A level sociology revision – education, families, research methods, crime and deviance and more!
Sociological perspectives on the role and functions of education in society; the significance of in-school processes such as teacher labelling and subcultures for pupil identities; explanations for differences in educational achievement by social class, gender and ethnicity; the impact of education policies of marketization, selection and privatisation, and the globalization of education
There are several useful documentaries available for teaching and learning the education module as part of A-level sociology and this post simply provides a few links to some of them. The easiest way to access the links to them is to go via my Google Spread Sheet – which contains a lot more than just video resources btw…
Education Documentaries 2010- 2019
Where possible the links take you through to the actual videos, but in some cases they aren’t available anymore, mainly thanks to the BBC being an anachronism which can’t seem to store documentaries even though we have no real choice but to pay our licence fee, in which case the link goes to the programme homepage, or Wiki in the case of the ‘Educating series.
How useful are education documentaries for teaching A-level sociology?
Well, it depends on the documentary! Personally I’ve used most of the above docs in my teaching over the last few years – I tend to find ‘single issue’ docs more useful, such as ‘How to Break into the Elite’, whereas the ‘fly on the wall documentaries’ are maybe less useful as valid texts but more useful for getting students to think about research methods.
A timeline of education documentaries
NB I know it probably looks hideous if you’re viewing this on a tablet or a phone, but if you actually click through to the Tableau site, it looks a lot better. Just an experiment, not sure it worked TBH!
Why don’t working class graduates with good degrees get the best jobs?
This documentary focuses on social mobility, and the myth of meritocracy, focusing on why working class graduates with good degrees struggle to get into the top jobs.
Statistics mentioned in the documentary
About 1/3rd of the population come from working class backgrounds, but only 10% make it into Britain’s top professions, and they earn 15% less than their colleagues from more privileged backgrounds.
Put another way you are 6 times more likely to land an elite job if you’re upper middle class.
Russel Group University students with 2nd class degrees are more likely to go into a top profession than those from working class backgrounds and got a first.
Oxbridge candidates from privileged backgrounds end up earning more than those from less privileged backgrounds.
Banking and finance – 34% educated privately
Private equity – nearer 70%
Top employers want cultural capital as well as qualifications
The stats suggest that top employers are not rewarding what the universities are rewarding, and this is preventing working class kids from getting the top jobs.
City recruiters are looking for ‘polish’ in the way they present – if we break this down this means accent, mannerism, behavior, dress.
One of the areas most affected by this is sales in finance: it is felt that if employees don’t look and feel ‘reassuringly expensive’, this will undermine the firm/ sector.
To illustrate this we have an interview with one independent recruitment agent who has a woman with an Essex accent on her books who she ‘can’t get a job for love for money’
This also applies to the The Media Sector – 60K of last years grads aspired to a career in media, but working class students are at a disadvantage because they don’t have the cultural capital to ‘fit in’. With the media, there’s a kind of ‘studied informality’ and way of being ‘knowingly hip, and those from WC backgrounds are just confused by it… lack of being at ease.
It seems that having cultural capital is crucial to breaking into a job in Media: If you have a parent who works in film and television you’re 12 times more likely to work in the Media, and 60-70% of those who work in The Media come from professional and managerial backgrounds. Tacit knowledge, no explicit rules about how you get in.
The problem with all of this is that this set of rules are ‘tacit’ – they unwritten, a set of social codes which are quite ‘knowing’ (to with dress/ speak) and without being brought up with them, working class people struggle to make the leap of selfhood required to get into the top jobs.
Why the working classes lack confidence….
People from disadvantaged backgrounds have more unstable lives, those from more advantaged have more stable lives and are more likely to have been brought up being listened to and having their opinions valued as a peer, that breeds familiarity and confidence – knowing that everything’s going to ‘be OK’ tomorrow.
Three contrasting case studies
The documentary uses case of students who have just graduated, some working class and struggling to get good jobs despite their top degrees from good universities, and one middle class student:
Amaan – has a degree in Economics from Nottingham and has wanted a i equity sales in an investment bank (since he was 13), also world kickboxing champion at 17, but he struggles with a lack of confidence in interviews.
