The relationship between social class and educational achievement is one of the main topics within the sociology of education at A level.
The problem is, the government does not routinely collect statistics on the relationship between social class and educational achievement!
Instead, we have to reply on statistics which look at the relationship between household income and educational achievement, rather than the relationship between social class and educational achievement.
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.
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.
The Achievement of Pupils Eligible for Free School Meals
Three is a 13.7% achievement gap in the ‘attainment 8’ scores of pupils eligible for Free School Meals compared to non-FSM pupils
In 2019 parents in households with a gross annual income of no more than £16190 were entitled to claim for Free School Meals. (Source).
This means that approximately the poorest 1/6th of households are eligible, so the above statistics are comparing the results of children from the poorest 1/6th of households with the richest 5/6ths all lumped into one.
One limitation with the above statistics is that if you were to stretch this comparison out and compare the poorest 1/6th with the next poorest 1/6th and so on up to the riches 1/6th, you would probably see much starker differences.
Independent School Results Compared to State Schools
If we look at the top 10 independent school results compared to the top 10 state schools, we see quite a difference in results.
In order to be able to pay the fees to get your children into an independent school, you have to be comfortably in the top 10% of households. There are a few scholarships for pupils from poorer households, but not in significant numbers!
Top 10 independent schools
Top 10 state schools
You can see a clear 8-9% difference in achievement in favour of the fee-paying independent 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, we are only talking about the the top 5-10% of the social class scale, we are not able to make social class comparisons more broadly.
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.