Are Tory funding cuts to blame for school closures?

Yes. The data clearly suggests a very strong correlation between Tory underfunding of schools closing because of unsafe crumbling concrete.

The Tories have had the money to spend on making school building safe. Instead they have chosen to spend the money of new free schools. This appears to have been a political decision to please mainly middle class parents.

Of course the Tories, and especially Rishi Sunak say they are not to blame. However in this case they appear to be just plain lying. The data suggest the opposite: that Tory education policy has failed leading to mass school closures. This was totally preventable.

Unsafe schools closing due to crumbling concrete

More than 100 schools are fully or partially closed this September 2023 due to crumbling concrete. The problem is that some of the buildings in these schools were built in the 1950s using reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC). This concrete is now passed its use by date and is crumbling.

Back in 2018 a ceiling collapsed in a staffroom made from this concrete. Had people been in the room at the time it could have killed someone. This prompted a review of the safety of school buildings. In 2020 a senior education civil servant at the time advised improving 200 schools a year. However the now Prime Minister, then chancellor Rishi Sunak made the decision to only improve 50 schools a year.

The DFE’s own data shows the Torys have been chronically underfunding schools. It was estimated in 2021 that £5 billion would be needed for capital investment in schools. However only £3 billion was allocated.

Compared to the previous New Labour government the Tories have spent one third less on education investment during their time in power.

The data above is taken from this BBC News Article which is worth a watch to summarise this issue!

The Tories: putting the middle classes first?

Instead of choosing to make existing schools safe the Tories have instead chosen to spend almost £1 billion buying land for new Free Schools. Almost half of these have created spare capacity in already existing schools in local areas.

One interpretation of the above is as follows:

Tory education policy and funding has prioritised pleasing middle class parents. (These are typically the people who benefit from free schools). This has been at the expense of pupils attending schools with crumbling concrete.

So the Torys are prepared to put (probably poorer) pupils at risk of injury and death. All so middle class pupils can have a slightly better quality of education in free schools.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This material is relevant to the education topic within A-level sociology.

This seems to be another failure of Tory education policy in recent years.

It is also a failure of neoliberalism. Funding cuts are a big part of neoliberal policy. In this case they have resulted in school closures. This is backward social development.

Why is there an increase in non-UK university students?

mainly it is all about the money!

The number of university places taken up by non-UK students is increasing much faster than for UK students.

If we go back to the university year ending 2019 and compare this to 2022 we find the following:

  • The number of non-UK student enrolments increased by 37% between 2019 to 2022.
  • The number of UK student enrolments increased by only 11% over the same period.

Overall there were approximately 400 000 more enrolments in 2022 compared to 2019. Around 40% of these went to non-UK students.

Domicile20192022Raw increasePercent increase
Total UK1,960,3202,182,560222,24011.34
Total Non-UK496,110679,970183,86037.06
Non-UK enrolments increasing much faster than UK enrolments.

(Source: HESA stats)

If we put this in a graph we see the increase is faster for non-UK students:

graph showing increase in non UK HE students

If we do a dual axis scale (Non-UK on the right) the faster increase of non-UK students is clearer:

increase in non-UK students dual axis grapht

One quarter of Russel Group University places now go to foreign students. HALF of UCL and LSE places go to foreign students.

The top two countries where non-UK students come from are China, followed by India. Together these account for around 30% of non-UK student enrolments

Around 80% of non-UK students are now from outside the EU, with EU applications and enrolments having fallen since Brexit.

More pain for UK university applicants

If this trend towards universities taking proportionally more non-UK continues it means relatively fewer places for UK students.

It means even more competition in a year when A-level results have gone back down to 2019 levels.

Why are there more foreign students…?

Mainly it is all about the money. UK universities charge higher fees for foreign students. While UK students typically pay around £10 000 per year, the fees for foreign students can be four times that amount for some courses!

This is also a global success story. There is a growing middle class in China and India hence increasing demand for UK university places.

From a neoliberal perspective this is how a global market should work. British universities are some of the best in the world, and in a global free market they are free to sell those services to anyone.