Elvis from East London – has a degree in political economy at Birmingham, wants a city job in finance, he ends up getting onto a graduate training programme with bank (if I remember correctly).
Finally, Ben from Dulwich, screamingly middle class who charmed his way into London Live and the local press – he was just pushy, winged it, and looks set to get a career in the media despite his degree in Classics.
Ian Wright and the Internal Class Ceiling
Unexpectedly the documentary has a section featuring Ian Write, from a working class background who talks about the prejudice he has faced in his media career.
He even says we should abolish private schools and ‘give the working class guns’ to get over the middle class advantage, and that interview training and soft skills are bullshit – you shouldn’t have to be someone you’re not.
In this post I offer four pieces of evidence students can use to evaluate the New Right’s perspective on education, particularly their claim that Marketisation policies since 1988 have raised standards for all pupils.
Item A: GCSE Pass Rates
Probably the strongest piece of supporting evidence for the New Right’s policies on education is that they have worked to improve GCSE results nearly every year for the last 30 years:
The latest reports focusing on the long term trend are a bit dated, such as this one from The Guardian, but it clearly shows a long term improvement in grades at GCSE:
Despite recent dips in top grades, this 2013 report from Full Fact, which also focuses on the long term trend in results since 1988 points out that:
The pass rate for grades A*-C has increased by almost two-thirds from 42.5% in 1988 to 68.1% in 2013.
A*/A grades have almost trebled from 8.6% in 1988 to 21.3% in 2013.
However, the report also recognizes that some of this is due to grade inflation as this increase in performance is not mirrored by English and Welsh students in international tests, such as PISA BELOW.
The PISA league tables demonstrate how the neoliberal/ New Right idea of ranking educational achievement has gone global – Since the year 2000 we now have International Education League Tables.
Since the year 2000, every three years, fifteen-year-old students from randomly selected schools worldwide take tests in the key subjects: reading, mathematics and science, with a focus on one subject in each year of assessment. In 2012, some economies also participated in the optional assessments of Problem Solving and Financial Literacy.
Students take a test that lasts 2 hours. The tests are a mixture of open-ended and multiple-choice questions that are organised in groups based on a passage setting out a real-life situation. A total of about 390 minutes of test items are covered. Students take different combinations of different tests.
PISA is unique because it develops tests which are not directly linked to the school curriculum. The tests are designed to assess to what extent students at the end of compulsory education, can apply their knowledge to real-life situations and be equipped for full participation in society.
The students and their school principals also answer questionnaires to provide information about the students’ backgrounds, schools and learning experiences and about the broader school system and learning environment.
The UK currently ranks 23rd for English and Maths.
Item C: Stephen Ball (2003)
argues that government policies of choice and competition place the middle class at an advantage. They have the knowledge and skills to make the most of the opportunities on offer. Compared to the working class they have more material capital, more social capital – access to social networks and contacts which can provide information and support.
Ball refers Middle class parents as ‘skilled choosers’. Compared to working class parents (disconnected choosers) they are more comfortable with dealing with public institutions like schools, they are more used to extracting and assessing information. For example, they use social networks to talk to parents whose children are attending the schools on offer. They collect and analyse information about GCSE results, and they are more used to dealing with and negotiating with administrators and teachers. As a result, if entry to a school is limited, they are more likely to gain a place for their child.
Ball also talked of the school/ parent alliance: Middle class parents want middle class schools and schools want middle class pupils. In general, the schools with more middle class students have better results. Schools see middle class students as easy to teach and likely to perform well. They will maintain the schools position in the league tables and its status in the education market.
Item D: Sue Palmer – The Problems of Tests, Targets And Education
Sue Palmer Is usually introduced in Families and Households module. She argues that technological and social changes have made modern childhood ‘toxic’, and testing in education (because of league tables and The New Right) is part of this problem. Sue Palmer writes…..
‘As long as league tables exist, in a risk averse society most people daren’t ignore them. Primary schools at the top of the league (which, by a strange coincidence, tend to be in the wealthiest areas) have a reputation to maintain; those at the bottom have to try to claw a little higher. The status of all interested adults (teachers, governors, parents) depends on how their Year Sixes perform in national tests.
