Only 18% of Senior Civil Servants are from ‘Working Class’ Backgrounds

A recent study from the Social Mobility Commission found that only 18% Senior Civil Servants are from lower social class backgrounds, what we might traditionally call ‘working class’ backgrounds’, and this is down from 19% in 1967!

The majority of senior civil servants are from privileged, higher social economic backgrounds, many having benefited from an independent (private school) education.

The proportion of employees from low social economic backgrounds varies a lot according to role, region and department.

For example, 40% of those those working in operational roles, delivering services are from lower SEBs compared to just 19% working in policy (policy jobs tend to be more prestigious).

And only 12% of people working in the Treasury are from low SEBs compared to 45% working in ‘work and pensions’.

And 22% of of London based civil servants come from low SEBs compared to 48% working in the North East.

The report is based on a survey of 300 00 civil servants so is very representative and 100 hour long interviews to explore why there is such a class divide in the senior ranks.

Why are the working classes underrepresented in the senior civil service?

The title of report points to an explanation – it is called ‘Navigating the labyrinth’ for a reason.

The authors put it down to a number of ‘hidden rules’ surrounding career progression in the civil service which create cumulative barriers that make it more difficult for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to make it into the Civil Service.

For example, there are some roles within the civil service that act as career accelerators but getting into these roles depends on who you know, such as having access to already senior staff and ministers, and those from lower SEBs lack this kind of in-house social capital.

There are also dominant behavioural codes within the senior civil service, which those from higher SEBs are more familiar with, they come naturally to them, one aspect of this is ‘studied neutrality’

The report describes Studied neutrality as having three key dimensions:

  1. a received pronunciation (RP) accent and style of speech
  2. emotionally detachment and an understated self-presentation
  3. prizing the display of in-depth knowledge for its own sake (and not directly related to work).

On the later point, some of the lower SEB interviewees in the study mentioned that there is a lot of talking in Latin, which many senior staff would break into sometimes during meetings, far from necessary from doing the job!

A final factor is that those from SEB backgrounds are more likely to specialise in a particular career path, which isn’t necessary for career progression.

Does the class divide in the senior civil service matter?

According to those in the senior service, no it doesn’t, because they see themselves as ‘neutral advisors’.

However, from a more Marxist point of view clearly it does! Just from a social justice perspective we have here a classic example of cultural capital blocking those from lower social backgrounds progressing to more senior positions, and those with cultural capital (from higher economic backgrounds) having an advantage.

And, despite claims to neutrality it’s unlikely that those from privileged backgrounds are going to advise on policies which promote more social justice and greater social mobility as that would be undermining the advantage they and their children have with the status quo!

Why are birth rates higher in developing countries?

Even though we’ve looked at theories suggesting high birth rates may not be a problem, it remains a fact that birth rates are higher in the developing world. Here are some theories why this is the case…

The first set of theories below come from a Modernisation Theory perspective

Traditional religious values

Paul Harrison’s inside the third world (1990) points out the highest growth rates are in Muslim and Roman Catholic countries. He argues that strictly religious cultures fear that using contraception would encourage promiscuity. Both Islamic leaders and Catholic leaders counsel against the use of contraception in the developing world.

Traditional Masculinity

Many men in Latin America feel that using contraception would compromise their masculinity


Patriarchy is the norm in many developing countries, which excludes women from decision making processes. In some traditional cultures women do not have a say in whether they have children and are effectively seen as the property of men. Introducing contraception would give women more control over their bodies and effectively undermine the patriarchal basis of power in those countries. Thus it is a combination of traditional religious beliefs and patriarchy that contribute to high population growth.

Dependency Theory

Adamson (1986) argues that poverty causes overpopulation rather than internal cultural values causing overpopulation and then overpopulation causing poverty. He argues that there are several reasons why it is rational for poor people to have lots of children.

