils to subject groups in the secondary school which you attend?·        If you were  the Head Teacher at your  school would you have changed the pupil allocation system or left it unchanged? Give reasons for your answer.


Controversies Surrounding Systems of Class Grouping

There are important disputes  as to the educational effectiveness of  streaming banding and setting relative to mixed ability teaching.

Supporters of streaming, banding and setting claim that these arrangements enable pupils of differing abilities to be taught in ways and at speeds suitable to their abilities thus enhancing the progress of all pupils .”Bright” pupils are not held back by the existence of “slower” pupils in their classes and “slower” pupils are not demoralised by the presence of “brighter“ pupils in their classes. In recent years UK government spokespersons have argued increasingly in favour of increased use of banding and setting especially in Secondary schools and many [although certainly not all] teachers are believe that banding and/or setting arrangements are necessary to promote effective learning.

Supporters of mixed ability teaching argue that the allocation of children to bands and sets is often based upon inaccurate and possibly prejudicial teacher assessments of pupils’ abilities and/or potential. It is argued that working class pupils are disproportionately likely to be allocated to lower bands and sets for reasons unrelated to their educational abilities and potential and that the consignment of some pupils to lower bands and sets is likely to affect their self-confidence and therefore to restrict their educational progress.

Click here for a critical evaluation  by Professor Chris Husbands of  setting by ability


The Interactionist Approach to the Sociology of Education

Interactionist sociologists are so-called because they focus their attention on the analysis of interactions among individuals in small groups .By the late 1960s in the UK  some  interactionist sociologists were undertaking relatively small scale studies of individual schools and classrooms often based mainly [but not entirely] on observational research methods which in their view would generate more meaningful  data than could be generated by other methods such as questionnaires and interviews. Interactionists were especially keen to focus on the possible impacts  of the systems of streaming, banding and setting on pupils’ educational achievements.

They then concluded that teachers [who themselves originated mainly from middle class backgrounds] were very likely to assess students’ academic potential in terms of such variables as their appearance, language, social skills and social class background in such a way that working class children were often perceived by teachers as being on average less intelligent than middle class children. It followed that where streaming, setting or banding systems were in operation,[ which they usually were], working class students were more likely to be consigned to lower streams, sets or bands even when in reality they often had very good academic potential.

Then while the mainly middle class students in the higher streams, bands or sets would be encouraged by positive teacher labelling to work hard , mainly working class students in the lower streams , bands or sets would be regularly labelled negatively  as “dull”, “thick” or ” a waste of time” [see below]. The use of such labels amounted to the construction of self fulfilling prophecies in that positively labelled students were encouraged to improve their performance while negative labels generated reduced self-confidence and/or increased rebellion among many working class students leading to the limited educational achievements which the teachers had prophesied.



1. Interactionists suggested that the methods used by teachers to allocate pupils to bands and sets were often inaccurate and unfair. To what extent do your own experiences  of school support or  undermine this view?


Several well known interactionist studies were undertaken between the 1960s and 1980s and as examples of the approach I shall concentrate here on the studies of David Hargreaves, Colin Lacey  and Stephen Ball.


  • Social Relations in a Secondary School [David Hargreaves 1967]

In “Social Relations in a Secondary School”[1967], which was  based on research in a streamed boys’ secondary modern school, David Hargreaves claimed that pupils’ academic potential had often been assessed very inaccurately leading to an inaccurate allocation  of pupils to the streams in existence.

Many working class pupils allocated to lower streams felt that as a result of their allocation to low streams they had been denied formal academic status within the school. Their responses resulted in the development of powerful anti-school peer groups in the lower streams where pupils would seek to regain status informally by “messing around” and general opposition to teachers’ authority. Hargreaves describes the culture of the lower streams as “delinquescent”. Teachers often responded with further ill-considered criticism and a disinclination to prepare lessons effectively for low stream classes which provoked even more pupil rebellion such that even students who wanted to learn would be prevented from doing so in such a difficult classroom environment.

By contrast pupils who had been allocated to the higher streams accepted the aims of the school and were in general prepared to work hard and accept teacher authority without criticism. Hargreaves describes the culture of the upper streams as “academic” and came to the central conclusion  that pupil attitudes to education are influenced less by “home background” than the process of streaming operating in the schools themselves although he did also refer favourably to the conclusions of JWB Douglas’ work which suggested that parental attitudes also had a significant impact on pupil progress.

Click here for further details on Social Relations in a Secondary School

  • Pygmalion in the Classroom [R. Rosenthal and L. Jacobson 1968 ]

One important study which attempted to assess the strength of the self-fulfilling prophesies generated by positive and negative labelling was entitled Pygmalion in the Classroom[1968  R. Rosenthal and L. Jacobson] . The study relates to  all pupils in Grades 1-6 [aged approximately 5-11] in an elementary school  a large American town . These pupils come primarily from ” a preponderantly lower class community” although few of the children are “desperately poor” but “the children’s lower class status is indicated by cultural impoverishment of language and experience” .[ Quotes from “Pygmalion…”]

These pupils  were given an IQ test at the beginning of the academic year and teachers were incorrectly told that the test [ fictitiously named the Harvard Test of Inflected Ability in an attempt to enhance its legitimacy] was designed  to predict which children were most likely to make rapid intellectual progress in the coming year. All teachers were then given the names of pupils in their class who had allegedly scored in the highest 20% on the test although in reality these children’s names had been chosen completely at random and bore no relationship to their test scores.

