Semi-Structured Interviews to Research Education

Semi-Structured interviews are the most common primary qualitative research methods used in education. There are many studies which employ them. Here I focus on just one, which is adapted from ‘Sociology Since 2000’.

Class, gender, (hetero) sexuality, and schooling: working-class girls’ engagement with education and post-16 aspirations by Louise Archer, Anna Halsall and Sumi Hollingworth, 2007

Context

Working-class girls may not be doing as badly as working-class boys, but a significant number are leaving school at the age of 16 with few or no qualifications. In order to explain this, feminists have drawn attention to two processes. While at school, working-class girls may engage in subcultural forms of resistance to schooling by behaving in a hyper-heterosexual manner. This behaviour – which is focused on sexuality, dress and appearance – often results in teacher-pupil conflict as teachers interpret this behaviour as deviant. Second, a number of studies have suggested that the choices of working-class girls are structured by the expectation of leaving school at the age of 16 to work locally, settle down in a heterosexual relationship and have children.

Methods

The researchers used a multi-method, mainly qualitative, approach. First, data was collected from 89 pupils aged 14 to 16 using semi-structured interviews. Six London comprehensive schools were selected, chosen because they served working-class areas suffering from severe economic and social deprivation.

The sample of 89 pupils was made up of pupils who had been identified by their schools as being at risk of dropping out of schooling at 16. The sample included boys and girls from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, although over 50 per cent were White.

Discussion groups were set up with an additional 36 pupils. Third, eight female pupils were asked to complete photographic diaries, focusing on their everyday activities and interests. Finally, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 19 members of staff and a small sample of five parents.

Findings

The researchers found that most of the female pupils were keen to be seen as ‘desirable’ and ‘glamorous’. They spent a great deal of time and effort working on their hair, make-up and dress styles, in order to construct what the researchers called a ‘sexualised hyper-feminine identity’. This ‘work’ was regarded by the girls as far more important than the academic work demanded by the school. The primary importance placed on appearance was highlighted in the sample’s photo-diaries, which included pictures of their favourite glamour products.

The researchers observed that the girls constructed their appearance by combining a range of styles taken from diverse sources such as sport, Black culture and global brands. For example, girls often combined elements of Black, urban US styles (notably ‘bling-bling’ fashion) with various items of sportswear (e.g. Nike trainers and tracksuits) and hyper-feminine ‘sexy’ clothes, make-up and hairstyles. This construction of a hyper-feminine identity gave these young women a form of cultural power, which they used to resist school rules about uniform. This capital also led to the acquisition of status from their peer group and boyfriends.

However, this identity often led to conflict with the school. For example, girls were frequently reprimanded for their failure to conform to school-defined standards of appearance. Teachers often confronted them about the application of make-up or the maintenance of hairstyles during lesson time.

Interviews with staff suggested that they saw the girls’ construction of appearance as the opposite to what they interpreted as a ‘good pupil’. Working-class girls’ appearances were generally seen by teachers as inappropriately ‘sexual’ and a distraction from learning. On the other hand, staff saw middle-class pupils as ‘ideal pupils’. Middle-class girls were interpreted as high-achieving, hard-working, rule-following and respectable.

The researchers noted that peer-group pressure was mainly responsible for the construction of working-class femininity. Appearance was bound up with this because girls’ inclusion in, or exclusion from, their peer group was based on their conformity to particular performances of style and appearance. Most girls wanted to avoid being ridiculed, mocked and called a ‘tramp’ for wearing the ‘wrong’ brand of trainers or style of clothing. Many girls indicated their desire to leave school and to start work in order to earn the money required to continue performing fashionable identities. Boyfriends, too, had a profound and negative effect on girls’ engagement with schooling. Girls with boyfriends had low aspirations and attainment and many expressed the desire to leave and to live with or marry their boyfriend.

Evaluation

The strength of this study is its multi-strategy approach to gathering a range of qualitative data over a significant period of time. The longitudinal nature of the research allowed trends over time to be identified and the development of pupils to be regularly monitored in terms of their interaction with teachers and their peer group.

The sample appears to be representative of ‘at risk’ students in the London area. However, further research would be required to find out whether or not the findings are generalisable to other parts of the UK, as the cultures and types of deprivation found in London may be qualitatively different to those found in other places.

The qualitative nature of the data obtained from both the teachers and the pupils suggests that the researchers managed to obtain the trust of both parties. For the pupils, guarantees of anonymity and confidentiality contributed to this. However, although extensive qualitative data resulted from the group discussions, we need to be aware that the validity of the data can be affected by peer pressure and fears of ridicule and exclusion. If these discussions were not properly managed by the researchers, some pupils may have imposed their interpretations of schooling on the others.

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Structured Non-Participant Observation in Education

The most commonly used form of observation in education are lesson observations carried out as part of OFSTED inspections – technically these are a form of quantitative non-participant structured observation: OFSTED inspectors have half a dozen criteria to look out for and grade each criteria 1-4, with 1 being outstanding and 4 meaning unsatisfactory; observers will also add in some qualitative notes.