  • In developing countries children are seen as economic assets because of the increased income they can generate. This is especially true where the government does not punish parents for not sending their children to school.
  • Children provide old age care to parents in developing countries where there is no social welfare/ pensions
  • In areas of high infant mortality, it makes sense to have 5 or more children as this increases the likelihood of at least one of them surviving to adulthood.

Conversely, in developed countries with higher standards of living it costs much more money to bring up children which discourages large families. This was the case in the UK in the 19th century.

The ‘overpopulation’ topic is part of the Global Development option, usually taught in the second year of the course. For more posts about Global Development, please click here.

Trade and Development – updates

I’ve been updating some trade and development resources this week. I’ve organised what I’ve found into ‘arguments for and against‘ trade promoting development.

For now, I mainly focus on Free Trade.

Evidence for Trade promoting development

The World Bank is historically in favour of Free Trade. To quote from its website (last updated in 2020):

“Recent research shows that trade liberalization increases economic growth by an average by 1.0 to 1.5 percentage points, resulting in 10 to 20 percent higher income after a decade. Trade has increased incomes by 24 percent globally since 1990, and 50 percent for the poorest 40 percent of the population. As a result, since 1990, over one billion people have moved out of poverty because of economic growth underpinned by better trade practices.”

One of the World Bank’s most recent reports (2020) is on ‘ Women and Trade – the role of Trade in promoting women’s equality‘ which focuses on how empowering work generated by trade has been for women globally.

This is very much in line with older reports published by the The World Bank such as The role of trade in ending poverty (2015). There is also an accessible video which accompanies this:

The World Trade Organisation -‘The Case for Free Trade‘ – it’s always worth having a look at some of the most recent articles from the WTO on trade. The WTO is a prominent global institution which encourages governments to adopt policies which promote free trade

The World Trade Organisation – The World Trade Report 2020 – Government Policies to Promote Innovation in the Digital Age – This report looks at how the digital knowledge economy has become an increasingly important sector of the Global Economy. It suggests that countries need to encourage firms to engage in research and development and make it easy for innovative knowledge to be shared across countries, and mentions GATS and TRIPS as two policies which foster this. It also mentions that governments can help by encouraging STEM education.

Evidence against Free Trade promoting development

The video below from DW documentaries is called ‘The Deceptive Promise of Free Trade, from 2018….

It looks at how there is a double standard in trade rules – countries in the EU impose tariffs on products imported from China to protect their economies while they make African countries sign free trade agreements with them that prevent them from imposing tariffs on EU exports, which harms farmers in African countries.

Also from DW documentaries, and also from 2018, the documentary below is more specific – focussing on how EU policies harm African countries:

The above documentary focuses on how subsidies to EU farmers allow them to export grain to African countries which ends up being cheaper than locally produced grain – this prevents aid working for development!

Why Europe needs to rethink its trade deals with Africa – some more academic research covering similar material to what’s in the above two documentaries.

This Amnesty International Report focuses on how Shell’s extraction of oil in Nigeria has not worked to promote development in that country.

A very toxic childhood

Ryan Kaji was the highest earning YouTube star in 2020.

Along with his parents he makes videos about toys – which includes reviewing various different products, but also promoting his own brand of toys.

In the video below Ryan and his parents are promoting his ‘vending machine’

A very toxic childhood

This seems to be a good example of a family promoting ‘toxic childhood‘.

Apparently Ryan and family churn out at least one video a day, meaning this kid, encouraged by his parents, is opening one new product a day, and being watched by millions of other children.

And in the above video, we see Ryan’s parents asking to buy junk food from Ryan, the vendor – so encouraging children to not only be consumers, but also to eat junk food.

According to this Guardian Article it’s not clear whether some of these videos count as ‘reviews’ (which the family claims) or ‘advertising’.

The family is paid by various sponsors and it’s possible that they are endorsing their products for a fee.

Winners and losers?

This is a good candidate for the most offensive YouTube channel I’ve ever seen – clearly the parents are winners as they are making an absolute fortune (with almost $30 million earned in 2020), I’m not sure how well Ryan is going to turn out – brought up with millions of viewers and a massive materialist streak, it’s difficult to see how he’s going to mature into a reasonable adult.

Certainly the companies are winning, with cheap adverts for their products.

But the child-viewers of these reviews are very much the losers – here’s an ‘ordinary kid’ just like them whose opening a new toy every single day and having a great time, but the average kid simply can’t afford that level of consumption, but is being taught that consumerism is fun, normal and good.

A great example of toxic childhood for students studying the family in A-level sociology!

Beyond Neoliberalism

In this TED talk, Dr Johannes Meier argues that Neoliberalism has become and orthodoxy, but now it has reached its expiration date…

This material should be of interest as a balanced critique of neoliberalism, which should be especially relevant to students studying the Global Development option for A-level sociology.

The current economic orthodoxy is one neoliberalism, the belief in free markets and unregulated trade, but this orthodoxy is reaching its expiration date.

Keynesianism used to be the dominant orthodoxy, but it started to switch in the late 1940s with Hayek’s neoliberal ideas, and by the 1980s neoliberalism was the norm, such that most people today have grown up with it.

However, today (2019 is the date of the talk) there are more and more signs that this orthodoxy is under threat – as neoliberalism is no longer productive, and Meier asks the question ‘what should business leaders do about this’?

What are the core philosophical beliefs of neoliberalism?

  1. Homo-economics – individual people are economically rational and they strive to maximise their own utility
  2. The right to compete is the backbone of liberty
  3. The success of a nation is the sum of utlitiels, measured in GDP
  4. The role of govenrment is to make sure that free-markets are protected, but not over regulated

Neoliberalism has been successful over the last 50 years

We have seen huge increases in GDP growth rates, increasing incomes, more employment, billions of people being lifted out of extreme policies and millions of millionnaires created.

Neoliberal ideas have extended beyond markets to labour, education and health policies for example – all of these areas are influenced by market based thinking (especially education, if you’re studying A-level sociology!)

Neoliberal ideas are also entrenched in the world of business and most governments in Western countries.

Three Criticisms of Neoliberalism

Meier draws on the tale of Hans Christian Anderson to suggest there are three flaws to neoliberalism that advocates of it dare not mention, but are obvious to a child!

Neoliberalism is an ‘Emperor with No Clothes’

The Rising Tide isn’t leading to Economic Justice

According to neoliberalism, freeing markets leads to enormous wealth creation and rising wealth overall will lift all boats – so that everyone gets richer, with more and more people being lifted out of poverty.

However, income inequality has also increased such that the top 8% of income earners now earn more than half of all income.

Wealth is worse – 1% own more than half of the world’s weath.

Where consumption is concerned – the richest billion consume 75%, and the poorest billion only consume 1% of our resources.

We thus have wealth and income divides which lead to economic and political tensions. Those who feel left behind no longer trust the narratives of the elites who have established neoliberal policies (and been the main beneficiaries of those policies).

Those who have not benefited from neoliberalism – the ones with no wealth, low incomes, no education or health care, are criticising neoliberalism with increasing vigour.

The tragedy of our commons and our Horizons

We are facing an existential crisis of tipping points where the climate is concerned.

It clearly isn’t true that if the developing nations embrace neoliberalism that they are going to develop as effectively as developing nations – because the planet cannot cope with the levels of resource extraction and consumption that would require to incorporate 8 billion people!

Human relationships are about more than transactional efficiency

Neoliberalism tends to turn relationships into transactions – and the imperative is then to make those relations more efficient.

We see this in the spread of automoation and AI – replacing humans with more efficient machines.

However, human relations are about more than efficiency. And if people think they have found the equation for friendship on Facebook or love on Tinder, thy are missing the essence of humanity.

More and more people are demanding that work be meaningful and that there is space for humanity, rather than it just being all about efficiency.

How do we survive beyond neoliberalism?