There’s also the fact that universities need the extra income from foreign students to provide a better service. British students will also benefit from this.

And there is nothing stopping British students from applying to universities abroad, either. (Well, other than the fact that most of them can only speak English).

So maybe our default reaction shouldn’t be to whinge about this!?! It is just globalisation as usual, after all!

Having said that, one potential downside to this is that it’s poorer students who are going to lose out the most. As Britain’s best universities become increasingly dominated by a global middle class. It is likely that the poor working class British students are those who wil struggle to secure places!

Sources/ Find out more

The Daily Mail: Middle Class Students Face Losing Out on Places

This material is relevant to the education module within A-level sociology.

A-level results are down AND the attainment gap has increased

material deprivation still affects educational achievement!

The A-level exam boards in England decided to smackdown the 2023 A-level results this year. They are now back to the pre-pandemic levels of 2019.

line chart showing trends in A-level results 2019 to 2023, England and Wales.

For the top A and A* grades the trend looks like this:

  • 2019: 25.2%
  • 2021: 35.9%
  • 2023: 26.5%

So a slight, but not significant increase in top A-level grades in 2023 compared to 2019.

This clearly demonstrates that the 2020 and 2021 results were fantasy results. This is unsurprising given that they were awarded by teachers. The 2022 results, based on pre-release exams, were merely a half way step back to this years. Last years results now seem as ridiculous as the 2020 and 2021 results. Clearly this was an attempt to maintain credibility in the exam system by not bringing back down the results too suddenly.

None of this is the fault of the students, it’s the fault of the people running the education system. You might even argue the government and exam boards did the best they good faced with the uncertainty of the pandemic.

The problem now is that this year’s cohort are the real victims of this uncertainty and flawed responses. They are now the ones with the relatively worse grades. They now face huge competition to get into scarce university places. And they are the ones that had their schooling disrupted just as much as the previous three years of students.

What a mess!

One saving grace

The one saving grace of all this is that we can probably regard this years exam results as valid JUST FOR THIS COHORT.

What I mean by this is that individuals who achieved A grades this year are probably better at exams than those who achieved C grades.

What you can’t do is compare this years results with 2020-2022. So we have a reliability problem!

  • 2019 A-levels measured students’ ability to sit exams under ‘normal conditions’ compared to previous years.
  • 2020 and 2021 measured how far teachers were prepared to take the p*** and give their students inflated grades based on their theories of what the maximum they could possibly achieve.
  • 2022 measured student’s ability to sit exams based on having pre-release knowledge of some the material they’d be assed on.
  • 2023 exam results measured students’ ability to sit exams under ‘normal conditions’ having had significant disruption to their schooling during the pandemic.

NB please note that by ‘better at exams’ that’s all I mean. A student’s ability to get an A* doesn’t necessarily mean they are more intelligent or a better potential employee than someone who gets a B grade.

The main reason for this (IMO) is that some students are better trained for exams than others. And exam training is a very narrow skill, intelligence more generally is a much broader concept.

The attainment gap has increased

The education attainment gap between private and state schools is now wider than it was before the pandemic. 47.4% of A-level entries from private schools were awarded A or A* grades compared to just 22% from state schools.

bar chart showing that schools in richer areas get better A-level results than poorer areas, England and Wales.

To my mind this suggests privately educated students have been more shielded from the disruptive effects of the pandemic over the last three years compared to state school students.

This makes sense given the material advantages these wealthy students have. Such as:

  • smaller class sizes
  • better access to online learning
  • private tuition.

Some of these resources would have been put into exam training of course, a key part of ‘hothousing’ private school children.

The attainment gap by region has also increased

If we breakdown regions in quintiles by deprivation we find that 30.3% of A-levels in the least deprived regions were awarded A and above compared to only 22.2 in the most deprived regions.

This means parental wealth and income affects educational achievement more generally. Private schools just have a more extreme advantage at the very top end. (Private schools account for around 7% of pupils, so 1/3rd of the top quintile.)