If a researcher is using previously gained records of lesson observations from OFSTED, this of course would count as a form of secondary data, but such a method is relatively easy (compared to participant-observation) for researchers to carry out as a part of their own primary research into schools.

One example of a structured observational schedule which has been used by education researchers is the Flanders System of Interaction Analysis (FIAC) which has been used to measure pupil and teacher interaction quantitatively. The researcher uses a standard chart to record interactions at three second intervals, placing each observation in one of ten pre-defined behaviour categories:

Teacher Talk

  • Teacher accepts pupils’ feelings

  • Teacher praises or encourages pupils

  • Teacher accepts or uses ideas of pupils

  • Teacher asks questions

  • Teacher lectures

  • Teacher gives directions

  • Terrace criticises pupils or justifies authority

Pupil Talk

  • Pupils talk in response to teacher

  • Pupils initiate talk

Silence

  • Silence or confusion.

Flanders used this form of quantitative behavioural analysis to discover than the typical American classroom is taken up by teacher talk 68% of the time, pupil talk 20% of the time with 12% spent in silence or confusion.

The advantages and disadvantages of OFSTED style non-participant observations applied to education

Practical Issues

A practical problem is gaining access to observe lessons – although this is easier than with participant observation, it would still be relatively difficult to get schools and teachers to agree to this

Structured observations are relatively quick to carry out and don’t required much training on the part of the researcher.

Funding would be more likely than with more unstructured forms of observation.

Theoretical Issues

Validity might be an issue – You can only observe with Non Participant Observation, you have little opportunity to get people to explain why they are doing what they are doing.

The Hawthorne Effect can be an issue – students and teachers act differently because they know they are being observed.

Reliability is good if the observation is structured because someone else can repeat the research looking for the same things.

Representativeness is easier than with unstructured observations because they are quicker to do thus larger samples can be achieved. HOWEVER, it is likely that you’ll end up with a self-selecting sample because better schools and teachers are more likely to give their consent to being observed than bad ones.

Ethical Issues

Dis-empowering for teachers and pupils – The observer is detached and acts as an expert.

Schools might give permission for observers to come in without getting the consent of the pupils.

Participant Observation to Research Education

A brief summary of Young, Gifted and Black (1988) by Mairtin Mac an Ghaill and a consideration of the practical, ethical and theoretical advantages and disadvantages of the method in this educational context.

In Young, Gifted and Black (1988) Mairtin Mac an Ghaill carried out two ethnographic studies in inner-city educational institutions where he worked. The first study looked at the relations between white teachers and two groups of male students with anti-school values – the Asian Warriors and the African Caribbean Rasta Heads – and the second study looked at a group of black female students, of African Caribbean and Asian parentage, called the Black Sisters.

Why study this subject?

Because of opportunity – He originally wanted to study Irish school students but no one could help him do this, so he was advised to study African Caribbean students instead. As to the Black Sisters he never intended to study them, but they found him – because he was perceived as being on the side of the students they were happy to talk to him about their views of racism.

Because Mac an Ghaill wanted to gain a close insight into the culture and values of respondents, he chose participatory methods – he became friendly with the students and they visited his home regularly… ‘The experience of talking, eating, dancing and listening to music together helped break down the potential social barriers of the teacher-researcher role that may have been assigned to me and my seeing them as students with the accompanying status perception’

At the time the dominant theories argued that black underachievement was due to subcultures of resistance – the problem was seen as being with the students themselves.

However, following his in-depth research, and his adoption of a ‘black perspective’ he realised that racism rather than the students themselves was the biggest problem in their schooling – their subcultures were a response to a racially structured institution.

Ethical Issues

Mac an Ghaill does not claim to be value free in his research – he was committed to helping students overcome their perceived racial barriers.

The research also brought him into conflict with some other members of staff, as he found himself becoming the defender of ethnic minority students against what he perceived to be a racist institution.

Practical Issues with this research

Mac an Ghaill was only able to do this research because of his position as a teacher, it would have been practically impossible otherwise.

Theoretical Issues

Reliability and Representativeness are both low.

Validity is an interesting one – given the in-depth and participatory nature of the method we might assume that we are gaining a true insight into the thoughts and feelings of the respondents. However, the research has only given us an insight into student perceptions of racism, not whether the institution was actually racist. However, even if the institution wasn’t actually racist, understanding the students perception that it was provides us with new insight into why they formed subculture.

Finally, given that Mac an Ghaill was both researcher and teacher, this may have meant some of the student respondents didn’t open up to him fully.