Toward the end of the academic year all pupils were given the same intelligence test and the new test score data indicated that for the entire school the 20% of pupils said falsely to be capable of faster intellectual progress had indeed made faster progress : their test scores had risen by 12.2% by comparison with the 8.2% improvement for the remaining 80% of pupils. Here according to Robert Rosenthal and Leonora Jacobson was evidence that higher teachers’ expectations even when were misguided could nevertheless result in faster pupil progress.

Pygmalion in the Classroom could be seen as an ingenious [although possibly ethically questionable ] study but it soon attracted some criticisms. Thus it was noted that it was only in the lower grades that the children falsely classified as potential fast improvers did improve more rapidly and there were no such effects in the higher grades possibly because these pupils were better known to their teachers who might therefore be unlikely to change their behaviour in response to the provision of IQ data which they might in any case not take very seriously. Furthermore R. Rosenthal and Leonora Jacobson did not actually observe pupil and teacher classroom behaviour and so they could only speculate as to the relationships between the IQ test data, the change or otherwise in teacher behaviour and its effects on subsequent pupils’ performances in the later IQ test.

Click here for some further discussion of Pygmalion in the class room.


  • Hightown Grammar [Colin Lacey 1970]

Colin Lacey [who later became a Professor of Education and actually supervised {see below} Stephen Ball’s doctoral dissertation] worked as a teacher at the fictitiously named Hightown Grammar School while he also conducted research into its pupils’ attitudes and behaviour. His main findings were that although the new boys, having recently passed the 11+ examination ,entered Hightown Grammar imbued with interest and enthusiasm  this was quickly dissipated especially among mainly working class pupils even during the  unstreamed first year and particularly  among again mainly working class boys who were allocated mainly to the lower streams at the beginning of the second year. These boys, despite having passed the 11+ examination soon perceived themselves as having been defined as failures via their consignment to the lower streams and responded in much the same way as their Secondary Modern school peers had done in the David Hargreaves study mentioned above.

Eventually these boys were relatively likely to leave school at age 16 with relatively few GCE Ordinary Level passes and the passes which they did gain were often in technical and /or handicraft subjects rather than the higher status “academic” subjects which were more likely to be passed by mainly middle class pupils in the higher streams.

This is not to say that the existence of streaming within Grammar Schools was the only factor explaining the relative underachievement of many working class Grammar School pupils   and you might like to consider the possible importance of some of the factors  [such as social class differences in economic, cultural and social capital] discussed in the previous document  as factors resulting social class differences in educational achievement. Although Grammar Schools did provide the step-ladder which enabled some working class boys and girls to enter University, they were less likely to do so than were middle class boys and girls.

You may like to click here for recent BBC coverage of some issues around Grammar Schools.

  • Classroom Knowledge [Nell Keddie 1970]

Nell Keddie’s  article Classroom Knowledge[1970] was based upon her research on the teaching of a CSE Humanities course in a comprehensive school in the late 1960s. The year groups in the school were arranged in 3 ability bands and some departments opted for more rigid setting within the bands although the Humanities Department did not. Keddie notes that Band B and especially Band C were disproportionately likely to contain working class students.

The Humanities teachers’ views reflected much educational thinking at the time in that they rejected IQ theory, rejected the idea that intelligence was mainly inherited and rejected streaming, banding and setting as disadvantageous to lower band, mainly working class children. The Humanities teachers said they would have preferred to teach in completely mixed ability classes but this was not possible at the time because it simply was not school policy. Theoretically the Humanities course was to be an undifferentiated course to be taught similarly to pupils in all bands.

However Nell Keddie argued that in practice the teachers were not true to their apparent theoretical beliefs and so what emerged in practice was “the differentiation of an undifferentiated curriculum” whereby the teachers did differentiate very significantly in their teaching of children of different bands.

  1. In their discussions they revealed that they did believe that A band pupils were essentially brighter than B and C Band pupils.
  2. They sometimes appeared to confuse the more effective social skills of A band pupils with greater academic skills.
  3. According to Keddie the teachers were working with a concept of the ideal pupil which reflected the characteristics of mainly middle class A Band pupils while they often explained the relative underachievement of lower band working class pupils in inaccurate stereotypical terms…coming from broken homes etc
  4. One teacher allowed Band C pupils to make more noise and to work at a slower pace because this is what he expects of C Stream pupils but it may be exactly these teacher expectations which cause the C Band pupils to work less effectively.
  5. One teacher admitted that s/he was likely to respond differently to questions depending upon whether they were asked by A, B or C band pupils. For example  Nell Keddie asked a teacher whether any pupil had ever asked why they should  study social science and what s/he would do if they did. Here is a part of the transcript of the article at this point.

