What way social factors like gender, or race, or class may affect educational attainment

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This essay discusses the way class may affect educational attainment. Class generally affects society in two ways, that is in such things as health, possessions and general lifestyles, and in our ideas and values. From birth, children of unskilled working class parents are more likely to die in the first year of life than children born to professionally employed parents. Some of the reasons for this would be because of bad housing, lack of good health care and education, and lack of income.

Sociologists sometimes use the term ‘life chances’ for these differences in a person’s chances of success or failure in life. They conclude that in Britain, our life chances are strongly influenced, if not determined, by the social class that we are born into. A child that is born to parents in the middle to upper classes will stand a better chance as their parents will have better housing, and enjoy better and more available health care, also because they are in a higher income bracket the baby will have a better diet. The next step in a child’s life involved education.

Many studies have shown that children of working class backgrounds are less successful in school than those from middle and upper class homes. One important study has been Jackson and Marden’s “Education and the Working Class”, but many other sources also reveal that working class children start school with a disadvantage that is rarely overcome. This disadvantage has nothing to do with inherited intelligence, as children with working class parents who have been adopted into middle class homes at an early age achieve the same success as do middle class children, but has much to do with the home background.

This, however, does not mean there is anything wrong with a working class background, many working class children have advantages over middle class children in other ways, for example perhaps are more street-wise, but the values of society are largely middle class views, and success is often measured in terms of achievement at school and the kind of job someone has. Achievement at school is termed ‘scholastic achievement’. Bernstein maintains that it is a lack of ability in language on the part of the working class children that hinders their success.

The ability to read and write is slowed down, and because so many intelligence tests are based on skill with words, the middle class children have considerable advantages. Because language is so important in schools – we must be able to read and write as the first essential skill – middle class children perform much better. Middle class children are also more likely to enjoy the benefits of early reading books and hear a wider vocabulary at home, as their parents have more money to spend on educational material.

Children born into the upper class will achieve far more in terms of ‘scholastic achievement’ because their parents will have been able to afford a good nursery schooling, then the child will go on to a public school where, because of the fees the parents pay, there resources are by far better than a comprehensive school. The teachers will be of a higher standard also, as would be expected of staff on a higher wage than that of comprehensive schools. A child of middle to upper class is more likely than a working class child to gain a University degree in Britain.

Rosen in ‘Achievement Syndrome’ found that achievement is closely related to social classes. In the field of further education, highest educational achievement is found amongst the socially privileged, there is a distinct bias in favour of the middle and upper classes. With the head start that the middle class has in terms of education, compared to the working class, is it possible for the working class by ‘scholastic achievement’, or hard work, to improve his or her life chances and gain social mobility?

Karl Marx, who lived in the nineteenth century, argued that, although the class structure appeared very complex, in reality a clear distinction could be made between two groups who formed the only two classes in society, and the basis of Marx’s explanation of social classes is those who own wealth and property, and those who sell their labour to the wealthy. Max Weber lived shortly after Marx and his work on class was influenced by him.

Although he agreed that a small group of people had excessive power and wealth, he disagreed that the most important division was into two groups based on ownership of wealth, but he also suggested three elements that divide people in our society: economic factors, such as how much wealth or income a person has, whether earned through work or inherited, secondly status, the amount of prestige we give to a person based on such characteristics of occupation and education, and thirdly the amount of power and influence a person has.

The history of education is something that one must look at when answering this question. Of course, education in itself was very class related in the past. Public schools would concentrate on developing social character and produce Christian gentlemen as leaders, whereas elementary schools provided education for the working classes and therefore taught the values of punctuality, obedience and hard work. In 1870 an Act was brought in with an aim to ensure basic education to all children, from five years upwards.

It accepted the principle of tax to pay for education, however in order to attend grammar school, or the equivalent, one still had to pay fees and therefore this disabled the working classes to attend. HG Wells condemned this Act, saying it was “an Act to educate the lower classes for employment on lower class lines, and with specially trained, inferior teachers”. The 1944 Education Act introduced the idea of free education, up to school leaving age. Although further education is often self-supplemented, the government today do fund those who cannot afford it.

Indeed some of the more recent governments have encouraged people into higher education. From the 1970’s the government became interested in education and its relationship with the economy. For example inadequate training was blamed on the high level of unemployment in 1986. The most important piece of education legislation since the 1944 Act is the Education Reform Act 1988, which established the National Curriculum for all state school in England and Wales and the national system of testing and assessment.

Parents now have more choice as to where their children can go, they are sent booklets which refer to school results in their local area. Of course the results in these tables have to take into account the social background of the pupils. The areas in which education is provided also has an effect on the type of schooling a child would receive. Of course, this again is due to the class of the family, whether the house they live in is in a working class or middle class area, as children generally go to the school nearest to them.

In an article taken from The Guardian, Monday 6 March 2000, Nick Davies writes about the difference between two schools in Brighton. One has a ‘centenary hall’ where parents gather to hear the school orchestra, and where pupils are given their prizes and awards for their excellent exam results. The other, just at the bottom of the playing fields of the first, is described as being in an area where ‘lads (belt) a football around (the) park and dogs (sniff) at dustbins’. This place is the poorest estate in Brighton. That one strip of land marks the division of the classes, and therefore the standard of education.

In “The Home and School”, Douglas found that the degree of parents’ interest in their children’s education was an important factor affecting educational progress. His research showed that middle class parents, who were more likely to visit the school and encourage their children to continue with further education, showed more interest than working class parents. However, there are criticisms in the way in which he carried out his research. He measured parental interest in terms of how often parents visited the school and how they were viewed by the teachers.

The problem was, teachers would give their views depending on the number of visits the parents made. In certain cases parents would be unable to attend school due to work or other personal commitments, and this way their encouragement of their children would not be shown. Parents also need to encourage children and give a feeling of purpose or ambition to the children, so that they have higher motivation to do well at school. Working class parents are not likely to see more for their children than they had for themselves. This idea is backed up in an adaptation from the Times Educational Supplement in 1994.

My conclusion is that there are certainly links between a child’s home life and upbringing in relation to it’s achievement in education as well as life in general. There is a lot of evidence to support theories that children of middle class and above backgrounds have greater opportunities available to them. In the past education was class-based, and not related to ability, and although more people have the opportunity to be educated in the twenty-first century, it still leaves those with less wealth who cannot afford the ‘luxuries’ of a good education, despite the overall increase in educational attainment in the twentieth century.

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