Learning to Labour by Paul Willis – Summary and Evaluation of Research Methods

Participant Observation in the Context of Education

Given the practical and ethical problems of conducting participant observation in a school setting, there are only a handful of such studies which have been carried out in the UK, and these are mainly historical, done a long time ago. They are, nonetheless interesting as examples of research. Below I consider one classic participant observation study in the context of education – Paul Willis‘  Learning to Labour (1977)

Learning to labour

learning-to-labourLearning to Labour by Paul Willis (1977) is an ethnographic study of twelve working class ‘lads’ from a school in Birmingham conducted between 1972 and 1975. He spent a total of 18 months observing the lads in school and then a further 6 months following them into work. The study aimed to uncover the question of how and why “working class kids get working class jobs” (1977: 1) using a wide range of qualitative research methodologies from interviews, group discussions to participant observation, aiming to understand participants’ actions from the participants’ point of view in everyday contexts.

Sampling

Willis concentrated on a particular boy’s group in a non-selective secondary school in the Midlands, who called themselves ‘lads’. They were all white, although the school also contained many pupils from West Indian and Asian backgrounds. The school population was approximately 600, and the school was predominantly working class in intake. He states that the main reasons why he selected this school was because it was the typical type of school attended by working class pupils.

Data Collection

Willis attended all school classes, options (leisure activities) and career classes which took place at various times. He also spoke to parents of the 12 ‘lads’, senior masters of the school, and main junior teachers as well as careers officers in contact with the concerned ‘lads’. He also followed these 12 ‘lads’ into work for 6 months. NB He also made extensive use of unstructured interviews, but here we’re focusing on the observation aspects.

Participant observation allowed Willis to immerse himself into the social settings of the lads and gave him the opportunity to ask the lads (typically open) questions about their behaviour that day or the night before, encouraging them to explain themselves in their own words…which included detailed accounts of the lads fighting, getting into trouble with teachers, bunking lessons, setting off fire extinguishers for fun and vandalising a coach on a school trip.

Findings

One of Willis’ most important findings was that the lads were completely uninterested in school – they saw the whole point of school as ‘having a laff’ rather than trying to get qualifications. Their approach to school was to survive it, to do as little work as possible, and to have as much fun as possible by pushing the boundaries of authority and bunking as much as they could. The reason they didn’t value education is because they anticipated getting factory jobs which didn’t require any formal qualifications. They saw school as a ‘bit cissy’ and for middle class kids.

Willis does not include an account of how he approached the ‘lads’ and built rapport with them. However considering the responses of the ‘lads’ during discussions and interviews, seeing that the ‘lads’ openly talk about their views and experiences and allow access to work at a later stage of the research, Willis seems to have built rapport effectively.

For more details the findings of this study see the Neo-Marxism section of the ‘Perspectives on Education Hand-Out’

Practical Issues with Learning to Labour

The research was very time consuming – 2 years of research and then a further 2 years to write up the results.

It would be very difficult to repeat this research today given that it would be harder to gain access to schools (also see reliability)

Funding would also probably be out of the question today given the time taken and small sample size.

Ethical Issues with Learning to Labour

An ethical strength of the research is that it is giving the lads a voice – these are lads who are normally ‘talked about’ as problems, and don’t effectively have a voice.

An ethical weakness is that Willis witnessed the lads getting into fights, their Racism and Homophobia, as well as them vandalising school property but did nothing about it.

A second ethical weakness is the issue of confidentiality – with such a small sample size, it would be relatively easy for people who knew them to guess which lads Willis had been focussing on

Theoretical Issues with Learning to Labour

Validity is widely regarded as being excellent because of the unstructured, open ended nature of the research allowing Willis to sensitively push the lads into giving in-depth explanations of their world view.

Critics have tried to argue that the fact he was obviously a researcher, and an adult, may have meant the lads played up, but he counters this by saying that no one can put on act for 2 years, at some point you have to relax and be yourself.

Something which may undermined the validity is Willis’ interpretation of the data – he could have selected aspects of the immense amount of data he had to support his biased opinion of the boys.

Representativeness is poor – because the sample size is only 12, and they are only white boys.

Reliability is low – It is very difficult to repeat this research for the reasons mentioned under practical factors.

 Related Posts

You might also like this summary of more recent research on why the white working classes continue to underachieve in education.

Is the UK really the 18th most gender equal country in the world?

According to the Global Gender Gap Index, the United Kingdom is one of the most gender equal countries in the world, but if you drill down into the statistics, women and men appear to both more and less equal than the headline data suggests.

The BBC’s ‘How equal are you?’ interactive infographic allows you type in any country and see how equal men are to women across a range of different indicators – These statistics come from the latest Global Gender Gap Index, produced by the World Economic Forum which analyses more than a dozen datasets in order to compare gender inequality in 144 countries.

For example in the UK we are told that:

  • The UK ranks 18/ 145 in the world for gender equality.
  • However, women are still not equal to men
  • For every £100 a man earns, a woman earns £83
  • 43% of graduates are male (the only statistic where women appear to be outperforming men.
  • 72% of women and 83% of men are either in work or looking for work (so I assume from this we can imply that women are slightly more likely to take on the caring role)
  • 65% of senior managers and legislators are male
  • 77% of government ministers are male.

