Achievement in British Education

From Academic Kids

Achievement in British Education is a branch of British sociology which examines and discusses the factors influencing the achievement of pupils who are taught by the British education system.



As in most countries, there are strong class-based inequalities in educational outcomes in Britain. Gender and ethnicity also affect outcomes strongly.

The idea that British education is meritocratic is not held in high regard by sociologists, as even Functionalist sociologists acknowledge the undue effect of class, gender and ethnicity.

The effect of intelligence

Measured IQ is strongly related to educational outcomes, but class intervenes in two respects: first, controlling for IQ, pupils from more advantaged classes do better and remain in the education system for longer, and second, average IQ varies by social class. In relation to the latter point, it can be argued that measures of intelligence such as IQ test are not immune to contanimation from cultural differences and acquired characteristics. For instance, there are class differences in the profile of IQ over time, with inter-class differences increasing through the school career.

The effect of class

Being born into a higher class family is the greatest determinant of educational achievement in Britain, with the average child of a higher class family doing far better than an average working class child.

There are many theoretical/proven factors in this:

  • Upper-class families can send their children to private schools (though these are paradoxically called public schools in England and Wales), where the achievement rates are far higher than even prestigious state schools.
  • Working-class families lack cultural capital, which means that their culture is incompatible with that of schools, who have adopted the dominant (i.e. middle and upper) class culture.
  • Parents of working-class families (in general) have a less tolerant attitude toward education than their middle-class counterparts, meaning that they cannot get the most out of the system (e.g. checking on their child's achievement, making sure they get into good schools etc.).
  • Working-class parents also are likely to be less educated than their middle-class counterparts, therefore cannot help their children with pre-school learning and school homework as much.
  • Working-class children are far more likely to go to deprived/problem schools, which middle-class parents have the resources and awareness to avoid.
  • The English-language gulf between the Restricted code and Elaborated code, as studied by Bernstein means that working-class children's language is (at first, anyway) incompatible with school, which uses the Elaborated code.
  • The cultural deprivation of working-class children, both before and during their school years:
    • Less likely to be bought educational toys while infants, hence pre-school learning does not happen at the same rate as with middle-class children.
    • Less likely to experience events that could enhance education (e.g. trips to France that would improved French language skills, or going to the theatre to see the plays of Shakespeare etc.).
  • The culture clash that occurs between the life outside school of working-class children and their life inside school, inparticular the anti-learning culture of their working-class peers and (perhaps) parents.
  • Teacher expectations of working-class children are lower, as following may happen:
    • The teachers may stereotype working-class children as being stupid/slow/disruptive/lazy/etc.
    • One practice in British education is to group children according to their ability, either in all subjects (called streaming) or in particular subjects (called banding or setting). It has been shown that working-class children end up in the lower streams/bands/sets more often than not, even if their intelligence means they deserve to be in a higher one. It has also been shown that being put in lower bands makes children achieve less, as the teachers do not try as hard and the children are demotivated by their placement.
    • Teachers can and do also label particular children, with working-class children mode likely to earn negative labels. This may create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the child performs as predicted simply because of their response to the prediction.
  • The class subculture theory advance by Sugarman asserts that because of certain elements of working-class subculture (e.g. a present time orientation - live for now, don't work toward a future goal - and collective rather than individual achievement) educational achievement, which involves studying for a future goal (GCSEs) individually, is harder for the working class.
  • Material factors evident in working-class families may also adversely affect educational achievement:
    • Poorer housing - This usually means smaller housing, which means that children may not get a chance to study in peace and quiet.
    • Diet - Not getting the right nutrients or even (in some cases) not getting a sufficient supply of any nutrients, right or not, means that some working-class children cannot concentrate/learn as much.
    • Sickness - A working-class child is statistically more likely to get sick, and this means they miss lessons at school.
    • Low income - This means that certain school activities which must be paid for cannot be paid for, and that books etc. needed for school cannot be bought.
    • Part-time work - Because of the (usually) greater money pressures in working-class families, children may do part-time work, either to give themselves an income (as the parents would give them less/no pocket money) or would be supplementing their parents' income. The added pressure of part-time work on a child can affect their achievement.

It must be stated however that this does not mean that all working-class children will fail (on the contrary, the author of this text is from a working-class family and has done/is doing quite well educationally), but it is less likely that they will do well given all of the above.

The effect of ethnicity

To be completed.

The effect of gender

After ethnicity, gender is the next greatest determinant of achievement.

Up until recently, girls did not do as well as boys. However, in recent time this has reversed, with Girls doing better than Boys in education, on average as a general rule.

There are many proposed factors for this:

  • Girls are more motivated and work harder than boys. This could be down to the fact that the changing job market in Britain means that there are now more employment opportunities for girls, and hence a reason for working harder now as opposed to wanting to marry and raise a family. Also, as stated below there are fewer male (or male-dominated) jobs now, so there is less motivation for boys to achieve than there was previously.
  • The main subculture of boys is anti-learning, with learning activities like reading being viewed as being for girls only. In addition to this, those who aren't part of this subculture are often affected by (and sometimes the victims of) those who are, with achieving boys being called swots etc.
  • The equal opportunities movement has (by necessity) benefitted girls more than boys, which means that they achieve more now.
  • Teachers often do not expect as much of boys as they do of girls both academically and behaviourally, often tolerating poor behaviour or work from boys that would be addressed if it had come from a girl. This both raises girl standards and lowers boy standards.
  • As a result of the above and the subculture reason previously discussed, the behaviour of boys in the classroom is far poorer than that of girls, so that boys are misbehaving when they should be learning.
  • The decreasing available of male/male-dominated employment and the male identity crisis means boys have less motivation to do well, as there is less to work toward.
  • Boys tend to have poorer language skills than girls, as girls spend more time talking. The nature of the subject being talked about is irrelevant (it may be about something totally unrelated to education, for example a new teen idol), but girls are getting more practice at using language. This helps their education and by contrast hinder the education of boys.
  • Boys tend to mature later than girls, which may result in them overestimating their ability and as a result not putting in enough work because they are relying on ability which isn't there.

It is also interesting to note that girls are still do not have full equal opportunities in education, but are already doing better than boys. The inequalities still left are:

  • Teachers still spend more time with boys in classrooms than they do with girls, through sexism, through not wanting to look like a pervert (British education - and society in general - is currently going through a period of paedophile hysteria) or through just not realising they are doing it.
  • The nature of some boys means that boys in general still do better in some subjects (for example, in science subjects they grab lab equipment for experiments before girls can get to it and answer questions that were asked of girls).

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