Relevance to A-level sociology

Unfortunately this shows that material deprivation still affects educational achievement.

To return to the homepage –

Sources/ Find out More

The Guardian: Equality Depends on Education

TES: A-Level Results Reveal Worsening Rich-Poor Divide

FFT Education Data Lab: 2023 A-level Results

Persistent Absences in Schools have more than Doubled since pre-Covid

The overall absence rate for schools in the Autumn term of 2022-2023 was 7.5%. This was an increase from the previous term and from the pre-covid absence rate of just under 5%.

increasing absences in UK schools graph

In the Autumn term of 2022/2023, the persistence absence rate was 24.2%, compared to just 11.6% in 2016/17. This means 24.2% of pupils missed 10% or more of their lessons, with illness being the main reason.

increase in persistent absence UK schools

Why are school absence rates higher?

There are several possible reasons including:

  • higher rates of illness, including the persistence of covid
  • poor mental health
  • The cost of living crises
  • more parents working from home
  • A new norm of ‘hybrid schooling’…?

Higher rates of illness

Illness is the main reason for absence provided, and there have been relatively high numbers of flu cases and of course Covid is still around.

However, ‘illness’ is the standard excuse parents will use. There may be deeper reasons, which I think are the main cause.

Poor mental health

The Children Society’s Good Childhood Report of 2022 reported that children today are 50% more likely to have mental health problems compared to three years ago.

Unhappy and anxious children are more likely to want to avoid going to school!

This correlates perfectly with the increase in persistent absence, and is certainly something worth exploring further.

The Cost of Living Crisis

According to Joseph Rowntree, it is the poorest 20% of households that are suffering the most from increasing inflation, with many of them struggling to pay the bills and feed their children.

Poverty means poor diets and colder homes, which could feed into higher illness rates and higher absence rates, it could also mean inability to pay for the hidden costs of education such as school uniforms and stationary which could lead to absences due to a sense of shame.

More parents working from home

Hybrid working is increasingly common post-covid, and now that one parent is more likely to be home one or more days of the week, they are more able to look after children who are sick or ‘sick’.

A new norm of hybrid education?

Following covid and children having had time of school, some parents may simply not see the need for their children to be in school 5 days a week.

To my mind this makes sense. Many parents feel the benefits of being home 2-3 days a week and in the office for the rest of the week, they may feel their children could benefit from a similar pattern, especially because schools are now set-up to provide extra support for absent children following Covid.

This final point would be worth researching.


This material is mainly relevant to the education module within A-level sociology.

Pupil Absence in Schools.

Why are black students less likely to get first class degrees?

Differences in type of university, degree choice, prior attainment and institutional racism are all possible explanations.

In 2020/21 85.9% of white students were awarded a first or 2:1 degree compared to only 67.4% of black students.

This means there is an 18.5% attainment gap between black and white students at university level.

There is also a smaller attainment gap between all BAME students and white students, of 8.9%, but the most significant gap is between white and black students.

Why are black students less likely to get firsts?

Possible explanations include:

  1. They are less likely to attend Russel Group universities
  2. They are less likely to subjects with higher rates of first class degree awarded
  3. They have lower prior A-level attainment
  4. Institutional Racism.

Russel Group Universities and Ethnicity

It could be that black students are less likely to go to Russel Group universities which get better results, but this is not the case: equal numbers of black and white students attend Russel Group Universities.

Does subject choice make a difference?

There is a significant difference in class of degree awarded by subject and it might be the case that black students are less likely to study subjects which have a high rate of first class degrees awarded.

Below are the degree subjects which are most likely to be awarded a first: Almost 43% of medicine and dentistry degrees get a first compared to only 17% of law degrees, which is a huge difference (3).

If black students are more likely to do subjects like law and less likely to do subjects like medicine this could explain why they are also less likely to get first class degrees.

However, while it is true that black students are more likely to do Law than veterinary sciences, according to Universities UK (4) the differences in attainment by ethnicity within these subjects.

A level grades

It could be that black students go into university with lower A-level results which are correlated with lower level degree results.