The Global Gender Gap Index gives each country a score card – The UK’s Gender Gap Score Card looks like this:

Gender Equality Indicators in the UK
Gender Equality Indicators in the UK

Just a quick glance at the above chart should be sufficient to demonstrate some of the flaws in the Global Gender Gap Index:

  • We rank 68th out of 144 for primary school enrolment – we couldn’t get any better but I’m guessing we’re brought down because there must be 67 developing countries where more girls are enrolled in primary school than boys (making up for years of gender discrimination)
  • We rank 1st for sex ratio at birth – OK I know it’s lower in many developing countries because of female infanticide, but in the many countries where this simply isn’t significant, surely we’re just being rewarded here for very minor ‘luck of the draw differences’ in child sex at birth?
  • We’re 81st for healthy life expectancy – surely here were just being penalised for women suffering from degenerative conditions linked to longer life expectancy compared to men’s? Surely this is a problem of low male life expectancy?
  • Also, if you look at our real ranking success story – we’re effectively first in the world for gender equality in education, the real story is that despite ranking first in the world for gender equality in education, these gains have not been translated into economic, political or health advantages. This is hardly good for women.
  • Our other great gender equality success story is the number of years with a female prime minister – Thatcher in other words. Given that Thatcher = neoliberalism and neoliberalism = increasing inequality, there’s plenty of disagreement over the extent to which this particular indicator can be interpreted as being positive for women.

There’s quite a few other things these stats don’t tell you – for example, there are enormous differences in the gender pay gap by age:

gender pay gap age

 

There’s also been enormous, rapid progress with women moving into Politics in increasing numbers…. The Gender Gap Index hasn’t been around long enough to show you this….

Male to Female Ratio of MPs in the UK 2015
Male to Female Ratio of MPs in the UK 2015

So how useful is the Global Gender Gap Index?

I’ll be honest, I’m not particularly interested in the issue of gender inequality, so I’m not particularly passionate about tracking down criticisms of data sets related to the issue, but it’s only taken me 30 minutes to find seven criticisms of the validity of this particular data applied to the UK, so I’m left wondering whether these world rankings have any meaning at all?

 

Explaining Social Class Differences in Education Using Longitudinal Studies

Why do working class children do worse than middle class children in education? This post looks at some quantitative, longitudinal data to explore why.

A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation argues that early intervention is not enough to tackle the persistent differences in class inequalities in educational achievement – The report is a follow up to earlier research published March last year which is summarised below

This four page summary (and the longer document which you can get if you follow the links) is an excellent example of a quantitative approach to social research – in the tradition of Positivism (although strictly speaking, not purely Positivist). NB IF THE IMAGES AREN’T CLEAR JUST CLICK ON THEM! I’ve spent way too long faffing about with them already.

This study uses statistical data from four longitudinal studies  to uncover the main ‘causal factors’ behind why children from low income backgrounds do so badly in education.

Before we get onto the ’causes’ please note that ‘educational achievement gap’ between the social classes widens as children get older. The study notes that –

The research showed that educational deficits emerge early in children’s lives, even before entry into school, and widen throughout childhood. Even by the age of three there is a considerable gap in cognitive test scores between children in the poorest fifth of the population compared with those from better-off backgrounds. This gap widens as children enter and move through the schooling system, especially during primary school years.

The report demonstrates this graphically as follows –

 

Differences in 'cognitive ability' by income and age
Differences in ‘cognitive ability’ by income and age

 

And you can see from the table below how the differences are greater by ages 7 and 11…

untitled8

According to the study The main ’causes’ of class differences in educational achievement are –

  • Children from poorer backgrounds are much less likely to experience a rich home learning environment than children from better-off backgrounds. At age three, for example, reading to the child is less likely to happen in poorer households.

Reasons for the widening gap between children from richer and poorer backgrounds are:

  • lower parental aspirations for higher education – (81% of the richest mothers hope their child at age 9 will go to university, compared to only 39% of the poorest mothers)
  • how far parents and children believe their own actions can affecttheir lives;
  • children’s behavioural problems.

• It becomes harder to reverse patterns of under-achievement by the teenage years, but disadvantage and poor school results continue to be linked, including through:

  • – teenagers’ and parents’ expectations for higher education
  • material resources such as access to a computer and the internet at home;
  •  engagement in anti-social behaviour;
  • and young people’s belief in their own ability at school.

What’s interesting is the way the stats visually display the multiple disadvantages people from low incomes face – for example –

untitled

Probably my favourite graphic of all is this – which is hopefully at least partially self explanatory
 
untitled7

If it’s not clear from the graphic – this is saying that family background is correlated with  two thirds of the difference in cognitive ability between the richest and poorest children aged three.

Overall, the main message of this study – that home background and parental aspiration matter a lot when it comes to explaining class differences in educational achievement.

The study also mentions that there are certain policy implications that need to be followed through if the government wishes to address these issues, but of course just because some research suggest certain courses of action, it doesn’t necessarily mean the government will adopt those courses of action, because of funding constraints, or ideological biases.

Related Posts

Sociology and Social Policy

 

Evaluating the Functionalist Perspective on Education

A range of quantitative and qualitative evidence which both supports and criticises the Functionalist view of education.