Meier proposes three basic rules business leaders should follow if they wish to survive the transition to beyond neoliberalism, which basically involved focusing on the ‘basics of good business’.

Listen to diverse voices

This may sound obvious but business leaders tend to exist in a bubble. This involves thinking beyond traditional metrics such as revenue growth as these don’t provide purpose or deeper meanings.

We need new narratives of belonging beyond homo economics

Reduce the fragility of the system

We have the warning signs – such as climate change. We need to focus on making businesses resilient and genuinly sustainable.

Here he seems to be criticising the fossil fuel industry and suggests a move to renewables is what we need.

Avoid polarisation

Neoliberalism is too focused on the individual.

The system has emphasised individuals getting to a kind of certain wealth or income level, then they are safe to have a nice job and life, leaving too many behind in poverty

Personal individual development is seen as the opposite of community – the idea that we progress our careers at the expense of our families is toxic. Humans thrive better in community and solidarity.

Ee need to take a much broader view of public goods – he suggests we need much more state and business co-operation in providing public goods

In conclusion…

Part of the difficulty with moving beyond neoliberalism is that we don’t know what will take over – there will probably be many different alternatives – hence why general principles for surviving change are required.

It will take courage to let go of our existing business models, but it is futile to cling to the old ones.

Neoliberalism: A Short Introduction

Neoliberalism has been one of the most influential political ideas of the last century, and it has been especially influential in shaping global policies of international development since the 1980s.

Below is a useful four minute video on 10 things you should know about Neoliberalism, as summarised by Ravi K. Roy, co-author of Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction.

This material should be especially relevant to A-level sociology students studying the Global Development option as part of A-level Sociology.

Neoliberalism and globalisation are contested terms

There couldn’t be two more conflated and confused ideas in both academia and public discourse.

Generally people see neoliberalism as the set of ideas behind globalisation, which is seen as the process.

An assault on big government

Neoliberalism is often seen as a ‘return to the market’ paradigm, a reaction against big welfare state government.

Where does the term come from?

We can trace the term back to post World War 1, maybe the 1930s, when there was an idea to straddle socialism and market liberalism.

Post World War 2 the term is used to refer to more of a pure market approach.

There are a variety of neoliberalisms!

It’s a very varied term, inspired by lots of intellectual traditions and with many different applications under different leaders.

No one calls themselves a neoliberal!

No one who has ever been identified with neoliberal policies has ever called themselves a neoliberal.

But it’s very clear that in the late 1980s and into the 1990s that politicians in power in the UK, America, Canada and Australia were all ‘neoliberals’

Neoliberalism and Internationalism

Neoliberals tend to look to international institutions such as the United Nations to extend their project.

NB – he doesn’t mention the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, but personally I would think these have been more central to pushing a neoliberal agenda globally than the United Nations?!?

Neoliberalism and Nationalism

There are some neoliberals who believe in the idea of a single Europe. There are other neoliberals, like Margaret Thatcher who did not believe in the idea of a single Europe.

We are all neoliberals now

Both Thatcher and Reagan wanted to reduce the welfare state, but Bill Clinton reduced the welfare state far more than either of them would ever have imagined!

Neoliberalism as a practical policy package

The authors of the book have framed the practical polices of neoliberalism as a DLP package:

  • Deregulation
  • Liberalisation
  • Privatisation

Neoliberalism and Postmodernism

Neoliberalism has blurred the boundaries between the economy and the state, so that we now live in a more global form of capitalism where financialisation is at the heart of everything.

Postmodernism (or the new postmodern phase of neoliberalism?) is more about the blurring of the boundary between private and public life.

Find out more…

You might like to read the entire book: Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction!

Relevance to A-level Sociology

Neoliberalism is a core theory of development within the global development module.

Neoliberalism also comes up in the education topic: as outlined in this post: neoliberal education policy.

Practice Portuguese: The Best Place to Learn European Portuguese Online

I can highly recommend Practice Portuguese as the best place to European Portuguese online.

