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The conditions of economic expansion and apparent affluence in Britain during the 1950s and 60s resulted in two pervasive beliefs:

That significant class differences in economic reward and social conditions had been greatly reduced, leading to the idea that class differences were disappearing - 'We're all middle class now.'

That 'equality of opportunity' had been established within the education system, therefore social class no longer influenced educational performance.

The first belief was challenged by the work of sociologists in general, but particularly by those involved in social mobility research. The second, was challenged by educational sociologists.

1. Intelligence - nature/nurture debate - focus working class 50s and 60s.

2. Sub-cultural - home conditions/parental attributes - focus working class & girls 60s and 70s.


3. School based - the standards debate.

4. Societal - Marxist/Feminist - focus working class girls and Ethnic Minorities.

Another way of considering these various types of explanation is to see them as:

  1. Genetic explanations.
  2. Outside school explanations.
  3. Inside school explanations.
  4. Structural explanations.

Note: In the measurement of class, the majority of researchers used the Register - General's classification of occupations.

The main points in this approach are:

  1. Intelligence is 'fixed' and can be scientifically measured.
  2. Objective tests have shown that working class students are less intelligent than middle class students.
  3. Measured differences in IQ explain class inequalities in educational achievement.
  4. Class differences in educational achievement continue over time because intelligence is mainly inherited.

In 1905 the French psychologist Binet devised the concept of 'mental age'. Terman later introduced the concept of an index of mental development.


The average score is 100.

This approach was firstly associated with Eysenck and Jenson (1969) during the 60s but more recently it has been put forward by Murray and Herrnstein (1994).


  1. There is no agreed definition of intelligence.
  2. There is no way to exclude the influence of environmental factors - type of question and type of answer.
  3. At best, IQ tests measure the way innate intelligence develops in interaction with the environment. It is not possible to separate out that part of the score which is the result of innate intelligence.
  4. IQ tests cannot tell us about 'potential'.
  5. IQ scores can be affected by variables that are independent of intelligence - reactions to the test situation, nervousness, distrust, lack of familiarity.


Objections to Murray and Herrnstein

  1. They do not present an objective case; their opponents are viewed as charlatans.
  2. They present only sources that support their position - including racist sources.
  3. Simplified and unspecified definitions of intelligence.
  4. Claim IQ tests are not biased.
  5. Ignore contemporary consensus that IQ is not fixed.

Drew et al (1995) argue:

'Despite its user friendly presentation... the Bell Curve is bad science. It trades on the hard factual image of statistical data and peddles conclusions which threaten to exacerbate, not lessen, the social divisions and conflicts which lie at the heart of the 'race' and IQ debate.'

In addition to criticisms of the notion of IQ itself, there were also criticisms of its effects:

  1. The tripartite system (based on the 11+) perpetuated class divisions.
  2. Assignment to a low status school affects an individual's self image (the self fulfilling prophecy).

There is a statistical relationship between high IQ scores and length of schooling, but there is not justification for assuming that high IQ leads to lengthier schooling, it might be the reverse.

Some of the earliest attempts to explain working class 'failure' were directed towards studying the home background of working class students. There are three main strands:

  1. Material deprivation.
  2. Cultural deprivation.
  3. Cultural difference.

Material deprivation: Focuses on income inequality and the material problems that are associated with it. An example of such a study is J. Douglas, 'The Home and The School' (1964). He argued that an interlocking network of inequalities existed which operated against many working class students.

This included:

  1. Differential effects of regional and LEA variations in educational provision and expenditure.
  2. Housing and environmental factors.
  3. Chances of access to 'good' primary schools.
  4. Chances of access to top streams.
  5. The effects of streaming on progress.

Jackson and Marsden (1962) 'Education and the Working Class' argued:

'working class children caught between two cultures-home/school. Parents were eager but had limited resources and relationships with staff were awkward.'

However, the improvements in social conditions since the 60s have not brought about a decrease in the gap between working class and middle class educational achievement. But the statistical link between material deprivation and educational underachievement remains - schools drawing their students from the most deprived areas perform less well than those from more affluent areas.


Cultural deprivation: Approaches were concerned to expose class differences in attitudes towards education. Working class attitudes were seen as a 'deficit system'. Douglas (1964) and the Plowden Report (1967) argued that working class parents offer less encouragement and support towards their children's education. However, others such as Tizard (1981) argue that the apparent lack of interest of working class parents may mask their lack of confidence or knowledge in dealing with schools.

The effect of studies like that of Douglas was to 'blame the victim', working class culture was seen as problematic. One result was the idea that certain students needed 'compensatory education' and gave rise to Educational Priority Areas as a result of the Plowden Report of 1967. In the USA there was a similar scheme called 'Operation Headstart'.

Cultural difference: Approaches focussed on the mismatch between working class culture and the middle class culture of the school. See Bernstein (1975) on Language, and Bourdieu (1975) on Cultural Capital and Habitus.

However, critics of this approach argue that cultural differences are not as important as the material disadvantages suffered by working class children. Lynch and O'Neill (1994) argue that it is poverty that often lies behind poor school performance. Additionally, Aggleton (1987) showed how some middle class students resist schooling and leave with poor qualifications. However, the major difference from working class school failures is that the students in Aggleton's study where not held back in the labour market by their lack of academic qualifications because they had 'cultural capital'.

This approach recognises that the working class student is culturally different rather than deficient. Thus the educational system rather than working class culture is at fault - schools are too middle class. However, the theory lacks empirical support (it is not grounded), and it is rather deterministic.

Two main areas researched:

  1. Streaming
  2. Teacher expectations.

As regards streaming, Hargreaves (1967) demonstrated that teachers in a boys' secondary school 'constantly under-estimated or were ignorant of the power of the peer group in regulating the behaviour of pupils'. Hargreaves found that boys placed in lower streams were associated with a sense of status deprivation at school. Similar findings were reported by Lacey (1970) and Ball (1981).

Keddie (1971) found that teachers in the humanities department of a mixed comprehensive school tended to see students from the top stream as displaying middle class conforming behaviours, and students from the lower streams as having working class 'noisy' behaviours.


The French sociologist Althusser (1972) argued that the educational system was an 'ideological state apparatus' concerned with the cultural reproduction of capitalism. He argued that the main function of education is to ensure that the privileges of one generation are passed on to the next, through the ideological conditioning to be found in schooling.

This approach has been taken up most notably by Paul Willis.

The main developments in research in the 70s and 80s have been to indicate that social class continues to pattern the educational system in important ways. For example: Halsey et al (1980) 'Origins and Destinations' found that the proportion of working class boys staying on into the 6th form had increased, but not as much as the increase in the number of middle class boys staying on.

Since Halsey's study there has been very little large-scale research. Two studies, by Drew and Gray (1990) and Jesson et al (1992) indicate that while the proportion of students entered for examination at 16 has expanded massively, social class differences in educational performance remain.

In the 1990s, the problem seems to be that class is a neglected area of educational research. Mac An Ghaill (1996) argues that sociologists need to reconnect to class. Stephens (1995) bemoans that class has suffered from a shift in intellectual concern and has been replaced by the issues of gender and ethnicity.

Gillborn and Gipps (1996) argue that social class is still strongly associated with achievement regardless of gender and ethnic background. The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of Universities argue in 'Our Universities Our Future' (1996) that: 'Universities need to address the persistent social class imbalance in their intake.' At the other end of the educational system, Pamela Sammons (1995) argues that social class has a marked effect on a reader's progress in the primary school.