Last Updated on February 20, 2023 by Karl Thompson
The United Kingdom government does not routinely collect statistics on the relationship between social class and educational achievement!
Instead, we have to rely on statistics which use ‘proxy-indicators’ to look at the relationship between household income and educational achievement, rather than the relationship between social class and educational achievement.
Two sources we might use to to examine the relationship between social class and educational achievement are:
- Free School Meal (FSM) achievement rates compare to non FSM achievement rates
- Data on independent school results compared to government schools results.
Problems with relying on income as a proxy for social class
Both of the above statistics measure income alone, rather than the broader concept of social class.
Household income is related to social class, but income alone does not tell us exactly which social class someone is from. Some parents might work in traditionally ‘working-class’ jobs which could be very well paid, such as the building trades; while other parents might be earning a limited amount of money working part-time in traditionally middle-class jobs – as private music teachers for example.
Also, income does not necessarily tell us about the cultural aspects of class – how well educated parents are or how much social and cultural capital they have, for example.
Thus you must remember that household income indicators are only proxies for social class, they may not show us precisely what a child’s social class background is.
Achievement of free school meals pupils
In 2022 only 29% of Free School Meals (FSM) pupils achieved grade five or above in both English and Maths compared to 57% of non Free School Meal Pupils. This means that non-FSM pupils from higher income households are twice as likely to pass both English and Maths compared to FSM pupils from lower income households.
Similarly, only 26% of FSM pupils are entered for the higher status English Baccalaureate compared to 43% of non-FSM pupils.
Parents in households with a gross annual income of no more than £16190 were entitled to claim for Free School Meals. This means that all children from households with parents on benefits and some children with parents working part time in lower income jobs will be eligible.
22.5% of children were eligible for Free School Meals in 2022, which is just over 1/5th of all students. Thus the blue bar above represents the poorest fifth of children and the red bar represents the richest 4/5ths.
Limitations of Free School Meals statistics
One limitation is that it FSM eligibility is based on gross household income, so it doesn’t tell us about poverty differences within this group based on disposable income. For example, if one household owns their house outright they would have a lot more disposable income than a household with a mortgage.
A further limitation is that you are not getting a detailed comparison, you are only able to compare the achievement of the poorest 20% with the achievement of richest 80%.
It would be better if you could compare more categories, so the poorest fifth, the next poorest fifth and so on. If you did this you would probably see a wider achievement gap between the poorest fifth of children and richest fifth.
Independent School Results Compared to State Schools
Pupils attending independent, fee paying, schools get much better GCSE results than pupils attending normal academies or LEA controlled ‘comprehensive’ schools.
In 2021 more than 60% of GCSEs awarded to pupils attending private schools achieved a grade A, compared to only 30% of GCSEs awarded to pupils attending academies or LEA maintained state schools (approximate figures), and the gap between private and state schools is increasing.
It’s interesting to note that non-selective state schools (or the 150 so state grammar schools) get proportionately more A grades at GCSE than the private schools, but there are very few of these grammar schools)
In order to afford the fees to get your children into an independent school, you have to be comfortably in the top 10% of households, hence comparing the results allows us to explore the relationsip between income and educational achievement at the top of income scale.
There are a few scholarships for pupils from poorer households, but not in significant enough numbers to skew the overall comparison, it’s mainly rich kids attending these private schools.
Top 10 independent schools for A-level results
If we look at the very top, very expensive schools we see that money really does buy you a very good chance of achieving 3 A-levels at A-A*, with the top ten schools and colleges all having a 90% success rate at that level.
Although it will cost your parents a minimum of £15K a year to get you into one of those schools.
One advantage of the above stats is that it’s much more likely that you’re seeing the solidly upper middle class in these schools, rather than this just being about income.
However, this is at the same time a disadvantage as we cannot isolate variables. We can’t be sure the extent to which is is purely wealth and income influencing these results, or cultural capital.
One thing is for sure: it is not just the raw intelligence of the pupils attending these schools, they are being gifted with an enormous educational advantage compared to students sitting A-levels at regular state colleges.
If we use the above data, we can see there is a drastic difference in the achievement rates at the very top and the very bottom of the household income scales.
IF we think household income is a valid indicator of social class, we can also say there are huge social class differences in educational achievement based on the above statistics.
However, we don’t have systematic, annual data on the relationship between the vast majority of middle income households and educational achievement.
The lack of consistent monitoring could be due to our neoliberal government trying to disguise the truth that there is a clear difference in educational outcomes by social class, which in turn is due to social class inequalities in society, which is something neoliberalism is happy to maintain.
The relationship between social class and educational achievement is one of the main topics within the sociology of education at A level.