Many of the most commonly used platforms and downloadable apps for learning the language, such as Duolingo focus on Brazilian Portuguese as there are many more people seeking to learn the Latin American version compared to the European version.

HOWEVER, there are significant differences between the two, especially in terms of pronunciation – so if you learn ‘Brazilian Portuguese in Portugal then you run the risk of not being able to understand what people are saying to you and not being able to make yourself understood.

Hence if you are a newly arrived resident in Portugal or are thinking of moving to Portugal in the near future (which I recommend btw!) then you’re better off using a dedicated European Portuguese learning platform such as Practice Portuguese, which is what I use!

Course Structure

Trust me, as a professional teacher I don’t recommend any old online learning platform – but I’m happy to direct people to this site because it’s so well thought-out for those new to the language:

When starting out, you’re directed to a number of clear modules, with progress indicators, starting with ‘the basics’ and the gradually getting more complex.

There are lot more modules after this, I just don’t want to put in too many screenshots!

Videos and Podcasts for Learning Portuguese

Another feature I really like about the site is the collection of videos and podcasts which are available, again nicely organised and easy to navigate…

Being new to the language I cannot emphasise enough how useful being able to hear the language is, and being able to practice along is fundamental to gaining confidence in using it.

They even have videos focussing on gaining residency, which you’ll know is very useful if you’ve every tried dealing with Portuguese bureaucracy – attempting to speak the language goes a long way!

Discussion threads

Finally there’s a nice forum in which you can pose questions for people to answer, or just browse previous questions – which is a nice link to the lived experience of living in Portugal which you won’t get with some of the larger learning sites.

Practice Portuguese Final Thoughts

Overall I’m really enjoying using the site, it’s a very accessible way of learning European Portuguese.

I also really like the fact that it’s a relatively small scale, niche service run by two very friendly guys: Rui and Joel, which is much like what I do with this blog here!

I can recommend Practice Portuguese both professionally and personally!

Global development trends 2020

Is the world becoming a better place to live? What do the latest trends in global development suggest?

How much progress has been made towards global development since the year 2000?

In this post I examine the global trends in development since the year 2000 according to key statistics from the World Bank, United Nations and other global institutions to try and answer the question: ‘do we live in a better world at the end of 2020 compared to 20 years ago?

This post has been written primarily for A-level sociology students studying the Global Development option for Paper 2 (7192/2), AQA Specification.

I aim to produce a post like this every two years, to keep abreast of the latest trends in Development.

Global Statistics

In this post I am focusing on whole world trends, or truly global statistics, so the very highest level of generalisation to provide an overview, in what you might call the Positivist tradition!

However, at the end of 2020 it is especially difficult to make judgements about the extent of development because of the impact of Coronavirus – we simply don’t know what the medium to long term consequences of this will be on global development.

The chances are that Coronavirus will impact the future development of regions, countries and communities within countries in very different ways, so now more than ever it will be important for students to try to qualify any generalisations about development suggested by the global statistics I am looking at below.

Key Indicators of Development

There is considerable debate over what the most valid indicators of development are, because definitions of ‘development’ vary widely. For this reason I include below several indicators of development, including:

  • The Human Development Index
  • Gross National Income (GNI) per capita
  • Extreme poverty statistics (those living on less than $1.90 a day)
  • National debt as a proportion of GNI
  • The employment ratio (the proportion of working age adults in employment)
  • Life Expectancy
  • The infant mortality rate
  • The adult literacy rate
  • Access to electricity
  • Peacefulness as measured by the Global Peace Index.

If you want to find out more about exactly what these indicators measure and some of their strengths and limitations you might like to read the following posts:

Mixed Evidence of Global Development taking place since 2020

Some of the global indicators below suggest there has been significant economic and global development over the last 20 years, other indicators suggest there are significant challenges still facing us as a global population!

