It appears that educational success generally rises with family income, many sociologists see material deprivation as the major cause of inequality in educational success. Halsey, Heath and Ridge (1980) examined the education careers of males, and found that those from higher social backgrounds were much more likely to stay in education past the minimum leaving age than those from working class backgrounds. They pointed out that a major reason for this was the cost of staying in education, and this denied many working class people from gaining higher-level educational qualifications. Douglas (1967) also believed that poor living conditions in the home were major factors in educational failure. In a survey, he divided his sample into two groups: those who had sole use of household facilities, such as bathrooms, and those who did not. He found that the children living in ‘unsatisfactory’ condition scored much more poorly on tests that those in ‘satisfactory´ conditions. Reason suggested for this include poor housing conditions and diet leading to ill health, leading to absence from school, and underperformance while there
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Of course, sociologists from different schools of thought have very different opinions on such divisions within schools. Functionalists would argue that the inequalities that exist within the education system do so for positive reasons. Talcott Parsons argued that schools take over from the family as the primary source of socialisation, transmitting society’s norms and values and preparing children for their role in adult life. School provides the future workforce with the basic skills required to “enable them to respond toâ€¦constantly changing occupational requirements” (Bilton, Bonnet, Jones, Stanworth,
Sheard & Webster, ‘Introductory Sociology’, 1987, Pg.308). Parsons believed that school is a meritocracy and, regardless of class, those with the ability to do well will flourish, entering the workforce at a more specialised level and those without that ability will do less well, entering the workforce at a more menial level. Thus, both will be prepared for their future role in society and the appropriate places within the labour market will be filled.
The functionalists view is a narrow one, and in this and other cases it has been accused of painting too rosy a picture of inequality – functionalists may argue that it is necessity for the success of society, that not everyone can achieve in school, go on to University
and consequently higher paid employment, but this offers little consolation to those who feel they are being or have been kept down by the education system. Parsons in particular has been criticised for failing to give “consideration to the possibility that the values
transmitted by the educational system may be those of a ruling minority rather than of society as whole” (Haralambos and Holborn, ‘Sociology Themes and Perspectives’, 1995, Pg.729). The fact that teachers are generally middle class themselves could mean that the
values being taught in school right away contradict those being taught at home, possibly leaving the child feel confused and unable to live up to conflicting standards.
Marxist Pierre Bourdieu argued that the role of the education system is to reinforce class differences. This, he believed, is achieved by promoting the ‘dominant cultureÂ´ of the ruling classes in the classroom through the use of language, ensuring that working class
students will be less likely to understand and be understood. This disadvantages working class pupils, and by creating educational success and failure, reinforces class. Basil Bernstein expounded this theory with the notion that the different speech codes used by the middle and working classes causes divisions in itself. The ‘restricted codeÂ´, which is context bound and requires previous common knowledge between users, and the ‘elaborated code´ which is not context-bound, and does not require previous common knowledge. He believed that middle class children are fluent in both codes, but that working class children are confined to the restricted code, and are therefore placed at a distinct disadvantage, because teachers use the elaborated code. Middle class children are therefore more likely to understand the teacher, and be understood themselves and consequently achieve more in school.
Marxists would generally argue that equality is impossible in a class-based society. As with functionalists, there is a belief in the link between education and the economy however, unlike functionalists – who see the link as a positive one, which serves to benefit industrial society – for Marxists, the education system exists in order to mould children into their class-defined roles in order to benefit capitalist society, thus it serves the bourgeoisie well and keeps the proletariat down.
Other factors inside the classroom can also determine educational success or failure. For example, concepts of labeling theory and self-fulfilling prophecy. These rely on the notion that if someone is labeled in a particular way, others will respond to their behavior in terms of that label, and the person will act in terms of that label, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy. This was illustrated in a study by Rosenthal & Jacobson, who selected a random sample of 20 pupils to take an IQ test and told the pupils’ teachers that they could be expected to show a significant intellectual development. After a year, the same pupils were re-tested and generally gained higher IQ scores. Rosenthal and Jacobson said that this improvement had occurred not just due to intellectual development, but because the children had been labelled in such a way that the teachers would have higher expectations of them, which they believed influenced pupils
performance – a self-fulfilling prophecy took place – pupils were expected to achieve more, so they did.
Similarly, in a study by R.C. Rist of kindergarten children, it appeared that teachers are more likely to perceive middle class children as being of higher ability than working class children (their class being judged by their appearance, use of language and previous
encounters the teachers may have had with the child’s parents), and treats them as such. He was also able to show, in keeping with Rosenthal & Jacobson’s study, that the children classified as being of higher ability performed better throughout their time in education. This suggests that because of labeling by teachers, working class
children may be placed at a distinct disadvantage.
In separate studies, Lacey and Hargreves examined the effects of streaming in schools, as was used in the tri-partite system in Britain in the post war period, and found that children from working class backgrounds were more likely to be placed in lower ability streams. They also found that in these classes, the children were denied high-quality teaching and knowledge, and that the teachers spent more time controlling behavior than teaching the class. This works to disadvantage those in the lower ability streams, thus, disadvantaging those from working class backgrounds.
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It is worth pointing out, however, that none of these studies examined why teachers labeled working class students in this manner. As previously mentioned, the fact that most teachers are from middle class backgrounds themselves would seem to influence their impression of working class children – such personal preconceptions are unavoidably brought to the classroom, instantly putting working class children at an unfavorable disadvantage to their middle class peers.
However, it should also be mentioned that the methodology used in these studies has been brought into question. The afore mentioned study by Rosenthal & Jacobson in particular was criticized. Neither researcher had been present in the period that they suggested the teacher would have reacted more encouragingly towards the pupils, said
to culminate in the self fulfilling prophecy, meaning that the behavior of the teachers was mere speculation on the part of Rosenthal & Jacobson. Also, the quality of the tests they used was doubted, suggestions being made that their tests “were of dubious quality and were improperly administered.” (Haralambos and Holborn, ‘Sociology Themes and Perspectives’, 1995, Pg.764).
Unfortunately such accusations are often unavoidable in sociological research. Restrictions on funding, time etc. can often mean that lengthy research cannot be carried out in depth, resulting in, as in the case of the Rosenthal & Jacobson experiment, the researchers perhaps returning after a period to do further examinations, often having to choice but to make inferences about certain behaviors or actions. Ethical problems also place restrictions on some sociological research – again, in the case of Rosenthal & Jacobson, it could be said to be unethical to tamper with such an important thing as a
child’s education. It may have had positive results for the children in this case, but what if researchers wanted to prove that self fulfilling prophesies are also applicable in reverse – that if a child is though of badly, then they will behave badly? Such experiments undoubtedly have ethical implications yet the experiments themselves are important in sociology. How can society be studied without interaction with society? There are other ways in which research can be carried out – participants can be made aware of all aspects and implications of the experiment. However, this can cause an altered reaction in participants – they can become too aware of observations being carried out and modify their behavior accordingly. The sociological researcher must be aware of the possible difficulties and make a decision on whether or not the research should be carried out.
Through the studies and perspectives we have considered, it is undoubtedly the case that class division exists within the education system and even functionalists would not disagree that schools serve to reinforce such inequalities. It is in what harm or good these
damages do to society that sociologists must be concerned with. From what we have discussed here, it seems that there are many different explanations of class-based differences in educational success – the factors attributed to causing inequality in other areas can also be applied here. The reasons for class-based differences in education are
undoubtedly complex, as we have looked at here, and so it is difficult to determine a root cause.
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