Functionalist theorists such as Durkheim and Parsons argue that education systems are meritocracies and that they perform positive functions such as secondary socialization and role allocation, but how valid are these views today?

Before you read the material below, make sure you have a clear understanding of the functionalist view of education. You should have notes, organised into at least four points which functionalists make about the role of education in society. Then read/ watch the material below and annotate your notes, linking each piece of evidence to a particular aspect of the Functionalist theory of education, stating whether the evidence supports or critics that particular aspect of the theory (of course, some of the evidence might be ambiguous).

Evidence you could use to evaluate the Functionalist view of education

NB the evidence I present below is far from the only evidence you can use. I have tried to select a variety of qualitative and quantitative sources. You might have your own, more recent evidence you can use to evaluate Functionalism!

Whatever evidence you’re using You need to consider how valid, reliable and representative each piece of evidence is! It might be useful to brush up on your research methods knowledge before looking at the material below!

Education Yorkshire: The Case of Musharaf

Educating Yorkshire was a documentary which aired on British T.V. back in 2013. In terms of methods it used a variety of non participant observation (filmed) and interviews with mainly the students.

Musharaf was one of the main characters from this first series, and to my mind this clip is one of the best pieces of supporting evidence for the functionalist view on education – it’s a really positive story. Watch it to find out more, it’s all in there: especially solidarity at the end!

Cross National Comparisons

Cross National Comparisons suggest support for the Functionalist view that formal education and qualifications are functionally advantageous for society as a whole, as they are correlated with a society’s level of economic development.

education-country-comparisons

Human Development statistics show a clear relationship between improved education, higher skilled jobs and economic growth. In the most developed countries such as those in Northern Europe children spend more than a decade in full time education, with the majority achieving level three qualifications (A level or equivalent) while huge numbers of children in Sub-Saharan Africa receive only a basic primary or  secondary education, with actual enrolment figures in school much lower, and only a few going on to level three education or level four (university level).

You can use Google Public Data to compare a range of Education Indicators across a number of countries

Of course as a counter-criticism, it’s worth keeping in mind that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation in every country. 

School Exclusion Statistics

Exclusion statistics suggest that the education system doesn’t act as an effective agent of secondary socialisation for every child, although the numbers of exclusions are small, with only 5% of pupils being given a fixed term exclusion and only 0.1% being permanently excluded.

However, some types of student are much more likely to be excluded – boys are three times more likely than girls, FSM students 4 times more likely than non FSM and Black-Caribbean and mixed white and Black-Caribbean 3 times more likely than the figures as a whole, suggesting that school works better for some types of student than others, which is something Functionalists do not consider.

Extension work: if you’re interested you can read more about the limitations of school exclusion statistics here.

School Absentee Statistics

You get a very different picture of absenteeism depending on which set of stats you look at!

Statistics on persistent absenteeism show that one in nine, or 11% of pupils are routinely absent from school, missing more than 10% of school in any one term –and the numbers are much higher for special schools, for boys and FSM students.

HOWEVER, if you look at the overall absentee rate (which looks at number of sessions missed for all students, rather than individual students) then the absentee rate is much lower – it stands at around 4.8%

So whether you see these statistics as supporting evidence for Functionalism or as criticizing Functionalism is kind of open to interpretation!

The correlation between employment and education

Employment statistics from the ONS demonstrate a strong correlation between educational level,  employment skill level and income – those with GCSEs earn 20% more than those without GCSEs and those with degrees earn about 85% more than those with only GCSEs. This set of statistics from The Poverty Site further demonstrates that those with poor GCSCEs/ no qualifications are approximately five times more likely to either be unemployed or in low paid-work (less than £7/ hour) compared to those with degrees. This demonstrates at least partial support for the theory or Role Allocation – the higher your qualification, the better paid job you get (although this says nothing about whether this is meritocratic).

This more recent survey of graduate compared to non graduate earnings backs this up – post graduates earn more than graduates, and graduates earn more than non-graduates…

To simplify it – for 16-64 year olds, on average, graduates earn about £8K more a year than non-graduates and postgraduates earn another £8K year a more than graduates.

graduate-earnings

More recent data from the Labour Force Survey shows that those with a level 4 qualification earn almost twice as much as those with no qualifications, in 2019.

And data from 2018 suggests that working age graduates earn £10 000 a year more on average than non-graduates.

However, the gap between the earnings of non-graduates and graduates has narrowed in the last decade… .In 2005 graduates earned 55% more than non-graduates, but by 2015, they only earned 45% more.

graduate-earnings-2015

Longitudinal Studies

Criticising the view that schools are meritocratic, A recent Longitudinal Study found: ‘three years after graduation, those from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds and those who attended private schools are more likely to be in the ‘top jobs’….

‘This research shows that even if we compare students from the same institution type, taking the same subjects and with the same degree class, socioeconomic status and private schooling still affects an individual’s chance of securing a top job,’ the report concluded.

