Is working class underachievement better explained by factors inside or outside the school?

The extent of working class underachievement in the British Educational System has been a very important subject for discussion in sociology research - Is working class underachievement better explained by factors inside or outside the school? introduction. Working class children underachieve considerably compared to the achievement attained by a middle class child at every level of education including SAT’s, GCSE’s, A-levels and degrees. Early research focused on reasons outside the school such as a child’s background, neighbourhood and class values. The results of the research developed the idea that the working classes were maybe culturally deprived.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s opinions changed and it suggested that factors within the school such as streaming and setting, labelling and the hidden curriculum was to blame for a child’s underachievement. In the last ten years sociologists have returned to the idea that external factors are the reason for differential attainment. Barry Sugarman argues that one of the reasons for underachievement in a working class child’s education is the child’s attitude, which is brought into the school and is already an established part of the working class subculture.

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Therefore, they are already socialised in terms of this, he feels that this attributes to their low level of achievement. Herbert H Hyman (1960’s) studied the “value system” of the working classes. He argues that this system creates a self-imposed barrier to an improved position. He felt that the working classes placed a lower value on achieving a higher occupational status, they may often follow by example such as following in their father’s footsteps or heading towards a trade rather than taking a risk in further education in order to apply for a higher status job.

They often believe that they are fewer opportunities for advancement. Hyman believes this is not true, he argues that it is purely their own personal belief that reduces their opportunities, not their ability. Hyman states “the lower class individual does not want as much success, knows he could not get it even if he wanted to, and does not want what might help him get success”. The working class child is labelled with a lower motivation scale within the classroom as well as outside, so their ability to achieve will be lower than the middle class child due to this stereotypical attitude.

Barry Sugarman (1970) provided his explanation stating that working classes use “immediate gratification” alongside fatalism, present time orientation and collectivism. Thus, by not looking ahead and concentrating on the immediate future this will enhance early departure from the educational system. The imminent thought of a wage, adult status and freedom from the school discipline system will encourage a working class individual to go down this path as it seems more appealing. This shows an explanation to the different attitudes between the middle and working classes.

Working classes tend to emphasise collectivism rather than individualism. Hyman says that most middle class occupations provide more than one opportunity and chance for advancement, which includes income and status; this contributes towards a better future and lifestyle. Where as within working class occupations there are less chances and opportunities to better themselves such as the chances of promotion. Therefore, less income for investment which makes their position in life less secure, due to the fact that they will reach their full earning capacity earlier rather than later.

This nature of work tends to produce the differences in attitude as they feel that they have no control over their own future. Their destiny is within the hands of their employer. Hyman’s study shows that even though the majority of working classes do not strive for success, there was a small minority of people studied that identified well with the middle classes and as a result of this went on to have higher aspirations. Sugarman argues that the attitude of working classes has already been established and is a fixed part of their subculture. This attitude has been enhanced from their schooldays.

Sugarman states that for these reasons, pupils from a working class background are placed at a disadvantage immediately within the educational system. This will account for the lower level of educational attainment. JWB Douglas suggests that poor living conditions contribute to educational failure, known as cultural deprivation theory. Material deprivation also adds to this inequality. It is enhanced by the fact that financial costs incurred in order to remain in education make it impossible, as many working class families simply cannot afford it.

Douglas also feels that parental interest in their child’s education is a major factor. His research found that middle class parents were more concerned about their child’s education plus their living conditions were more satisfactory. A middle class child would be more likely to have its own room or a quiet place to study. Where as some working class children were living in poor conditions, possible increased overcrowding leading to poor diet, illness and unauthorised absences from school. This would inevitably lead to underachievement.

Another factor that is quite common within working classes is that they tend to live within large families, so the attention and time they may need and crave from their parents has to be spread about amongst a multiple numbers of siblings. Douglas has seen in middle class households that if a child is given individual attention and encouragement this will then lead to a higher standard of learning. This is more likely to lay the foundations for higher attainment, and the environment provides a more stimulating way to develop a child’s ability.

Tessa Blackstowe and Jo Mortimore strongly criticise Douglas and point out that working class parents are more likely to have to work unsociable or awkward hours so are often unable to attend open evenings and school functions. This may appear to be uncaring but may not be necessarily so, it is more likely to be due to a “needs must” scenario in connection with their working hours. The way in which a working class parent interacts with teachers could also be misconstrued, as hearing criticism from an authority figure may be hard for them to handle if they themselves have bad school day memories.

