To what extent does parental occupation determine educational success?
The impact of the occupation and social class of an individual’s parent on their educational success has long been a focus of sociologists. Success in the educational system in the UK is measured by longevity and qualifications. Sociologists have for many years been concerned with why the attainment gap appears to be so large between working and middle class children. This is as relevant today as ever due to the recent Education Act 2011 where one aim was to ensure higher education was accessible to children of all social backgrounds.
A study measuring the level of pupils achieving 5 or more GCSE grades A*- C in 1989 and 2000 demonstrates that children from a middle class background achieve a greater success in the education system and that the attainment gap has only widened over time. (Youth Cohort Study, DfES) While it would be widely favoured to believe that we live in a meritocratic society, a functionalist theory, where it is believed that everyone enters the education system at the same level and people’s success is determined by their skills, abilities and efforts evidence suggests this is not the case. Perhaps one of the most striking statistics from a recent study that perhaps disproves the functionalist theory is that ‘Children from poor homes are nearly a year behind before they start school and two years behind by age 14’. (Rowntree Foundation, 2007.) As recently as May 2012 education secretary Michal Gove “has attacked an English culture that accepts poverty limits the achievements of poor children” (BBC.co.uk 2012). Although the lack of social mobility is a widely accepted issue the factors influencing such a statistic must be explored.
There are two key theories discussed by Bourdieu (1984), a Marxist. Marxists primarily believe that the education system benefits the middle classes and reinforces social inequalities. Bourdieu believed that middle class children not only benefit from the financial advantage of their parents being able to pay for the best independent schools, or tutors to provide extra education, they also benefit from the cultural capital passed down to them. This is focusing more on the values, behaviours and tastes they are exposed to, such as classical music, visiting theatres’, reading books and the way the language they are spoken to at home all appears to benefit middle class children in preparation for what is being taught and expected from them in education. Bourdieu argues that social capital available to the middle classes is advantageous; he inferred they had a greater understanding of the system and contacts within allowing them to network with other middle class parents to discuss the best schools, boycott the failing schools, or if a child parents are well acquainted with the school governors or teachers there is a possibility of preferential treatment for example extra encouragement or attention in class. Another sociologist who believed like Bourdieu that language was a contributing factor as to why middle class children progress further in education was Bernstein (1990). He went as far as to say that the education system is culturally biased towards the middle classes due to them speaking in an elaborated code which is the same language used in schools and by exam boards, therefore middle class children are already familiar with the terminology. Working class children are used to a more restricted code and Bernstein thought that due to not understanding the language they are already behind and therefore potentially switch off, become disengaged and unmotivated. Bearing in mind that educational success is measured by how long an individual remains in the education system and the qualifications achieved another theory why working class children appear to underachieve is that it is down to parent’s attitudes towards education and working. The Must Try Harder study (Professor Gianni De...
References: BBC.co.uk, 10th May 2012. BBC News - Gove attacks low expectations for England 's poor children. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-18020187 [Accessed: 22 Oct 2012].
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Youth Cohort Study, DfES Webb, R. and Westergaard, H. (2004) AS Level Sociology. London: Napier Press.
Williams, R. (2010) Middle-class children do better at school because of parents. [online] Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/oct/29/middle-class-children-better-school [Accessed: 26 Nov 2012].
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