So from four years of age, our children now live in the shadow of SATs. ‘No time for play in the reception class now,’ one teacher told me ruefully. ‘As soon as they arrive, it’s fast forward to the Key Stage One test.’ The curriculum is dominated by the core subjects of English, Maths and Science, broken down into a series of discrete‘learning objectives’ – closely matched to ‘assessment criteria’ – to be ticked off as children progress through the school.
There are ‘voluntary’ SATs for each year group, so children’s progress (and teachers’ competence in coaching their pupils) can be checked every summer. Then, in Year Six, come several months of concentrated exam practice, ‘booster classes’ during the Easter holidays for those who might not scrape the required mark, and sleepless nights for 11-year-olds terrified of ‘letting themselves down’ on the day.
Not surprisingly, this regime leaves far less time for creative but unquantifiable experiences, like art, drama and music, which through the millennia have nurtured children’s imaginations and contributed incalculably to their emotional and social development. Less time also for the active, hands-on learning children need if they’re genuinely to understand the concepts underpinning the tests.
Last year researchers found that the conceptual understanding of today’s 11-year-olds lags two to three years behind their counterparts in 1990. While performance on pencil-and-paper tests of has soared over this period, children are apparently less likely to understand the principles they’ve been trained to tick boxes about.
Research published recently by the independent Alexander Review of primary education shows that – on tests other than those for which children are coached – there have been only modest improvements in mathematics, and little change in literacy standards. And in last month’s PIRLS survey of international achievement in literacy, England had actually gone backwards, slumping from 3rd to 19th place.
How has education changed in the age of postmodernity?
Postmodern society is more diverse, consumerist, fragmented, media-saturated (hyperreal) and allows individuals much more freedom of choice than in the previous modern society. You might like to review this article on modern and postmodern society before continuing.
A few examples of some of the ways education could be said to have responded postmodernisation include:
Schools are more ‘consumerist’ and provide more individual choice
With the introduction of marketisation and open enrollment, parents now have more choice over which school to send their child to. Marketisation has effectively made schools into businesses and parents/ pupils into consumers. When choosing primary or secondary schools, parents and pupils now get to peruse school prospectuses and attend open evenings, ‘browsing’ for the school of their choice. Parents are also free to enroll their children at alternative schools, or home educate if their ‘consumer needs’ are not met by their current school.
Education has become more individualized
Teachers are expected to use a variety of teaching approaches in their delivery of lesson, to take account of the variety of ‘learning styles’ of students, and where possible ‘facilitate’ lessons so that they are learner centered.
Tutors also spend time working out ‘learner pathways’ with students, so that their educational path is tailored to suit their future career aims.
Education is more diverse
Since New Labour the U.K. has seen an increasing diversity of school types – there has been an increase in ‘specialist schools’ which specialise in one subject in particular (such as maths), many more faith schools, and more recently a dramatic increase in the number of academies and free schools.
There are also many more education providers today – the dramatic increase in apprenticeship places in the last decade means that there are now thousands of employers offering training to 16-24-year olds.
Despite the national curriculum, the experience of education has become more fragmented – privately educated school children generally enjoy a very cosy education, with clearly structured lessons and school years meaning they can realise their full potential by the time they leave school. At the other end of the social class spectrum, children mostly from lower working-class backgrounds feel alienated by a middle-class school system and they may experience disruption to their learning from badly behaved students.
The recent increase in home-schooling is also a good example of education becoming more fragmented.
Education is more ‘Hyperreal’
A fairly obvious example of this that schools are making much more use of ICT in education, and students are increasingly being directed to online sources for learning support, or even as the main source of tuition for some courses.
Relevance of the postmodernisation of education to A-level sociology
It’s fairly unlikely that you’ll get an exam question asking you directly about postmodernism and education, the most likely use you can make of the above material is to criticise the functionalist view of education – for example, if education is more fragmented, it is unlikely that education can perform the function of creating value consensus in a society!
This 2019 Panorama documentary is a case study in the effects of education funding cuts on one primary school in a deprived area of the U.K. in 2019.
This 30 minute documentary follows one primary school in a deprived area exploring the impact of cuts to education funding since 2010, and investigating the strategies adopted by the school management to deal with these funding cuts.
