Throughout the twentieth century, there have been many changes made to the structure of the education system. These include the 1944 Education act which made secondary education compulsory and introduced the tri-partite system of school, though the move to a comprehensive system of schools in the 1960s, to the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988.
While official statistics have shown that all these measures have served to increase the overall levels of educational attainment (as defined by attainment of qualifications), both official and sociological evidence ndicated that class-based inequalities in educational attainment have shown no tendency to decline. It has been suggested that class base differences in educational success are due to home and familial factors: that children from lower social backgrounds are more likely to fail because of what they experience inside the home environment.
This approach is based on the belief that those from different social classes have significantly differing home lives. It is possible to split home and family based factors into two categories: material factors and cultural factors. As educational success generally rises with family income, many researches see material deprivation as the major cause of inequality in educational success. Hasley, Heath and Ridge 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 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. It is also often believed that difference in class culture can contribute to educational success or failure. Douglas believed parental interest was the most important factor in educational success, his research suggesting middle class parents showed more interest than working class parents. However, his research has been criticised, as he measured parental interest by attendance at open days, and job difference between middle class and working class parents may account for this.
These and other finding came to be known as cultural deprivation theory, believing that those at the bottom or the class structure are deprived of certain values and skills that are vital for educational success, and that working class children suffer from a lack of ambition, and fatalism. This theory has come under great criticism however, from those who support materialistic reasons for leaving school early, and those who believe that differences between class cultures are minor and insignificant.
Rather than looking at factors within the family, there are those who believe that it is the class structure that generates educational nequality, and that equality is impossible in a class-based society. Pierre Bourdieu, a structural Marxist, argues that the role of the education system is to reinforce class differences. This is achieved by promoting the ‘dominant culture of the ruling classes in the classroom though use of language, ensuring that working class students will be less likely to understand and be understood.
This disadvantages working class students, and by creating educational success and failure, legitimises the position of both those at the bottom and top. Basil Bernstein pointed the ifferent speech codes used by the middle and working classes, the ‘restricted code, 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 nderstood themselves. Finally, rather than focusing on the societal structure or relationships outside of the school, others, particularly those of a interpretive viewpoint, focus on factors inside the school, believing that this is what determines educational success or failure.
This type of approach centres around the concepts of labelling theory and self-fulfilling prophesy, believing that if someone is labelled in a particular way, other will respond to their behaviour in terms of that label, and the person will act in terms of that label, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophesy. This has been illustrated in studies by Rosenthal & Jacobson, where it has been shown that a teacher perception of a pupils abilities strongly affects how that pupil progresses.
Rist, in a study of an elementary school for black children in St. Louis, showed that teachers are more likely to perceive middle class children as being of higher ability than working class children, and treats them as such. He was also able to show, in concordance with Rosenthal & Jacobsons study, that the children classified as being of higher ability performed better throughout their time in education. This illustrates that because of labelling 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, 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 behaviour than teaching the class. This works to artificially disadvantage those in the ower ability streams, disadvantaging those from working class backgrounds.
It is worth pointing out, however, that none of these studies examined why teachers labelled working class students in this manner. It may be argued that this labelling is a result of family-influenced factors, such as dress, appearance and manner. Similarly, Bernsteins theory of language codes, although regarded as a structuralist explanation of education failure, owes much to primary socialization within the family. It may therefore be argued that family factors are the root cause of other explanation of failure.
Finally, it has been suggested that class-based differenced in education attainment are purely to do with the genetic distribution of IQ and therefore family factors (and any other social factors) are irrelevant. In conclusion, there are many different explanations of class-based differences in educational success. However, they are not necessarily isolated, and the factors identified on one theory may be a cause of the factors outlined in another. The reasons for class-based differences may therefore be very complex, and not able to be explained by a single factor in isolation.