Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement [2] : The Schools-Some More Recent Investigations

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Parts List

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


Part Two

Some More Recent Investigations.

As mentioned, the best known interactionist studies are now rather dated but there is evidence from more recent work that negative labelling processes continue to have adverse effects on students.

  • The Learning Game [ Professor Michael Barber 1996]

The Learning Game is an extensive and detailed study of the state of British Education in the 1990s. In the study Professor Barber presents information from a data base constructed by the Keele University Centre on Schools Excellence which has recorded the attitudes of over 30,000 young people to all aspects of secondary schooling in the 1990s.

From the data it is clear that pupils believe that good teachers should be:

  • strict;
  •  fair;
  • enthusiastic;
  •  able to listen;
  • able to take a joke;
  • always able to mark work promptly with care and attention.

However, on the negative side and very importantly, there appears still to be clear evidence of negative labelling.

Students comment that, for example:

  • there should be more effort to explain;
  •  teachers favour intelligent pupils too much;
  •  sarcasm and put-downs are profoundly damaging;
  • some of the male teachers are sexist towards the female pupils.

You could therefore use the Barber/Keele University data as evidence of the continued existence of negative labelling even by the mid 1990s although it should be noted that in this study Professor Barber does not seek to link the issue of negative labelling to issues of streaming, banding and setting.



1. How might the above summary conclusions derived from the Barber study be used to support the conclusions of the Hargreaves , Lacey and Ball studies?



  • Uncertain Masculinities [Mike O’Donnell and Sue Sharpe 2000]


In relation to the analysis of streaming/banding, labelling and self -fulfilling prophecies emphasised by sociologists such as Hargreaves , Lacey and Ball, O’Donnell and Sharpe suggest that their importance as factors explaining social class differences in educational achievement may be smaller nowadays by comparison with when the original studies were undertaken. In their study senior teachers interviewed by O’Donnell and Sharpe showed that they were committed to policies of equal educational opportunities and that they were very  familiar with the potentially adverse consequences for students of negative labelling.


These senior teachers suggested that a school ethos existed whereby any teachers who did engage in such negative labelling could expect criticism from their peers and censure and possible disciplinary action from senior teachers. Equally importantly the students felt that on balance they were treated fairly and respectfully by their teachers while admitting that a disruptive minority of students could still be heavily criticised by teachers.

O’ Donnell and Sharpe suggest therefore  that the findings of much earlier studies should therefore not simply be accepted as evidence of what is currently happening in secondary schools and  teachers may on balance nowadays be less likely to label students negatively especially because the teachers themselves are being more closely evaluated in terms of their students’ examination grades which are unlikely to be enhanced by negative labelling.However the authors themselves admit that their conclusions have been formed on the basis of interviews with teachers and pupils and that observational studies might still point to the existence of negative labelling much as in the earlier studies.

Activity1. Why do O’Donnell and Sharpe believe that negative labelling is less likely to occur nowadays?

2. Many of O’Donnell and Sharpe’s conclusion are based upon interviews with senior teachers. Would it have been helpful if O’Donnell and Sharpe had also observed some classes?

3. What did the pupils have to say about these issues?


  • The Zombie Stalking English Schools : Social Class and Educational Inequality : Diane Reay 2006

This, in my view, is an excellent paper. It does contain detailed theoretical arguments but they are very clearly stated I believe that with a little help from their tutors AS and A2 Sociology students could usefully read and summarise this article for themselves. You could then use the conclusions in your own essay work which , in my opinion, would help you enormously .

Click here to access the article….I have highlighted this article because reading it will be really  worthwhile. 

  • Recent Research from The Universities of Manchester and Sussex.

These authors agree with the conclusions of some of the early interactionist studies mentioned above that  some pupils may be allocated to sets not entirely on the basis of ability but on the basis of characteristics related tot heir social class membership such that the setting processes may put some working class pupils at a disadvantage. Click here   for a BBC summary of some of the findings of this study. which to some extent contradict the findings of the O’Donnell and Sharpe study.


Interactionism:  Some Conclusions

Despite the conclusions of O’Donnell and Sharpe [and the widely publicised views of the current UK Government that banding and streaming are likely to enhance educational progress] many sociologists  continue to give some support to the interactionist approach .Nevertheless they recognise also that it is very difficult  to assess accurately the relative importance of external material and cultural factors and within school  labelling processes as factors causing social class inequalities in educational achievement although some sociologists are increasingly using advanced statistical methods to provide good estimates of the relative importance of the various factors affecting educational achievement. I shall report some of the conclusions of these more recent studies towards the end of this Unit.

Part Three: School Effectiveness Research - Click Here