For example, the number of people living in extreme poverty has shrunk from nearly 30% of the population to less than 10% while Life Expectancy of females has increased from.

HOWEVER, these are just the global average statistics, and what you need to remember is that the averages will hide variations by country, and variations within countries. The later is especially important to consider – there are regions within some rapidly developing countries that are getting left behind. China and America are two good examples of this.

Some indicators suggest negative trends in development – such as increasing unemployment and increasing violence in some countries, and progress towards sustainable development seems slow.

The Human Development Index

The United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Index combines Gross National Income, Life Expectancy and Years of Education into one score.

Practically every country shows positive development having taken place since 1990, when HDI first started tracking.

The two countries with significant declines are Syria and Yemen, which have both unfortunately experienced serious conflicts in recent years.

Source: United Nations Human Development Reports

Gross National Income Per Capita

Gross National Income per capita stood at $5500 in 2020, this has more than doubled to $11500 in 2019.

However, growth has stalled since around 2014, and this is unlikely to change given the situation with Coronavirus!

Source: The World Bank

Extreme Poverty Statistics

The percentage of the world population living in extreme poverty (as defined by those living on less than $1.90 a day) has decreased from 27.7% to 9.2% from the year 2000 to 2017.

Source: The World Bank

External Debt of Low and Middle Income Countries

The total external debt of the 120 low- and middle-income countries was $8.1 trillion at the end of 2019, equivalent to 26% of their Gross National Incomes. 

Nearly 40 (1/3rd of) low- and middle-income countries had debts greater than 60% of their GNI, treble the amount which had such ratios in 2010. 

About 10 low to middle income countries (9%) had debts exceeding 100% of their GNI, 30% up from the number of countries in 2010. 

Depending on what you think the role of debt is in development, this could be seen as counter trend to development. Dependency theorists would certainly see the increasing debt levels of poorer countries in this way.

Source: The World Bank

The Employment Ratio

The proportion of working age adults (15+) in paid employment has declined from 61% in 2000 to 57% in 2020.

This seems to be a counter-trend to development, with what is effectively a 4% increase in unemployment over the last 20 years.

However, this does not take into account the fact that more 16-24 year olds may be in education for longer, increasing wages, the impact of huge numbers of women entering the labour market, or the billions of people who are subsistence workers or work informally, so this indicator is an especially challenging one to interpret in terms of what it tells us about development!

Source: The World Bank

Life Expectancy Trends since 2020

The life expectancy of females at birth has increased from 69 years on average in 2020 to 74 years on average in 2018

The fact that women now live 15 years longer on average certainly seems to be one of the most obviously positive indicators of development, going hand in hand with increasing gender equality.

Source: The World Bank

There has been radical progress made in improving the infant mortality rate over the last 20 years – it has reduced from 52.8 per thousand (0.5%) to 28.2 per thousand births (just under 0.3%).

However, the global average is brought down by the higher infant mortality rates in less developed countries, and there is significant room for improvement – in the UK and similarly developed countries, the Infant Mortality rate is only 5 per thousand (0.05%)!

Source: The World Bank

The Literacy Rate

The overall adult literacy rate (of both males and females) has increased from 80% in the year 2000 to 86% in 2020.

6% may not sound like much of an increase, but there is something of a generational factor at work here. One imagines that someone that was 40 in the year 2000 is probably not that likely to become literate by the time they are 60, which is going to be a lag on improving the numbers of people who can read and write.

Most of the improvement above will be due to the increasing numbers of children being taught to read and write at a young age, who then carry this through to adulthood.

Source: The World Bank

Access to Electricity

There has been relatively rapid progress towards getting more people access to electricity. In the year 2000 only 78% of the world’s population had access, by 2018 that had increased to nearly 90%.

That is an impressive gain from an already high base of 78%!

Source: The World Bank

CO2 Emissions

Carbon Dioxide Emissions are responsible for global warming and corresponding environmental instability and decline, which undermines all other aspects of development.