‘An individual who has a parent who is a manager and who attended a private school is around 7 percentage points more likely to enter  the highest status occupations. Male graduates from a managerial background who attended a private school are around 10 percentage points more likely to enter the highest status occupations.

But academics do not know whether the advantage given to private school pupils is simply the ‘old boys’ network’ or whether they learn better social skills so appear more confident in job interviews.

‘Our results indicate a persistent advantage from having attended a private school. This raises questions about whether the advantage that private school graduates have is because they are better socially or academically prepared, have better networks or make different occupational choices.’

Ken Robinson (a Post Modern View)

This TED talk by Ken Robinson (An RSA animated video of a talk) – Offers several criticisms of the contemporary education system –  you could loosly call this a post-modern/ late modern criticism of the role of modernist education, which also criticizes the Functionalist paradigm that school performs positive functions:

In short, Robinson argues that modern education lets most kids down in the following ways –

  1. It stifles their creativity by focusing too much on academic education and standardised testing – kids are taught that there is one answer and it’s at the back, rather than being taught to think divergently.
  2. It tests individual ability rather than your ability to work collaboratively in groups (which you would do in the real world).
  3. Lessons are dull – out of touch with children who are living in the most information rich age in history.
  4. It medicates thousands of kids with Ritalin – which Robinson sees as the wrong response to kids with ADHD – we should be stimulating them in divergent ways.

Related Posts 

The Functionalist Perspective on Education – revision notes

The Marxist view of Education  and the New Right view both criticise the Functionalist view of the role of education

This is an evaluative posts – click here for a reminder of the key skills in sociology and an explanation of different ways you can evaluate perspectives.

Are Chinese Teaching Methods Best? (Experiments in Education)

According to recent studies, China is home to one of the best education systems in the world, while Britain is trailing a long way behind. In some studies Chinese students are three years ahead of British students in reading and writing ability.

China is well known for its ‘tough education’ methods, but can these methods be used to improve the performance of British students? In a recent BBC documentary: ‘Are our kids tough enough? Chinese school’ a field experiment was conducted to find out.

five Chinese teachers took over the education of a class of fifty Year 9 pupils at Bohunt School in Liphook and taught them (in one class of 50!) using Chinese teaching methods for a month, and then tested in English, Maths, Science and Mandarin, and the results compared to other students who remained receiving a more typical British Education.

 

The main features of the Chinese School consisted of:

  • The school day being 12 hours long with a 7 a.m. start consisting of a flag raising ceremony and outdoor exercises.
  • In the classroom, most lessons were essentially lectures. Teachers stood at the front writing the theory on the board, while the students (were supposed to) take notes and learn.
  • PE was a compulsory – and students were timed, tested and ranked against each other.

Results

The ultimate test of the experiment was to see if Chinese teaching methods improved educational performance – which they did (or at least appeared to have – see below). Students who attended the Chinese School for four weeks scored about 10% points (on average) higher in Mandarin, Maths and Science and they also did better in English, but with a smaller margin.

The experiment also revealed that there was something of a culture clash – those students were not particularly self-disciplined or well-behaved did not respond well to a Chinese style of teaching which is less student-centered and not as inclined to encourage individualism.

Limitations of the field experiment

I say that the Chinese-School kids achieved better test scores – what we’re not told is how much they improved, or what their ability was compared to the control group. I’m assuming all this was controlled for.

The Hawthorne Effect might apply – the improved results might be a result of the students knowing their involved in an experiment (and knowing they’re on TV) or the better results might simply exposing the kids to something different, rather than it being about those exact Chinese methods (a change is as good as a rest!)

It’s also not clear how representative this school is – Bohunt seems to be a brilliant school, enlightened (which is reflected in getting involved in this whole experiment in the first place). Would you get the same findings somewhere else?

Ethics: Some (wrong) individuals might try and argue that some of the children experienced harm to their self-esteem by being ranked in PE (other (right) individuals might argue this is just life, tough, get over it kiddo).

Related Posts:

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Field Experiments in Sociology

Unstructured Interviews in the Context of Education

 

Official Statistics on Educational Achievement in the U.K. – Strengths and Limitations

How useful are official statistics for understanding differences in educational achievement by social class, gender and ethnicity?

How do GCSE results vary by social class, gender and ethnicity?

The data below is taken from the Department for Education’s document – GCSE and Equivalent Attainment by Pupil Characteristics 2014

Firstly – GENDER –  Girls outperform boys by about 10 percentage points. 61.7% of girls achieved at least 5 A*- C GCSEs (or equivalent) grades including English and mathematics compared to 51.6% of boys; this is a gap of 10.1 percentage points.

Girls Outperform Boys in Education
Girls Outperform Boys in Education

Secondly – ETHNICITY – Chinese pupils are the highest achieving group. 74.4% of Chinese pupils achieved at least 5 A*- C GCSEs (or equivalent) grades including English and mathematics. This is 17.9 percentage points above the national average (56.6%). Almost half of Chinese Pupils are achieving the English Baccalaureate (49.5%); 25.4 percentage points above the national average (24.2%).

