Class and education are topics that have been frequently researched in recent years. There are major differences in educational attainment between people of different social groups. Thus working-class students with the same measured IQ as their middle-class counterparts are less successful in the educational system. Class stratification is directly related to educational attainment. In particular, it has been argued that the subcultures and the distinctive norms and values of social classes influence performance in the educational system.


American sociologist Herbert H. Hyman (1967) wrote an article about this called ‘The values of systems of different classes’, written in the 1960’s. He argued that the value system of the lower classes creates ‘a self-imposed barrier to an improved position’.


From a wide range of data; opinion polls and surveys conducted by Hyman outlined the following differences between working-class and middle-class value systems:


1.    Members of the working class place a lower value on education. They place less emphasis on formal education as a means to personal achievement, and they see less value in continuing school beyond the minimum leaving age.



2.    Members of the working-class place a lower value on achieving higher occupational status. In evaluating jobs, they emphasize ‘stability, security and immediate economic benefits’ and tend to reject the risks and investments involved in aiming for high-risks occupations. Job horizons tend, therefore, to be limited to a ‘good trade’.


3.    Compared to their middle-class counterparts, members of the working-class believe there is less opportunity for personal advancement. This belief is probably the basis for the lower value placed on education and high occupational status.


In 1970 British sociologist Barry Sugarman related certain aspects of middle- and working class subculture more directly to differential educational attainment. He also argued that the differences in attitude and outlook between the two classes resulted from the nature of manual and non-manual occupation.


Sugarman claimed many middle-class jobs provided an opportunity for continuous advancement in income and status. This encouraged planning for the future: for example, the investment of time, energy and money in training to meet the requirements of higher-status jobs.


Working-class jobs reached full earning capacity quite quickly. Manual workers are more likely to be laid off than white-collar workers. The absence of a career structure in many working-class jobs meant that individual effort had less chance of producing improvements in income, status and working conditions. Collective action in the form of trade union pressure provided a more effective strategy. Sugarman argued that differences in the nature of jobs tended to produce differences in attitude and outlook. Since they had less control over the future, less opportunity to improve their position, and less income to invest, manual workers tended to be fatalistic, immediate gratification, and present-time orientated. They also tended to emphasize collectivism rather than individualism. He argued that these attitudes and orientations were an established part of working-class subculture. Pupils from working-class origins would therefore be socialised in terms of them. This may have accounted for their low level of educational attainment.


1.    Fatalism involves an acceptance of the situation rather than efforts to improve it; it will not encourage high achievement in the classroom.



2.    Immediate gratification emphasizes the enjoyment of pleasures of the moment rather than sacrifice for future rewards. Will also tend to encourage early school-leaving for the more immediate reward of a wage packet, adult status and freedom from the disciplines of school.



3.    Present-time orientation may further reduce the motivation for academic achievement, whereas an emphasis on long-term goals and future planning can encourage pupils to remain longer in full-time education by providing a purpose for their stay.



4.    Collectivism involves loyalty to the group rather than to emphasis on individual achievement which the school system demands.


Criticisms of the concept of social class subculture and the methodology used to establish its existence:


1.    The content of working-class subculture is sometimes derived from observation. It is a contrast to the behaviour of many members of the middle-class that aspects of the working-class behaviour appear to be directed by the attitudes, norms and values outlined above. Working-class may be realistic instead of fatalistic. They might defer gratification if they had the resources to defer, and also might be future-orientated if the opportunities for successful future planning were available. From this point of view, members of the working-class share the same norms and values as any other. Their behaviour is not directed by a distinctive subculture. It is simply their situation which prevents them from expressing society’s norms and values in the same way as members of the middle-class.



2.    The content of working-class subculture is sometimes derived from interviews and questionnaires. Hyman’s data were largely obtained this way. Sugarman gave a questionnaire to 540 year 11 boys in for London secondary schools, and his conclusions are largely based on data from this source. What people say in response to interviews or questionnaires may not provide an accurate indication of how they behave in other situations.


A longitudinal study (a study of the same group over time) conducted by J.W.B. Douglas (1964, 1970). This followed the educational careers of 5,362 British children born in the first week of March 1964, through primary and secondary up to the age of 16 in 1962.


Douglas divided the students into groups in terms of their ability, which was measured by a battery of tests, including IQ tests. He also divided the students into four social-class groupings, and found significant variations in educational attainment between students of similar ability but from different social classes. Within the ‘high ability’ group 50% of the students from the lower working-class left secondary school in their last year, but with 33% from the upper working class, 22% from the lower middle class and 10% from the upper middle class.


Douglas related educational attainment to a variety of factors, including the student’s health, the size of the family, and the quality of the school. The most important factor was the degree of parents’ interest in their child’s education. In general middle-class parents expressed a greater interest, as indicated by their more frequent visits to the school to discuss their children’s education. They were more likely to want their children to stay at school beyond the minimum leaving age. Douglas found that parental interest and encouragement became increasingly important as a spur to high attainment as the children grew older.


Douglas also attached the importance to the child’s early years since, in many cases, performance during the first years of schooling is reflected throughout the secondary school. He suggested that, during primary socialization, middle-class children receive greater attention and stimulus from their parents. Middle-class parents were more likely to encourage their children to do to their best in a wide variety of activities. This forms a basis of high achievement in the educational system.


The studies talked about giving strong support to the view that class subcultures influence educational attainment, particularly through differences in parental encouragement of children at school. But these views have been strongly criticised.


Tessa Blackstone and Jo Mortimore (1994) made the following points:


1.    Working-class parents may have less time to attend school because of the demands of their jobs. Manual jobs typically involve longer and less regular hours than non-manual jobs.



2.    Working-class parents may be very interested in their children’s education but they are put off going to school because of the way teachers interact with them. Blackstone and Mortimore argue that it is possible that working-class parents feel ill at ease or the subject of criticism when they visit school. Teachers represent authority and parents who have had unhappy experiences at school or with authority figures may be reluctant to meet them. Blackstone and Mortimore (1994)



3.    Blackstone and Mortimore also quote evidence from the National Child Development Study which found that 89% of middle-class children but only 75% of working-class children attended school with a well-established system of parent-school contacts. Thus, it was easier for the middle-class parents to keep in touch with the educational progress of their children.


It can also be suggested that the data used by both Douglas and Feinstein do not actually measure parental interest in education, but teachers’ perceptions of their interest. It is possible that teachers perceive middle-class parents as more interested than working-class parents because of the way they interact with teachers when they do attend school.


Feinstein admits ’parental attitudes are influenced by their economic and social position’ and ’moreover, deprivation does have a direct effect on attainment’.


Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex