Tag Archives: Social Class

Do White Working Class Boys Lack Aspiration?

This useful Thinking Allowed Podcast summarises two recent pieces of qualitative social research and helps further our understanding of why white working class boys underachieve in education.

The podcast starts with Michael Wilshaw in 2013 (when he was head of OFSTED) pointing out that only 35% of white girls from low income households and 26% of white boys achieved 5 GCSEs at grades A*- C.

Wilshaw states that there is no reason why such pupils shouldn’t be able to achieve, and effectively blames their failure on a lack of aspiration among white working class boys.

Two sociologists who take issue with Wilshaw’s theory are Garth Stahl (spent nine years teaching in state secondary schools in England before conducting interviews in three London schools), and Heather Mendick ( who has researched the relationship between urban youth and schooling more generally). Together Stahl and Mendick effectively argue that white working class boys don’t lack aspiration at all, what they lack is a middle class view of aspiration, and it is this which puts them at a disadvantage in education.

Schools are Based Around a Middle Class Idea of Aspiration

Stahl argues that aspiration is a big thing in contemporary education – the dominant discourse in the system (which is unquestioned) is that learning will eventually equal earning, and that it is up to the individual student to do this on their own – i.e. the right kind of aspiration is to aspire to earn and then sacrifice now in order to get the grades to get you that income in the future.

The podcast also mentions that this discourse is tied up with the neoliberal idea of ‘self-crafting’ – or working on the self to progress – and no doubt this means that part of aspiration means skilling yourself up to make yourself more attractive to employers – you know the sort of thing – D of E and other volunteering, team sports, musical instrument, winner of the Young Apprentice.

The problem with the above is that it is a very middle class definition of aspiration – the kind of thing middle class parents spend a lot more time instilling in their children than working class parents.

White Working Class Aspirations and how They Conflict with School’s 

According to Stahl, working class boys do  have aspirations – they generally wished for a nice, ‘ordinary life’, not to be greedy, just wanting to get a decent job and to  ‘bring home the bacon’for their family.

There was a significant focus on trades (plumbing for example) as being good careers where they could do an honest days work for a decent wage, a focus on ‘authenticity’ (rather than ‘constructing an image of yourself and selling your image,, maybe?)

One point of conflict was over the paid work some of the boys did while at school – for them it was all part of their future ‘honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay’ aspiration (demonstrating a clear work ethic) but not for the school, as it conflicted with the ‘learning = earning’ discourse.

Interestingly, the boys didn’t reject school like Willis’ lads did, rather they invested in ‘ordinary learner identities’  – they didn’t want to succeed or fail and settled for middling positions in the school.

The harmful effects of the normalisation of middle class aspiration 

Mendick points out that aspiration is now used to judge people – certain aspirations which do not fit into the ‘learning = earning’ discourse are seen as failures – such as being a celebrity, having a family at a young age, or just wanting to being normal for example, all of these are seen as not good enough. The effective of this is normalises a middle class pathway through life and to further denigrate working class culture and aspiration as inferior.

This is supported by Stahl who found that the boys he interviewed had a sense of working class pride, but they weren’t so loud and proud of this identity like Willis’ lads were in the 1970s.

Mendick also found evidence of some middle class children just wanting out from this competitive culture – it’s not just the working classes who are disempowered.

Finally, and depressingly, the researchers both found a widespread acceptance of self-blaming for failure.

Brief Commentary

I think these pieces of research are an invaluable antidote to the dominant culture of middle class aspiration which has infiltrated our education system.

These ideas about aspiration and individual responsibility haven’t just emerged out of thin air after all – as Zygmunt Bauman would probably out, they’re just part of the wider social process of individualisation – Where individuals are expected to find biographical solutions to system contradictions.

I think more students should question the ‘learning = earning’ equation, because in the future formal education and qualifications may well not be the best way for kids to guarantee a secure income (if, indeed they can ever gain a secure income).

Finally, we should ask ourselves whether there’s anything wrong with ‘merely’ aspiring to having a decent job, paying your way, and feeling like you’re contributing to society, rather than always wanting to ‘work harder, earn more cash and so on….’

This is only a selective commentary from the podcast, read the research if you want to find out more…!


Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration – Educating White Working Class Boys, and Mendick as studied the relationship

Urban Youth and Schooling

Social Class Inequality Visualisations

I had my classes exploring one of my ‘favourite’ topics today – The extent of and explanations for inequalities in life chances by social class, gender and ethnicity – Here a few visual updates and links which highlight the extent of class inequality in the UK today…

1. In Education… 3 year olds from the richest fifth of households are twice as likely to be ‘school ready’ than 3 year olds from the poorest fifth of households


2, by health – This is a nice, if dated article which reminds us that Based on 2007-2009 mortality rates, a man aged 65 could expect to live another 17.6 years and a woman aged 65 another 20.2 years. This graphic demonstrates that men and women from routine manual backgrounds are twice as likely to die before the age of 64 than those from professional backgrounds(my title is clearer than that in the picture!)



3. The chances of being a victim of violent crime (available from the ONS and the Home Office Annual crime stats reports)


4. Births outside of wedlock (not that I think the decline in marriage is a bad thing!, unlike the author of the post where I got the info!

The chart below shows the proportion of kids who are born outside marriage by social class in Britain. Its quite a short period of time, but you get the general idea. At the top, things haven’t changed much. At the bottom, having children inside marriage is not the norm, and increasingly rare.



More Sources to follow…


The New British Class Survey

I haven’t blogged in a while, but now it’s summer I’ve got the time to get back to it – and where better a place to start than with a few thoughts on the New British Class Survey…

Click here to take the brief version of the survey – Once you’ve completed it you can click on the different classes to find out more about them

Key facts about the survey/ details of methods

  • The survey measures three aspects of social class – economic capital, cultural capital and social capital
  • 161 000 people completed the survey online in January 2011.
  • To avoid the problem of a self selecting sample the same survey was conducted face to face with 1026 people. This was done using quota-sampling, so that the population was representative according to the NS-SEC classifications. The responses of the two were compared and the original sample re-weighted accordingly, which the results below reflect.

Key findings of the survey (friendly version taken from the BBC web site)

There are 7 new classes – Maybe I shouldn’t number them, but here we go anyway…

  1. Elite (6% of the population) – The most privileged class in Great Britain who have high levels of all three capitals. Their high amount of economic capital sets them apart from everyone else.
  2. Established Middle Class (25% of the population) Members of this class have high levels of all three capitals although not as high as the Elite. They are a gregarious and culturally engaged class.
  3. Technical Middle Class (6%) – A new, small class with high economic capital but seem less culturally engaged. They have relatively few social contacts and so are less socially engaged.
  4. New Affluent Workers (14%) – This class has medium levels of economic capital and higher levels of cultural and social capital. They are a young and active group.
  5. Emergent Service Workers (15%) This new class has low economic capital but has high levels of ‘emerging’ cultural capital and high social capital. This group are young and often found in urban areas.
  6. Traditional Working Class (19%) – This class scores low on all forms of the three capitals although they are not the poorest group. The average age of this class is older than the others.
  7. Precariat (15%) –  The most deprived class of all with low levels of economic, cultural and social capital. The everyday lives of members of this class are precarious.

Other findings

  • Twentieth-century middle-class and working-class stereotypes are out of date. Only 39% of participants fit into the Established Middle Class and Traditional Working Class categories.
  • The traditional working class is changing. It’s smaller than it was in the past. The new generation are more likely to be Affluent Workers or Emergent Service Workers.
  • People consume culture in a complicated way. The Technical Middle Class are less culturally engaged while emergent service workers participate in various activities.
  • The extremes of our class system are very important. The Elite and Precariat often get forgotten with more focus on the middle and working classes. We’ve discovered detailed findings about them

I quite like this table taken from the findings article published in Sociology….

The column to the left gives the proportion of each group in the face to face survey, while the one to the right gives the proportions in the online survey – It’s worth noting how over-represented the ‘middle classes’ are 9whi obviously like doing surveys) compared to the precariat.  

I also quite like this – the wealth/ income stats


A quick note on how they measured cultural capital….

Interestingly the survey distinguished between what they call ‘highbrow’ cultural capital, which scores the extent of respondents’ engagement with classical music, attending stately homes, museums, art galleries, jazz, theatre and French restaurants, and ‘emerging’ cultural capital,which is based on the extent of a respondent’s engagement with video games, social network sites, the internet, playing sport, watching sport, spending time with friends, going to the gym, going to gigs and preferences for rap and rock.