Under the comprehensive system, all state educated pupils attend the same type of school but this does not mean that they all receive the same type of education. Labelling and the self-fulfilling prophecy theories suggest ways that a teacher’s reaction towards a pupil can have an effect on their educational progress. David Hargreaves’s study is based upon interviews with teachers and observations made in two secondary schools. Initially the only information a teacher has regarding a pupil is what catchment area they originate from.

Hargreaves and his colleagues, Hester and Mellor distinguished that there are three types of classification and typing – speculation, working hypothesis and stabilisation. The seven main criteria’s on which initial typing was based by the teacher in their opinion of the pupil were their appearance, conformity to discipline, enthusiasm for work, how likeable they are, their relationship with other pupils, personality and whether or not they showed signs of deviancy. Hargreaves argues that teachers make sense of, and respond to pupils in terms of these types.

He suggests that in modern Britain we are very far from shared values within education. The labelling and the self-fulfilling prophecy concentrates on the effects upon the individual although it has been argued that the exact same effects can be observed in whole groups. Labelling refers to how a pupil is “labelled” by a teacher, maybe as bright, dull or troublesome etc. This will affect the attitude of both the teacher and the pupil in the way that they interact with each other. Rosenthal and Jacobson have illustrated that a teachers perception of a pupil’s ability will strongly affect that pupil’s progress.

Howard Becker was one of the first to study the reasons why teachers classify pupils in a certain way. He interviewed sixty Chicago teachers and found that they all shared the same picture of an “ideal” pupil. This pupil was to be highly motivated, intelligent and well behaved. This criteria fits a middle class pupil. As a result the working class pupil was labelled unlikely to succeed. This interpretive approach was seen as narrow-minded, it was thought that a wider society should have been analysed. If social structure and social action had been studied, a comparison of the two could have been used.

Basil Bernstein states that a working class pupil could be placed at a distinct disadvantage because the teacher is more likely to view a middle class pupil’s ability as higher. For the middle class pupil there is a progressive development towards verbalising and making explicit, subjective content, whilst this is not the case for the working class pupil. This is not necessarily the result of a deficiency of intelligence but comes from a consequence of the social relationship acting through the linguistic medium.

This is enhanced due to many working class children only being able to use the “restricted” code, which makes it harder to explain themselves clearly. Therefore, speech is inhibited and vague of expression and repetition is promoted. This in turn leads to underachievement. Middle class children are likely to have access to the “elaborated” code, which is not context bound, it explicitly verbalises many meanings. Children from middle class backgrounds often have access to both codes making comprehension in the classroom understandable.

Teachers tend to use only the “elaborated” code, which puts working class children at an immediate disadvantage. William Labov argues that the “restricted” code is not inferior but just different forms of speech. His research shows that black American speech patterns are not sub-standard versions of English. He insists that they are rich in imagery and metaphors. Stephen J Ball studied the internal organisation of a comprehensive school. Information was given from primary schools, which placed pupils in one of three bands. Banding and streaming are ways of grouping pupils according to their predicted ability.

Ball observed that most pupils were conformist and eager when they first entered the school, but gradually the behaviour of the pupils began to slide. They were banded accordingly. Band 1 was seen as likely to be hard working, band 2 were expected to be dedicated but could have some learning difficulties, band 3 were expected to be the most difficult to teach and the least interested and unlikely to co-operate. Due to this attitude from the teachers, the bands were taught in different ways and encouraged to follow different educational routes.

Since streaming is often linked to social class, being middle class gives a greater chance of being allocated to a top stream. Due to this stereotypical attitude coming from the teachers it contributes again to the underachievement of the working class. Paul Willis takes on a Neo-Marxist approach to education. He recognises the existence of conflict within the education system. Willis concentrates on how education prepares the workforce but does not necessarily agree that it prepares a pupil successfully for socialisation.

Consequently, this may not be beneficial to capitalism. Willis shows how the role of the school in labelling working class “lads” and creating a school counter-culture which leads to their future careers. He focuses on poor achievers in a comprehensive school in the Midlands who are immediately labelled as failures by the teachers. Willis questions the root of the behaviour of this school counter-culture, which consists of non-conformist behaviour such as being awkward or rude. He found that these “lads” were exploring patterns of behaviour for employment in the future.