However, black students underachieve compared to white students no matter what prior attainment they have as the chart (5) below shows.

Could it be institutional racism?

This is the explanation favoured by Universities UK (4) who use the term ‘ degree awarding gap’ rather than ‘degree attainment gap’ in their reports to reflect the fact that the gap is caused by institutional racism or inaction, rather than individual BAME students.

They conducted research in 2019, followed up in 2022 using a range of quantitative analysis and more qualitative interviews to research the experiences of BAME students.

The main piece of quantitative evidence to back up the theory that universities are institutionally racist is the underrepresentation of black staff members, with only 2.5% of university staff being black.

In a recent Guardian article (2) one graduate claims that black students are not listened to by universities, saying that she was warned that she would find it difficult if she did a PhD as a black female students because of racism, effectively being put off from pursing this career path.

More broadly the article suggests that black students do not feel at home in university and so are less likely to strive for higher level degrees.


This material is primarily relevant to the education module within A-level sociology.

To return to the homepage –


(1) UK Parliament, House of Commons Library (January 2023) Equality of Access and Outcomes in Higher Education in England

(2) The Guardian (May 2019) As a black student I know why our grades are worse.

(3) It’s Official: The Degree Subjects Most Likely to get you a First.

(4) Universities UK (2022) Closing the Gap: Three Years On.

(5) The original report (2019) from Universities UK on closing the gap.

Secondary Data on Academic Progress

What are the strengths and limitations of using secondary data to research the academic progress of students in schools?

This challenging question came up in the methods in Context section of the November 2021 AQA A-Level Sociology exam, and students found it difficult according the Examiners Report, with significant numbers focussing only on quantitative secondary data, rather than both quantitative and qualitative, and many answers making generalisation and failing to pick up on the specifics of different types of data, let alone APPLY these to the topic at hand which was student progress.

So this applied research methods topic is probably worth going over in some depth! (Remember, even though this came up relatively recently it can still come up this year, especially since the examiners know it’s a challenging topic for many students!).

The Question and Item

Applying material from Item C and your knowledge of research methods, evaluate the strengths and limitations of using secondary data to investigate the
academic progress of pupils in schools.

Notes towards an answer

The item suggest that you should focus on both quantitive and qualitative forms of secondary data.

And with methods in context questions you need to at least try and apply the strengths and limitations of the data to the actual topic in the question: academic progress!

Secondary quantitative data to research academic progress

This topic is partly dealt with in this post: Official Statistics on Education: Strengths and Limitations

Official Statistics include exam results and SATs. They have excellent representativeness and usually these are easy to compare, but with education statistics, there are several different versions to measure progress and this can get confusing, also GSCE results changed from A-C to numerical form which makes comparing more difficult over time.

However, official stats do not tell us WHY students achieve at different rates, also for Gypsy and Roma children, many don’t sit formal exams so there is missing data here.

Schools may also record their own quantitative data in the form of internal tests (not official statistics) which provide more insight than official statistics but there are access issues.

Secondary qualitative data to research academic progress

Secondary qualitative data will give you more insight into WHY students achieve at different rates, and such data includes OFSTED reports, school progress reports, the written work of students and even personal documents such as diaries.

Written work in particular can give you an insight into the quality of feedback students get and also how much effort they are making, while personal documents can tell you what is going on in students’ lives outside of education.

The main problem with both of these sources is access.

This topic is covered in depth in this post: Assessing the usefulness of secondary data for researching education. NB this post is broader than this topic, and some of the sources mentioned in it may not be useful for measuring academic progress.


The AQA’s mark scheme for the November 2021 Sociology A-level Education with Theory and Methods exam paper.

For more information on exams see my exams and essay writing page.

Teaching and learning in schools and the educational experiences of minority ethnic groups

An answer for a 10 mark ‘analyse’ question in A-level sociology (AQA)

This question cam up in the recent 2021 AQA Education and Theory and Methods Exam, as a 10 mark, with item question.