How valid is the survey?

If you click on the first link above there’s quite a nice 8 minute radio slot where 2 people debate whether or not the new class survey reflects actual differences in contemporary British society. Personally I’ve got mixed feelings about it – If you look at either end of the survey, it seems to make sense – there are important differences at both ends of the class spectrum, and in the middle I think it is the case that age and class blur together, which the survey recognises. Then again, the fact that I’ve now done the survey twice and come out as technical middle class the first time and established middle class the second time doesn’t fill me with confidence….  

Find out more…

Findings of the British Class Survey - Original journal article published in the journal Sociology

BBC News – summary of the findings of the survey - also allows you to take the survey for yourself

Nice post from the BBC of how they avoided selection bias

A Thinking Allowed podcast on the British Class Survey


Cultural Deprivation’s the Devil

Oh the comforts of revision – I finally get to really hand over to the students and spend my prep time creating these cartoons – becoming something of a yearly ritual now – In this one a Green devil like creature explains how cultural deprivation affects educational achievement.

Please note the cunning use of the PEEEL essay writing technique – In relation to the question ‘Assess the Extent to Which it’s Home Based Cultural Factors that Explain Social Class Based Differences in Educational Achievement’ (20)




Evaluate (the baby bear does this)

Link – OK the link is sort of the next point – and so it may continue, if it weren’t for World of Warcraft (or Facebook, twitter, driving theory tests, the apprentice, fake tan disasters, boyfriends…. I mean I could go on….)


Social class and educational achievement essay plan

Assess the extent to which home based, rather than school – based factors account for social class based differences in educational achievement (20)

Let this post stand as a monument to how much I hate marking essays – I just spent 20 minutes writing it – the unconscious motivation obviously being to avoid marking four dozen with same title, and then all the other essays whose return is so overdue! Sorry students!

Of course in the true spirit of not-quite-sharing-my best A-level= resources (I am in competition after all!) this is not perfect and only a first draft….

Focussing on home background initially, we can look at how material and cultural factors might affect a child’s education.

The lower classes are more likely to suffer from material deprivation at home which can hold children back in education because of a lack access to resources such as computers, or living in a smaller house means they would be less likely to have a quiet, personal study space. In extreme situations, children may have a worse diet and a colder house, which could mean  illness and time off school. According to Gibson and Asthana, the effects of material deprivation are cumulative, creating a cycle of deprivation.  This would suggest that home background influences a child’s education.

Also, the amount of money one has and the type of area one lives in affects the type of school a child can get to. Richer parents have more choice of school because they are more likely to have two cars or be able to afford public transport to get their children to a wider range of schools. Also, house prices in the catchment areas of the best schools can be up to 20% higher than similar houses in other areas – richer parents are more able to afford to move to these better schools. At the other end of the social class spectrum, those going to school in the most deprived areas may suffer disruptions in school due to gang related violence. All of this suggests that location, which is clearly part of your ‘home background’ in the broader sense of the word, is a major factor in educational achievement.

Cultural deprivation also has a negative effect on children at home. Bernstein pointed out that working class children are more likely to be socialised into the restricted speech code and so are less able to understand teachers at school compared to their middle class peers who speak in the elaborated speech code. The classes are also taught the value of immediate rather than deferred gratification, and so are less likely to see the value of higher education. In these theories, home background influences children all the way through school.

Although the concept of cultural deprivation is decasdes old, more recent research suggests it is still of relevance. Fenstein’s (2003) research found that lower income is strongly correlated with a lack of ability to communicate, while research by Conor et al (2001) found that being socialised into poverty means working class students are less likely to want to go to university than middle class students because they are more ‘debt conscious’.

Cultural Capital Theory also suggests that home background matters to an extent – this theory argues that middle class parents have the skills to research the best schools and the ability to help children with homework – and to intervene in schools if a child falls behind (as Diana’s research into the role of mothers in primary school education suggested). However, cultural capital only advantages a child because it gets them into a good school –suggesting that it is the school that matters at least as much as home background. There wouldn’t be such a fuss over, and such competition between parents over schools if the school a child went to didn’t have a major impact on a child’s education!