Employment would be likely to be monotonous, boring, unskilled or semi-skilled work such as factory employment. He discovered that the “lads” were not persuaded by the school to act as they did, nor were they forced to seek manual labour. They are actively seeking their own sub-culture. They often understand that they are unlikely to be upwardly, socially mobile and show an appreciation of the limitations of a strategy of pursuing individual achievement for improving their own lives. On the other hand they have no overall picture of how capitalism wants to exploit them.

Criticisms have been made about Willis’s theory due to the fact that he solely concentrated on a small group of males in his study, who were by no means typical of the pupils in the school or of the population as a whole. He has been accused of ignoring a whole variety of sub-cultures. However, Willis has demonstrated how it is possible to move beyond the limited focus of most studies of education. The national curriculum was introduced in 1988 and it required all 11-16 year olds to study 3 core subjects, and the remaining studies were known as foundation subjects.

The pupils would be tested at different key stages and the results published. This system could disadvantage some classes as Conrad McNeil argues. There are many languages spoken in the UK and to place emphasis on only European languages places ethnic minorities at an immediate disadvantage. This leads to them being placed in a lower groups. Studies suggest that setting has a detrimental effect on the progress of those in a lower group, a large number of pupils from working class backgrounds end up in these groups.

In this respect the national curriculum may represent a backward step in terms of equality in educational opportunity. The school sees the hidden curriculum as a means of moulding the pupil’s attitudes, behaviour and values. All schools have a hidden curriculum and start to mould a pupil’s behaviour from day one. Colin Jackson’s perspective dates from the late 1960’s. He argues that all schools have a code of regulations and behavioural expectations, which governs pupil’s actions.

Like Marx, Bowles and Gintis who regard work in capitalist societies as both exploitive and alienating. If capitalism is to succeed it requires hard working, docile, obedient and a highly motivated workforce, which is too divided and fragmented to oppose authority. This is where Jackson’s theory falls in to place with the “hidden curriculum”. The educational system helps to achieve these criteria. According to Bowles and Gintis, the hidden curriculum shapes the future workforce by providing a subservient workforce of uncritical passive workers.

All three major perspectives see the hidden curriculum as a largely middle class value system and teachers rarely stop to consider why they are judging all pupils by the values of a minority social group. Middle class teachers frequently see the speech, manner, dress, attitude, values and aspirations of their working class pupils as something legitimate to try to change. Functionalists see the hidden curriculum as a set of universal values. (Parsons) . Ivan Illich refers to this as “cultural imperialism”, one social group imposing its views on another.

Illich feels that education should be a liberating experience in which all individuals explore, create, use their initiative and judgement and freely develop their facilities and talents to the full. This would benefit the working class because if this were implemented they would be able to reach a higher standard and fulfil a higher educational success. Dawn Garget – Tutor Group 4. 1 1/ Emile Durkheim strongly believes that the school is an essential part of a child’s life as it provides a function that is not provided by the family or peer groups.

Durkheim states that he believes school rules should be strictly obeyed as this helps to reinforce self-discipline, self-control and restraint. He feels that the educational system teaches individual specific skills to prepare for the future. David Hargreaves took on board Durkheim’s views but he criticises today’s modern comprehensive schools. He feels that the working class pupil does not benefit from this system of education, as there is too much emphasis placed on individual success in competitive examinations.

In some cases this will cause rebellion, which may lead to pupils forming sub-cultures of their own which will reject the values of the school. 2/ Talcott Parsons argues that the school takes over as the focal socialising agency after primary socialisation within the family. He feels that within the home a child is not regarded as an individual but as “their” child. Within a family a child’s status is fixed at birth but within the school conduct is assessed against school regulations, regardless of ascribed characteristics such as sex, race or family background.

The educational system places individuals in the same situation so therefore allowing them to compete on equal terms in examinations. He feels the school is seen as the major mechanism for role allocation. Durkheim and Parsons both fail to give consideration to society as a whole. They take on board the values of a ruling minority. 3/ Both Durkheim and Hargreaves strongly criticise education based on individual competition, even though other functionalists see this as a vital aspect in modern education.

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