Sustainable Development only really became a main focus of development from the year 2000, and there seems to have been good progress recently on halting the increase of CO2 emissions:

However, there are many analysts who say that we need to decrease CO2 emissions rather than just hold them level.

Source: The World Bank

Trends in Peacefulness

Overall the world has become less peaceful since 2009, when Vision of Humanity first started its Global Peace Index.

Today there are 38 countries which are recored as having low to very low levels of peacefulness.

Trends in peacefulness are diverging (becoming further apart) – generally speaking those countries which were more peaceful in 2009 have become even more peaceful (mostly those in Europe), while those which were less peaceful have become even less peaceful (mainly in subsaharan Africa)

Sources: Vision of Humanity: The Global Peace Index


While many of the classic indicators of development such as GNI, health and education show signs of positive development, there are clearly challenges remaining – mainly around how to attain better employment levels, and the very serious problems of increasing conflict and how to develop sustainably.

Research Methods in Context: Experiments and Education

Experiments are the only method educational researchers can use if they wish observe the effects of one specific variable on student behaviour or outcomes (results).

Experiments are probably conducted more by schools themselves to test out things like new teaching techniques before rolling them out to the whole school, and there are also several examples of policy changes providing us with some examples of ‘natural experiments’, as when academies were introduced, they allowed researchers to compare the performance with LEA schools.

Examples of sociologists going into schools to conduct their own research are a lot rarer, and laboratory experiments on how social factors relate to educational performance are rarer still.

This post provides examples of all ‘four types’ of these experiment. It has been written primarily for students of A-level sociology studying the Methods in Context aspect of the specification.

Field Experiments within Schools by schools themselves

There are a number of variables schools might try to change in order to improve student behaviour, performance, or just to enhance student well-being.

Experimenting with setting and streaming, the gender mix of classrooms, different teaching techniques, online learning, or even the length of the lessons themselves are all possible focuses for small scale experiments.

I discuss this more in this post: experiments within schools.

One of the most extreme field experiments conducted recently was by a school in Devon, in which they subjected some of their students to a Chinese style of teaching, involving Chinese teachers, for a three month period. For more on this, please see this post.

Field Experiments by Sociologists within Schools

The classic field experiment relevant to education is Rosenthal and Jacobsnen’s Pygmalion in the Classroom, in which they set out to measure the impact of high teacher expectation on student performance.

They went into a school, and tested a sample of the students, keeping the actual results hidden from the teachers. They then told the teachers that a randomly selected sample of students were especially gifted (when in reality the students had a range of abilities).

The researchers then left the school, returned some months later and re-tested all the students. They found that the ones who teachers had been told were higher ability had improved at a faster rate than the rest.

The conclusion is that this supports the Self Fulfilling Prophecy Theory, however other repeat experiments have yielded different results.

For more details on this experiment, please see this post

Natural Experiments and Education

There have been two notable government policies which have introduced new school types in recent years: Academies and Free Schools.

We now have several years of data to compare the performance of both of these types of school with regular Local Education Authority schools, which is a natural experiment.

We could also do the same at a global level, by looking at the PISA league tables and then looking at what features the education systems of the top performing countries have in common, if any.

Coronavirus has also provided us with an interesting opportunity to measure the effects of online learning on education. Some recent initial studies report that poorer students are negatively impacted more than wealthier students.

Be careful discussing ‘natural experiments’ in an exam, as we are getting into ‘secondary data’ here rather than pure experiments, but there are links!

Laboratory Experiments relevant to education

There are a couple of interesting historical examples:

Charkin et al (1975) conducted research with a sample of 48 university studetns who each taught a lesson to a 10 year old boy.

One third of the university students were told they boy was highly motivated and intelligent

One third were told he was poorly motivated and with a low IQ

One third were given no information

Charkin et al videod the lessons and found that those in the high expectancy group made more eye contact and used more encouraging body language than the low expectancy group.

This seems to suggest support for labelling theory.