In fact, one could argue that probably the most significant advantage a parent can give to their child is getting them into a private school. To take an extreme case, Sunningdale preparatory school in Berkshire costs £16000/ year – a boarding school which confers enormous advantage on these children and provides personalised access via private trips to elite secondary schools Eton and Harrow. In such examples, it is not really home background that is advantaging such children – it is simply access to wealth that allows some parents to get their children into these elite boarding schools and the schools that then ‘hothouse’ their children through a ‘high ethos of expectation’ smaller class sizes and superb resources.

Similarly, the case of Mossborn Academy and Tony Sewell’s Generating Genius programme show that schools can overcome disadvantage at home – if they provide strict discipline and high expectation.

Although all of the above are just case studies and thus of limited use in generating a universal theory of what the ‘major cause’ of differences in educational achievement by social class might be, many similar studies have suggested that schools in poorer areas have a lower ethos of expectation (from Willis’ classic 1977 research on the lads to Swain’s research in 2006). It is thus reasonable to hypothesis that the type of school and in school factors such as teacher labelling and peer groups might work to disadvantage the lower classes as Becker’s theory of the ideal pupil being middle class and Willis’ work on working class counter school cultures would suggest, although in this later case, Willis argues that the lads brought with them an anti-educational working class masculinity, so home factors still matter here.

Finally – Social Capital theory also suggests that home background is not the only factor influencing a child’s education – rather it is the contacts parents have with schools – and later on schools with universities and business – that are crucial to getting children a good education, and making that education translate into a good job.

So is it home background or school factors that matter? The research above suggests home background does have a role to play, however, you certainly cannot disregard in school factors in explaining class differences in educational achievement either – in my final analysis, I would have to say that the two work together – middle class advantage at home translating into better schooling, and vice versa for the working classes.

Related Posts

My Sociology of Education playlist on YouTube

A Longitudinal Study by the JRF focussing on the importance of parental aspirations in explaining educational achievement

The main ’causes’ of class differences in educational achievement (another JRF study)

A summary of four pieces of research on home factors and educational achievement

Video Animation explaining cultural deprivation

Video Animation explaining cultural capital

The main ’causes’ of class differences in educational achievement

A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation argues that early intervention is not enough to tackle the persistent differences in class inequalities in educational achievement – The report is a follow up to earlier research published March last year which is summarised below

This four page summary (and the longer document which you can get if you follow the links) is an excellent example of a quantitative approach to social research – in the tradition of Positivism (although strictly speaking, not purely Positivist). NB IF THE IMAGES AREN’T CLEAR JUST CLICK ON THEM! I’ve spent way too long faffing about with them already.

 This study uses statistical data from four longitudinal studies  to uncover the main ‘causal factors’ behind why children from low income backgrounds do so badly in education.

Before we get onto the ’causes’ please note that ‘educational achievement gap’ between the social classes widens as children get older. The study notes that – 

The research showed that educational deficits emerge early in children’s lives, even before entry into school, and widen throughout childhood. Even by the age of three there is a considerable gap in cognitive test scores between children in the poorest fifth of the population compared with those from better-off backgrounds. This gap widens as children enter and move through the schooling system, especially during primary school years.

The report demonstrates this graphically as follows -

Differences in 'cognitive ability' by income and age
Differences in 'cognitive ability' by income and age


And you can see from the table below how the differences are greater by ages 7 and 11…


According to the study The main ’causes’ of class differences in educational achievement are -

  • Children from poorer backgrounds are much less likely to experience a rich home learning environment than children from better-off backgrounds. At age three, for example, reading to the child is less likely to happen in poorer households.  

Reasons for the widening gap between children from richer and poorer backgrounds are:

  • lower parental aspirations for higher education – (81% of the richest mothers hope their child at age 9 will go to university, compared to only 39% of the poorest mothers)
  • how far parents and children believe their own actions can affecttheir lives;
  • children’s behavioural problems.

• It becomes harder to reverse patterns of under-achievement by the teenage years, but disadvantage and poor school results continue to be linked, including through:

  • - teenagers’ and parents’ expectations for higher education
  • material resources such as access to a computer and the internet at home;
  •  engagement in anti-social behaviour;
  • and young people’s belief in their own ability at school.