Children from a black background are the lowest achieving group. 53.1% of pupils from a black background achieved at least 5 A*- C GCSEs (or equivalent) grades including English and mathematics; this is 3.4 percentage points below the national average (56.6%). However, things are also improving: 75.5% of black pupils are making the expected progress in English and 68.4% in mathematics; both above the national average of 71.6% for English and 65.5% for mathematics.

educational attainment by ethnicity 2014
educational attainment by ethnicity 2014

 

Thirdly – SOCIAL CLASS – Here, instead of social class we need to use Pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) (meaning they come from a household with an income of less than £16000) – FSM pupils are nearly 30% points behind non FSM pupils. 33.5% of pupils eligible for FSM achieved at least 5 A*- C GCSEs (or equivalent) grades including English and mathematics compared to 60.5% of all other pupils. This is a gap of 27.0 percentage points. 36.5% of disadvantaged pupils achieved at least 5 A*- C GCSEs (or equivalent) grades including English and mathematics compared to 64.0% of all other pupils, a gap of 27.4 percentage points.

Educational attainment by social class
Educational attainment by social class

 

The government stats also include achievement data by ‘disadvantage’:

Disadvantaged pupils are defined as pupils known to be eligible for free school meals in the previous six years as indicated in any termly or annual school census, pupil referral unit (PRU) or alternative provision (AP) census or are children looked after by the local authority for more than 6 months.

Educational achievement by disadvantage
Educational achievement by disadvantage

 

Other statistical data included in the pupil characteristics report

The Department for Education also collects data and reports on educational achievement by English as a second language, and special educational needs. Look it up if you’re interested, I’m limiting myself here to educational attainment by ‘social class’, gender and ethnicity.

Some Strengths of Official Statistics on Educational Achievement by Pupil Characteristic 

ONE – Good Validity (as far as it goes) – These data aren’t collected by the schools themselves – so they’re not a complete work of fiction, they are based on external examinations or coursework which is independently verified, so we should be getting a reasonably true representation of actual achievement levels. HOWEVER, we need to be cautious about this.

TWO – Excellent representativeness – We are getting information on practically every pupil in the country, even the ones who fail!

THREE – They allow for easy comparisons by social class, gender and ethnicity. These data allow us to see some pretty interesting trends – As in the table below – the difference between poor Chinese girls and poor white boys stands out a mile… (so you learn straight away that it’s not just poverty that’s responsible for educational underachievement)

Educational achievement varies hugely by class, gender and ethnicity
Educational achievement varies hugely by class, gender and ethnicity

FOUR – These are freely available to anyone with an internet connection

FIVE – They allow the government to track educational achievement and develop social policies to target the groups who are the most likely to underachieve – These data show us (once you look at it all together) for example, that the biggest problem of underachievement is with white, FSM boys.

Some Disadvantages of the Department for Education’s Stats on Educational Achievement

ONE – We need to be a little cautious about the validity of some of these results, especially when making comparisons over time. This is because until last year schools could count any one of 3000 ‘soft’ subjects as equivalent to a GCSE, which could make the results look better than they actually are. Also, with coursework subjects there is a potential problem with ‘grade inflation’ within schools, and not to mention the fact that with coursework we are least partially measuring the degree to which parents have helped their children, rather than their children’s actual personal achievement.

TWO – comparisons over time might be difficult because of recent changes to the qualifications that are allowed to be counted towards attainment measurements. In 2014 the following changes were made:

1. The number of qualifications which counted towards ‘GCSE or equivalent’ results were drastically reduced – around 3,000 unique qualifications from the performance measures between 2012/13 and 2013/14.

2. The associated point scores for non-GCSEs was adjusted so that no qualification will count as larger than one GCSE in size. For example, where a BTEC may have previously counted as four GCSEs it will now be reduced to the equivalence of a single GCSE in its contribution to performance measures.

3. The number of non-GCSE qualifications that count in performance measures was restricted to two per pupil.

All of this has had the effect of making the results look worse than they actually are:

Effects of Wolfes review on GCSE results

THREE – These stats don’t actually tell us about the relationship between social class background and educational attainment. Rather than recording data using a sociological conception of social class, the government uses the limited definition of Free School Meal eligibility – which is just an indicator of material deprivation rather than social class in its fuller sense. Marxist sociologists would argue that this is ideological – the government simply isn’t interested in measuring the effects of social class on achievement – and if you don’t measure it the problem kind of disappears.

FOUR – and this is almost certainly the biggest limitation – these stats don’t actually tell us anything about ‘WHY THESE VARIATIONS EXIST’ – Of course they allow us to formulate hypotheses – but (at least if we’re being objective’) we don’t get to see why FSM children are twice as likely to do badly in school… we need to do further research to figure this out.

No doubt there are further strengths and limitations, but this is something for you to be going on with at least…

Related Posts 

Official Statistics in Sociology

Assessing the Usefulness of Using Secondary Qualitative Data to Research Education

Free Schools – Arguments and Evidence For and Against

Are free schools more successful than regular schools?

