Working class pupils’ underachievement at school may be due to the way school life is structured and the information is delivered. Teachers will use methods of communication that are unfamiliar to working class children which puts them at an immediate disadvantage as the education system is automatically biased against them. Bernstein found differences in the way middle class and working class people communicate. He referred to these as ‘codes,’ stating that working class people are largely limited to using the ‘restricted code’ and the middle class the ‘elaborated code.
The restricted code is a type of shorthand speech, which is often used between family and friends when the other party in the conversation shares the same common assumptions. In restricted speech sentences are often short or unfinished, information is taken for granted, there is little detail and explanations are not given. The elaborated code is rich in detail and explanation, is very specific and understood by everyone. Bernstein found that middle class children had been socialised in both restricted and elaborated codes whilst many working class children had been exposed to only the restricted code.
Teachers’ speech, textbooks and examination papers all appear in the elaborated code, hence, working class pupils are less likely to understand what the teachers have to say and may experience problems with essay writing and coursework. Working class pupils may also be criticised for the way they speak for example when answering a question in class, which would create negative feelings, which may lead to dislike of school, alienation, labelling or self-fulfilling prophecy.
Bernstein believes that without the elaborated code, it is extremely difficult to demonstrate the skills needed by the education system such as; analysis, logical and rational argument, and handling higher level concepts. Others have supported Bernstein’s view, however, Rosen believes that Bernstien’s arguments are too vague and unsupported by hard evidence. His definition of social class is unclear and tends to assume that the elaborated code is exclusive to the middle class.
Rosen also believes that we are in no position to judge that the elaborated speech code is superior, as we do not have sufficient knowledge of working class speech. Working class pupils are more often victims of ‘Labelling Theory. ‘ Studies such as Lacey and Ball suggest that teachers’ expectations discriminate against working class pupils, in that they are less likely to be judged on ability and intelligence. Nell Keddie says: “If we focus solely on the deficiencies of the children in the class structure, we may fail to notice the very real shortcomings of the schools. Interactionists believe that failure in the education system may be more to do with the self-concept of the pupil produced in interaction with others than to do with outside factors.
These theorists believe in the concept of ‘the looking glass self’ meaning that we see ourselves in how others react to us, pupils may internalise low self-esteem and adjust their behaviour accordingly if they were labelled in a negative way by a teacher, for example, as a ‘waste of time. Thus, succumbing to a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy,’ which may lead to students not achieving their full potential in examinations, confirming the teacher’s original thoughts. This view is supported by research by Rosenthal and Jacobson that examined the effect of teachers’ definitions of pupils. They told teachers in an elementary school in California that they had identified a number of pupils that were likely to make rapid progress (the ‘spurters’). Unbeknown to the teachers, these children had been selected at random.
However, a year later the spurters did make better progress than their classmates, illustrating that it was solely due to how they were defined. Teachers had higher expectations from them, conveyed their expectation to them and they acted in terms of it. The result showing a self-fulfilling prophecy. Although the Rosenthal and Jacobson study is highly valued, their methodology is often seen as sub-standard as the IQ tests were unreliable and poorly administered. Some have suggested that labelling was of little or no significance after attempts to replicate their study produced mixed results.
However, many sociologists believe that labelling is significant, and the self-fulfilling prophecy can help explain class differences in educational achievement. Later research shows that there are more factors to be considered. Hargreaves argues that what matters is if the label is accepted by the pupil or ‘sticks. ‘ What determines this is; how often the pupil is labelled, whether they value that teacher’s opinion, the extent to which others support the label and whether the labelling occurs in public or private.
Bird found that pupils more readily accepted academic labels than behavioural ones. Working class children, particularly boys, are often judged to have an attitude problem according to recent research by Troyna. Labelling theory suggests that working class pupils often see these negative labels as a master status, gaining the pupil attention and admiration from their peers that have adopted an anti-learning/ school attitude, evidence of this is found in Willis’s study of working class boys.
Marxist theory generally supports labelling theory, which believes that those pupils who conform e. g. Accepting teacher authority are ‘ideal pupils. ‘ These pupils are often middle class. Bourdieu viewed the educational system as a middle class institution, which is structured to reproduce class inequality and therefore benefit middle class children. Bourdieu believes that the knowledge and skills of the working class are hugely devalued by the education system for example, vocational subjects are seen as inferior to traditional academics.
Teaching methods are biased towards the middle class, and the working classes are conditioned by the education system to accept powerlessness and failure as their fault as a result of lack of intelligence. Most secondary schools have some version of setting or streaming pupils in accordance with ability. Studies by Hargreaves and Lacey have found that middle class pupils tend to be placed in higher groups and working class pupils in lower groups, the ‘ability gap’ tends to get bigger from year seven to year eleven, and most teachers prefer to teach high ability groups.
The behaviour of pupils in higher ability groups tends to be better. Pupils in lower groups are often inclined to develop an anti-school subculture and teachers have to devote more energy to disciplining the class rather than teaching. Teachers have lower expectations of these groups who are then entered for lower examination tiers and are therefore denied the chance of gaining top examination grades. The overall result of setting seems to be to advantage pupils in higher groups and disadvantage those in lower groups, however this is a broad generalisation and there are exceptions, such as those found by Meyenn.
Meyenn found groups of girls who were well behaved and said they were happy at school, however they had no interest in academic work and accepted their place in the lowest ability groups. It is not only the actual education system that disadvantages working class children. They are disadvantaged from when they are born as they are deprived of cultural capital. Douglas and Bernstein place the blame for working class underachievement on their home background and the culture to which they are exposed.
Working class children are disadvantaged greatly from the start due to a number of factors. The most important is lack of parental interest. Parental interest in education was found by Douglas to be of paramount importance. Douglas states, “We attribute many of the major differences in performance to environmental influences acting in the pre-school years. ” Children from working class backgrounds are less likely to be found in nursery schools or playgroups, are more likely to start school unable to read and haven’t been on educational or culturally enriching outings.
The lower financial incomes of working class households also affect children, as they are less likely to have educational toys, books, computers of their own or a quiet place to do their homework. Working class children are more likely to be brought up in an environment where there is less emphasis put on the importance of education and there is an attitude of instant gratification, whilst their middle class counterparts will be taught to defer their gratification. Deferring gratification is a value that coincides with the education system.
From an interpretive approach, class differences in attainment are socially constructed and result from the assessment of pupils in terms of teachers’ perceptions of social class, ability and conduct. Personally, I think that the values the child inherits or learns from their parents are the most important factor in how much they achieve in education. However, there are so many factors influencing a child that it will often depend upon the individual personality of the pupil as to how much they achieve.
To make a generalisation, the working classes do seem to be at an immediate disadvantage as the education system is geared towards the middle class knowledge and values. Whether they are superior or not, it is the middle class attitude that fairs the best in our education system. I think there are many exceptions to broad generalisations such as this, but I think that the working classes are pre-disposed to do less well in education due to their values learned outside of the education system.