Teacher:: No but if I were asked by C’s I would try to sidestep it because it would be the same question as “Why do any thing? Why work”

Nell Keddie: What if you were asked by an A group?

Teacher: Then I’d probably try to answer.

  1. Sometimes perceptive questions by C Band students were disregarded because they fell slightly outside the definition of relevance as determined by the teacher.
  2. Theoretical knowledge was defined by the teachers as of higher status than everyday commonsense knowledge but vital more theoretical aspects of the course were not taught to C     Band pupils because teachers had decided that they were too difficult. Clearly this would adversely affect the C Band pupils’ likely examination grades.

Nell Keddie argued that the A Band pupils were more successful on the course because they were more prepared to accept without question the usefulness of the course and the teachers’ delivery of it whereas C Stream pupils were more sceptical and often wished to defend their commonsense knowledge in comparison with the teachers’ more theoretical knowledge. However since theoretical knowledge was defined by teachers as relatively high status knowledge this again put the C stream pupils at a disadvantage.

Nell Keddie’s study therefore demonstrated that even when they were being taught by teachers who were sympathetic to their situation , in practice C stream pupils still faced considerable disadvantages because of how they and their commonsense knowledge were defined by their teachers . As we shall see below some of the teachers in S. Ball’s study were far from sympathetic to C stream pupils.


  • Beachside Comprehensive [Stephen Ball 1980]

The results of Ball’s study, [Beachside Comprehensive 1980] confirmed in several respects that some of the disadvantageous effects of streaming which had existed in both Secondary Modern and Grammar schools continued more or less unabated in Comprehensive schools despite the apparent commitments of supporters of comprehensivisation to greater equality of opportunity than had existed under the system of Tripartite Secondary Education. Ball drew the following conclusions from his researches  at the fictitiously named Beachside Comprehensive School.

  • Many students continued to be allocated to bands often on the basis of their social class background rather than their academic potential.
  • Teachers continued to use positive and negative labels in relation to students in high and low bands.
  • This provoked disruptive behaviour especially among middle band children.

However Ball believed also that the replacement of the banding system by a system of apparent mixed ability teaching would not effectively address all of the problems associated with negative labelling.

When banding was replaced partially by a system of apparently  mixed ability teaching at Beachside Comprehensive Ball did find some evidence of improved behaviour as more difficult children were more widely dispersed rather than concentrated in lower band classes but he also found evidence of informal ability groups  within supposedly mixed ability classes. That is: teachers often sub-divided their mixed ability classes into higher, middle and lower groupings in such a way that the original negative consequences of banding were not removed.

Ball had collected his data at Beachside Comprehensive through a mixture of classroom observation, interviews and questionnaires and some of the teacher comments on children in different bands are reproduced below. Clearly if such opinions were representative of the teaching profession in general in the 1980s, the mainly working class children allocated to “Band 3” might have limited educational prospects indeed if their teachers regarded them as “a waste of time”.



The band 1 child“Has academic potential… will do O levels… and a good number will stay on in the sixth form…likes doing projects….knows what the teacher wants…is bright, alert and enthusiastic….can concentrate…produces neat work…is interested….wants to get on…is grammar school material…you can have discussions with…friendly…rewarding…has common sense.”

The band 2 child

“Is not interested in school work…. difficult to control…rowdy and lazy…has little self control…is immature…loses and forgets books with monotonous regularity… cannot take part in discussions…is moody…of low standard…technical inability…lacks concentration…is poorly behaved…not up to much academically.”

The band 3 child

“Is unfortunate…is low ability…maladjusted…anti-school…lacks a mature view of education….mentally retarded…emotionally unstable and… a waste of time.”

Source Beachside Comprehensive [Stephen Ball 1980]



1.Are you surprised by the comments in the above extract?

2. Do you believe that such attitudes are widespread within the teaching profession nowadays?



Conclusions of Early Interactionist Studies

It is clear that the interactionist perspective adds to the understanding of social class inequalities in educational achievement. Nevertheless interactionist sociologists’ studies attracted several criticisms on the grounds that:

  • they have conducted small scale observational studies which may not generate representative or reliable data because the schools which they investigated may not be typical of schools in general;
  • they may have overstated the passivity of individual students who are assumed to accept relatively unthinkingly the  positive and negative labels which teachers apply to them;
  • they have failed to investigate the  sources of teachers’ apparent prejudicial thinking about working class students;
  • they have underestimated the importance of material and cultural factors external to the schools as factors affecting educational achievement. Also the best known interactionist studies are now rather dated.

These criticisms must be taken seriously but at the same time it must be noted that interactionists can also provide credible defences against these criticisms.

Thus in their defence, interactionist theorists argue that:

  • small scale observational methods can be defended on the grounds that they may generate more meaningful, valid  data than can be obtained via interviews or questionnaires;
  •  interactionists often do recognise the extreme complexity of the labelling process and do not simply assume that pupils accept unthinkingly the positive or negative labels applied to them by their teachers;
  • the fact that interactionists concentrate on processes operative within schools does not necessarily mean that they have underestimated the importance of external factors.

Part Two: Some More Recent Investigations - Click Here