This is relevant to the educational policy aspect of the education topic within the sociology of education. It should be especially useful for evaluating coalition, or new ‘New Right’ policies.

What Are Free Schools?

A Free School in England is a type of Academy, a non-profit-making, state-funded school which is free to attend. Free schools are not controlled by a Local Authority (LA) but instead governed by anon-profit charitable trust.

To set up a Free School, founding groups submit applications to the Department for Education. Groups include those run by parents, education charities and religious groups. Ongoing funding is on an equivalent basis with other locally controlled state maintained schools, although additional start-up grants to establish the schools are also paid.

Between 2010 and 2015 more than 400 free schools were approved for opening in England by the Coalition Government, representing more than 230,000 school places across the country.

Similarities between Local Authority schools and Free Schools

  • They are both free for students to attend
  • They are both have similar amounts of funding
  • They are both subject to same rules about how the select students (they have similar admissions policies)
  • They are both subjected to Ofsted inspections

Differences between Free Schools and Regular State Schools

Local Authority SchoolsFree Schools
Must follow the National CurriculumDon’t have to follow the National Curriculum
Funding controlled by Local AuthorityFunding comes straight from government
‘standard’ school day and term timesFree to set school days and term times
Teachers must be qualifiedTeachers don’t have to be qualified

A brief history and overview of types of Free School

Free Schools were introduced by the Coalition government in 2010 general election as part of the Big Society initiative. The first 24 Free Schools opened in autumn 2011.

Since 2011, any Local Authority in need of a new school must seek proposals for an Academy or Free School, with a traditional Local Authority school only being allowed if no suitable Free School or academy is proposed. Since July 2015 the government is regarded all new academies as Free Schools – hence if there’s demand to establish them, any new school being established will be a free school.

There are currently over 500 Free Schools operating in England and Wales. In 2019 the government announced a new wave of them and there are around another 220 currently in the process of being established. (Source: EPI)

Types of free school

The majority of free schools are similar in size and shape to other types of academy. However, the following are distinctive sub-types of free school:

Studio school – A small free school, usually with around 300 pupils, using project-based learning.

University Technical College – A free school for the 14-18 age group, specialising in practical, employment focused subjects, sponsored by a university, employer or further education college.

Free Schools in England Report 2019

A recent 2019 report by the Education Policy Institute examined the performance of Free Schools, focusing especially on the kind of areas in which they are opening up.

They found mixed results depending on whether the schools were primary or secondary, but some of the key findings are as follows (NB be sure to go check the link out!)

  • Primary schools have successfully increased school places, because these tend to be open up where there is a demand (a need) for school places
  • Secondary schools have been less successful, these tend to be opened up where there are already sufficient school places.
  • Secondary free schools tend to get set up in better off areas – more than 3 times as many places have been created in affluent areas than in the poorest
  • Having said that, FSM pupils in free schools get better results than FSM pupils in other types of school
  • HOWEVER, the report notes that this is because Free Schools tend to be set up in those areas where FSM pupils do better than average (so it seems like there’s cream skimming going on!)
  • The report also notes that Free schools are more likely to be urban and ethnically mixed.

Arguments for Free Schools

Free schools are a very good example of a neoliberal policy – the government is taking power away from Local Education Authorities (local government) and giving more power to parents, private businesses and charities to run schools.

Supporters claim that:

  1. Free schools create more local competition and drive-up standards
  2. They allow parents to have more choice in the type of education their child receives, much like parents who send their children to independent schools do.
  3. They also claim that free schools benefit children from all backgrounds – which could especially be the case with….

Arguments against Free Schools

Critics argue that…

  1. Free schools benefit primarily middle-class parents with the time to set them up, fuelling social segregation – I can really see this being the case with ‘studio schools’. (I can’t help but imagine a nice, small school with extensive playground and playing fields in a Devonshire village, so nice in fact that the yummies occasionally leave their 4WDs at home and walk the school run, at least when they’re not in the mood for heels.)
  2. Free schools divert money away from existing schools – There is a set amount of money in the education budget, and if free schools (and academies) get initial start up grants from the government (which some do) this means relatively less money for the Local Education Authority maintained schools.
  3. They are not actually needed and have lead to a surplus of school places – More than half of Free Schools opening in 2012 opened with 60% or less of the student numbers predicted by the impact assessment documents of each institution, leaving more than 10% spare places. Elsewhere, where Free Schools are fully subscribed, regular Local Authority schools have surplus capacity. This replication of capacity is grossly inefficient.
  4. People don’t actually want Free Schools – Polling in April 2015 put public support for Conservative proposals to increase the number of Free Schools by at least 500 at 26%.
  5. While the image of Free schools might be of motivated parents setting them up, Peter Wilby has suggested that Free Schools would be run by private companies rather than parents, teachers or voluntary groups. There is also the fact that in 2012 over 60% of free school applications were made by faith groups.