Mason (1973) looked at whether negative or positive expectations had a greater effect.

Teachers were given positive, negative or neutral reports on a pupil. The teachers then observerd video recordings of the pupil taking a test, watching to see if any errors were made, and then asked to predict the pupil’s end of year attainment.

Mason found that the negative reports had a much greater impact on the teachers’ expectations than the positive reports.

A much more recent experiment, aired by the BBC, showed how simply having a mobile phone on a desk lowers the test scores of students. For more details on this, please see this post.

(Source Webb et Al A-level Sociology, Book 1)

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Using Surveys to Research Education

Social Surveys are probably the most practical method researchers can use to research education.

Both teachers and students will be relatively used to filling in questionnaires as part of providing feedback to improve lessons and school procedures, and they are relatively quick to complete compared to interviews, so they should cause relatively little disruption to the school day.

Practical Factors

Surveys are a good choice of method if you wish to collect data from large samples in a short space of time, and because students (when they’re in class) are a ‘captive audience’ this could make this a very time efficient method for researching in schools.

If a researcher can gain access and consent they could, with the co-operation of a head teacher, get hundreds of students to complete the same questionnaire in multiple class in one day, or on smaller scale, a researcher could work with a few teachers to get a slightly smaller sample.

If the researcher puts a survey online, management might give teachers more flexibility when they get their students to complete the survey – say in one tutorial session over a two-week period.

A closed-question questionnaire might be a good method for researching teachers, given their tie constraints.

Parents would be the most difficult group to research using the questionnaire method, as they spend less time in-school, so gaining access to them would be difficult, this would probably have to be done via the school, who could direct parents to questionnaires via newsletters, or may parents evenings could be used by the researcher to administer surveys.

Gaining access

Because surveys are relatively quick for respondents to complete and it’s obvious from the outset what questions are being asked (which wouldn’t be the case with interviews), then it should be easy to convince schools to gain access to students, teachers or parents, compared to more intensive qualitative methods.

Theoretical Factors – Representativeness, validity and reliability.


Schools have ready made lists of students, which would include details of their gender, ethnicity, FSM and SEN status, address (as a proxy of broader class status) and prior educational achievement.

IF a researcher could thus gain access to such a sampling frame, it would be very easy for them to get a representative sample of different students, or to select only one type of student (all boys for example), depending on the purpose of their research.

However, getting access to such a list with all of the above details may not be possible because of GDPR (data protection) issues, unless researchers work with school staff who select a representative sample on their behalf.

Response rate

Biased samples might mean a low response rate for some types of respondent

Questionnaire research might suffer from selection bias – pro-school pupils are much more likely to take them seriously, but more rebellious students who do not like authority might either not fill in a questionnaire or deliberately lie out of spite against the system.

Working-class parents might be less willing to fill in a questionnaire truthfully about their parenting practices, whereas for middle-class parents this would be more a positive affirmation of their ‘good parenting’

Non-native English speakers might not be able to understand the questions if the questionnaire is not in English. Although today there might well be programmes online that can translate online questionnaires.


Because questions are written in advance, this does not allow for an in-depth exploration of respondents’ thoughts and feelings, hence validity may be limited for some topics.

Researchers also must be careful that concepts (such as cultural capital) are operationalised in such a way that children (especially young children) can understand them.

As mentioned above, the formal nature of questionnaires may not yield valid data from rebellious students – and the more formal and more test-like the conditions of completing a questionnaire, the more likely this is to be the case.

Reliability and making comparisons

Questionnaires do allow for excellent reliability, which is useful if findings are to be used to inform educational policy – it allows the research to be scaled up and generalised to more areas easily.

This is also a good method for exploring differences between students from different social class, ethnic backgrounds, as well as gender differences, which is a huge topic in the sociology of education  

Ethical issues and questionnaires

A big strength of questionnaires is that it is easy to make them anonymous and so to keep pupil, teacher and parent data confidential, so they’re good for exploring sensitive topics.