This particular school seems to have been hit especially hard because of its location in an area with high levels of material and cultural deprivation, meaning it educates a high proportion of disadvantaged children.
The main strategy adopted by the school is to reduce the number of support staff – a number of special education needs (SEN) pupils require additional support in class and we see how the school is facing the possibility of cutting up to seven support staff.
As a result, the parents of one pupil with autism have made the decision to pull him out of mainstream education and get him a place in a specialist school, because of the threat of his support worker disappearing, evidence of schools becoming less inclusive.
One of the staff being sacked is the librarian, and so some of the older pupils are being trained up to manage the library.
One of the initiatives the management insist on keeping alive is the school food bank: pupils who have limited food at home (maybe because their parent’s pay check has been delayed) can take home food parcels.
Relevance to A-level sociology
There are several examples of what material deprivation looks like in real life (lack of food etc.) and how this has a negative impact on students’ education.
Useful for adding to analysis of the effects of New Right/ Neoliberal education policy (cuts to education funding)
This is a good example of how education funding cuts have a negative impact on education, having a disproportionately negative impact on SEN pupils and pupils from deprived backgrounds.
However, at the same time this particular case study is an example of how such funding cuts can be managed effectively in order to minimize negative impact. This might suggest support for the New Right – IF we get competent management in schools, we can still provide a decent standard of education with fewer resources.
Having said that, Marxists might argue the selection of this school for this documentary is ideological – it gives the impression that ‘good management’ can still, on the whole, provide an effective education for most students, without the whole system falling apart.
The broader truth could be that the cuts are having more negative effects, but we don’t see this because of selection bias in sampling (we see a school with good management doing OK rather than average management struggling to cope).
Methodological strengths and limitations
Good validity (to an extent) as we get to see the negative consequences of educating funding cuts in one school, however one has to question the selection of content for the documentary – this is entirely focused on the negatives – for every pupil impacted negatively, there might be 10 who have hardly been impacted at all – the later kind of students don’t make for an interesting documentary.
Limited representativeness – this is only one school among thousands, and it’s unlikely the experience of this school will mirror the experience of other schools. The management and staff at this school are probably more competent than in the average school – the less competent you are, the less likely you are to let a film crew in to film you for a few months!
Ironically this documentary aired around the same time as Boris Johnson announced an increase in education funding, so it’s potentially already out of date. However, IF we come out of the EU without a deal this might send the economy into a downward spiral and the squeeze on education funding may continue.
Finally, while useful to ‘bring to life’ complex sociological issues, always keep in mind that documentaries are themselves social constructions, which reflect the biases of the producers.
School league tables are changing so that they include the exam results of schools’ excluded pupils.
This social policy is designed to discourage schools from excluding potentially low-performing students with the intention of improving their exam results on paper.
Along with data on formally excluded pupils schools will also have to included data on off-rolled pupils, or pupils who have been informally excluded, for example by the school coming to an agreement with the parent that they will voluntarily un-enroll their child rather than their being formally excluded.
This seems to be the government’s response to the fact that school exclusions have rise by 40% in the last three years, after a period of decline….
At first glance this does seem to be an effective way of dealing with the recently growing problem of off-rolling – where the schools effectively just left it to the parents to re-enroll their child elsewhere, which many of them didn’t (as I’ve written about here). With this policy in place the schools who do this are at least more likely to follow up on what’s happened to their excluded children.
It might also make some schools innovate to deal with their ‘problem children’ more in-house rather than letting someone else deal with the problem.
It’s also an interesting example of a social policy response that recognizes that certain headmasters are prepared to game the system by engaging in underhand tactics to improve their results – this strategy of excluding to improve results (at least this is what appears to be going on) is mainly practiced by academies.
However, maybe it’s just a sticking plaster? Maybe we should be thinking more about why so many kids are being excluded, which means thinking about why they don’t like school, and think about how we can maybe change the system from the ground up?!?
The U.K. now issues more than 100 000 student visas per year to Chinese students studying at British universities, with the numbers of Chinese students studying in the UK increasing at about 5% a year since at least 2013-14
Chinese students are by far the largest non-European student group living temporarily in the UK for 3 years or so while they pursue their degree courses. The next largest university feeder country outside of Europe is India, but only 20 000 student visas are issued to Indian students per year.