What’s interesting is the way the stats visually display the multiple disadvantages people from low incomes face – for example -


Probably my favourite graphic of all is this – which is hopefully at least partially self explanatory
untitled7If it’s not clear from the graphic – this is saying that family background is correlated with  two thirds of the differnce in cognitive ability between the richest and poorest children aged three.
Overall, the main message of this study – that home background and parental aspiration matter a lot when it comes to explaining class differences in educational achievement.
The study also mentions that there are certain policy implications that need to be followed through if the government wishes to address these issues, which are further explored in this more recent document published a few days ago.  


Britain’s top CEOs get paid too much

In the latest edition of ‘The Week’, there is some nice data which, if analysed, dispels the myth that the excessive pay of Britain’s top CEOs is deserved –

According to Income Data Services, the chief executives of Britain’s 100 largest companies earned 81 times the average pay of full time workers in 2009. This is up from 47 times the average wage in 2000.

I did a few rough calculations – the average yearly salary (the mean) in the UK is about #25500/ year – so if the average CEO of the top 100 companies earns 81 times more than this  – that means they earn just over 2 million pounds a year.

Put in chart form – this looks something like this (Please note I am getting into my bar charts at the moment!)


Now, keep in mind that the top 100 CEO’s pay has nearly doubled compared to the national average in the last ten years. This means 10 years ago they would have been earning 1 million pounds a year, but now its two – while the average person’s wage clearly  has not doubled in the last decade.

So what’s going on – have these top 100 CEOs become more skilled compared to ten years ago – are they doing twice as much social good as they used to? Have their companies doubled in size or become twice as important – the answer to all of these questions is clearly no! – Or have these people become more powerful, more influential in government, more able to carve out a larger slice of the corporate profit pie for themselves?

I think you’ll find the later rather than the former is the case, especially when you realise that average pay for the whole of the UK has fallen by #2000 in last year alone.

The British Social Attitudes Survey and the Myth of Meritocracy

The latest findings of the British Social Attitudes Survey were released recently. The survey involves over 3,000 interviews annually and participants are selected using a technique called random probability sampling.

The chapter on peoples beliefs about ‘meritocracy’ is especially interesting in the context of education. Meritocratic factors are seen as being the most important when it comes to a person “getting ahead” in modern Britain….

  • 84% say hard work is important;
  • 74% think a good education is important
  • 71% say ambition.
  • 33% think knowing the right people is important.
  • 14% think that being born into a wealthy family was thought to be important
  • 8% thought that a person’s race/ethnicity was important

So since 1989, people believe that the importance of ‘ascriptive factors’ (which people are born with or into)in influencing where you end up has fallen. Your own individual effort and ambition is seen to be much more important!


Now this seems to be at odds with the actual facts – there is just too much evidence suggesting a strong relationship between private schools and the top jobs (you have to come from a wealthy background to get into a private school).

Just a couple of examples of the links between wealth (ascription) and ‘getting ahead’-

In this post I mentioned the following – Of 80,000 15-year-olds who’d been on free school meals in 2002, only 45 had made it to Oxbridge- compared to the high-end private Westminster school which averages 82 successful applicants every year

And in this post – quoting George Monbiot ‘A new report by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) shows that intelligent children from the 20% of richest homes in England are seven times more likely to attend a high-ranking university than intelligent children from the poorest 40%

You might also remember the post in December which reminds us that black students are much less likely to get into Oxbridge.

It may be that our society is more meritocratic than 20 years ago but class and ethnic background matter more than people think – the British public at large are surely here suffering from a ‘myth of meritocracy’ – perhaps because it is more comforting to delude yourself than face the stark truth that our society is still riddled with class inequalities?

What is Social Class?

Some of you might find this useful – my ‘What is Social Class’ handout from 2009. I put this together for the AS unit in Culture and Identity before dodgey standardisation practises (AQA exam board) meant we had to change our option to The Family. Some might argue that the fact that the chief examiner for the AQA writing a text book for commercial gain that only includes the family option, could lead to pressure to mark the other options not included in that text book more harshly. Of course, I wouldn’t suggest this for a minute.

The handout should be useful for anyone wanting to know more about class and class identity.

Culture and Identity – social class worksheet