Moreover, if you look at the stats below, taken from the Higher Education Student Statistics Authority (nice ring to it that!) you can see that Chinese students are the only group from outside Europe who are coming into the UK in increasing numbers. Every other country is sending very similar numbers now compared to 2013-14.
Now to my mind this seems to be more a trend towards increasing bilateralism between China and UK universities, and if anything evidence of stagnant or even a decline in the ‘globalisation of British Higher Education’.
According to Democrats leaving college saddled with debt has a negative impact on future careers. It’s not difficult to reason why: if you’ve got a $100K debt, you might end up getting stuck in a dead-end job to service debt payments rather than being able to do a lowly-paid trainee position for a year or more, which might well be required to get your foot on the career ladder.
Or as Elijah Dormeus (author of the tweet above) put it – he was going to carry on working at AT and T to pay off his debt, now he’s free to help his brother through college and set up a community foundation to help other financially challenged people through education.
This ‘natural experiment’ offers education researchers an interesting opportunity to do a comparative study of the future career choices and prospects of the 2018 and 2020 classes, who will both be suffering debt on graduation, compare to this now debt-free class of 2019.
It seems like a good college to choose for such a ‘natural experiment’ as writing off loans should make a lot of difference given that the student body at Morehouse is all-male (so no gender differences to skew the results), predominately black (so one main ethnic group) and typically from poor backgrounds.
It would have been pointless doing this with a wealthy college where students are less likely to be debt conscious .
It will be interesting to see how this experiment unfolds, and I’ll be sure to keep you all posted!
Sonita Alleyne is 51 years old studied Philosophy at Cambridge 30 years ago and went on to establish a successful career in journalism and has been awarded and OBE. She is a real champion for diversity and inclusion.
At first sight this seems like a very progressive move to promote equality and diversity, especially when Oxbridge universities have been under so much criticism recently over their disproportionately low numbers of black students and staff.
However, critics might suggest this is an ‘easy trophy appointment’ – what do Heads of Colleges do after all? They’re basically figure heads who liaise with other educational establishments, businesses and the wider communities.
Surely addressing the lack of black female staff (and especially professors) would have more of an impact in promoting equality and diversity? I mean these are the people who students interact with on a day to day basis, so surely appointments to these positions would have more of a role-model effect, and surely make a difference to the lives of more people (i.e. the people appointed and the students they might inspire.
This appointment is progress, yes, but maybe not the most effective way of promoting equality and diversity
Relevance to A-level sociology
This is most obviously relevant to the sociology of education. You can use this as contemporary evidence against the view that elite universities are institutionally racist.
Cutting free tuition and bursaries for student nurses seems to be a good candidate for the one of the worst social policy decisions of the decade…
The NHS is currently critically short of nurses, with 42 000 posts in England unfilled.
This seems to be due to a decision by the Tory party in 2015 to remove free tuition and bursaries for those undertaking nursing courses, requiring nursing students to take out loans to cover their fees and costs of living while studying.
It appears that the prospect of starting a nursing career up to £50K in debt has but people off applying for nursing in droves. Since 2016 nursing applications have dropped by one third, and they are down 40% among mature students.
There seems to be a direct correlation here between the removal of bursaries and people deciding to not do nursing courses, which makes sense given that nursing is a low paid, stressful and low status career: who would want to start out £50K in debt?
In 2015, it was projected that the policy would have saved £1 billion a year, but this is almost certainly not going to be the case as it is estimated that nearly 50% of loans to student nurses will be written off because they will never earn above the repayment threshold, and because of the requirement to hire nurses through more expensive agencies.
It is estimated that replacing agency nurses with regular full-time nurses would save the NHS £560 million a year.
Why did the Tories introduce this policy?
It could be due a total disconnect between elite Tories and the kinds of people doing nursing degrees. Most Tories will have no idea what it’s like living on marginal wages and the difference bursaries can make down at the bottom of the pay scale.
Or it might be ideological – deliberately done to put the NHS in crisis and make it more expensive to run, justifying (in a downward spiral) the further outsourcing and selling off for profit later. Tories don’t need it after all, they have private health care.
It can’t be due to any rational decision making as this policy clearly makes no financial sense on any level.