In the 10 mark education question, you get an item which directs you to two specific issues you need to analyse, and it’s good practice to give equal weighting to both issues.

NB there are no marks for evaluating in these questions, it’s all analysis (in-depth logical explanation).

It’s crucial to draw the links between the ’cause’ and the ‘effect’ explicitly!

The question

Read Item A below and answer the question that follows.

Item A
Some sociologists claim that the curriculum taught in schools today prioritises some cultures over others. Research also suggests that teacher expectations can be based on stereotypes.

Teaching and learning in schools may affect the educational experiences of minority ethnic groups

Applying material from Item A, analyse two ways in which teaching and learning in schools may affect the educational experiences of minority ethnic groups. (10 marks)

Possible Answer

The two focuses from the item are:

  • the curriculum prioritising some cultures over others.
  • teacher expectations based on stereotypes

Because this is a question on ethnic minority groups, it makes sense to discuss both of these as they relate to a range of different minority groups, and treat both focuses separately.

The curriculum prioritizing some cultures over others

The school curriculum has been criticised for being ethnocentric, which means it focuses on the experiences the main ethnic group, which in British schools means white British and White Europeans. Examples of this include the school year and holidays being based around a Christian timetable, European languages being the main ones offered, and history having a white-European focus, looking at things from the perspective of the colonising powers rather than the colonised, for exampled.

This can have negative effects on minority ethnic groups: school calendars are not necessarily in sync with Hindu or Muslim festivals for example, so students may take time off to celebrate these, and notoriously Ramadan frequently coincides with the A-level exam period, meaning fasting Muslim students may underperform because of this ‘ethnocentric timetabling’.

Many schools have a huge proportion of ‘minority’ students who speak African, Asian or Middle Eastern languages and yet there is rarely an option to study these as part of language options, these students may not see the point in studying another European language when they are already bilingual and might even feel offended that their own languages are not taught more widely to the majority white students.

The Prevent Agenda, which is part of the formal curriculum has also been criticized for being biased against Muslim students, with Muslim children feeling as if they are being singled out and being watched as potential terrorist threats more so than white children, which can be alienating.

Teacher expectations based on stereotypes

David Gilborn (1990) famously claimed that teachers expect black boys to be more aggressive and so they are more likely to punish them for being disruptive in class compared to white children doing the same. This may explain the higher expulsion rates for black boys compared to white boys. For those who aren’t expelled it might create the experience of the feeling of injustice about why they are being treated unfairly which could lead to less trust in teachers and less willingness to try hard in school.

Gilborn also found that black children are less likely to be put into the top sets by teachers because teachers expect them to be less able to cope due to their having higher poverty and lone parent rates, this means there will more able black students in lower sets getting frustrated because they are not being pushed, and blocked from sitting higher tier exams.

Wright found that teachers expect Asian girls to be passive and so didn’t include them in class room discussions as much, with can lead to them feeling excluded.

Similarly, teachers tend to assume Chinese students will always do well, something which less keen Chinese students don’t enjoy very much!

Relevant posts

There is lots of good material relevant to this question in this post: ethnicity and differential achievement: in school factors.

The above question was taken from the AQA’s November 2021 A-Level Sociology Education with Theory and Methods Paper.

Unequal parental choice

marketisation policies mean unequal parental choice as middle class parents have more cultural capital

Ball, Bowe and Gewirtz (1) examined the effects that marketisation policies which introduced competition and parental choice were having on the education system and on the opportunities for different social groups.

They found that middle class parents had more effective choice of schools because of their higher levels of cultural, social and material capital.

Researching parental choice

They studied 15 schools in neighbouring LEAs in England between 1994 and 1991 using a range of research methods including visiting the schools, attending meetings, interviewing teachers and parents and examining documents.

Central to the research study was a series of interviews with 150 parents whose children were in the final year of primary school, and so were in the process of choosing secondary schools. Some areas had mainly middle class populations, some mainly working class and some had significant ethnic minority populations, so the researchers were able to compare parental choice across these groups.

Marketisation: the effects on schools

The overall effect was a shift in the value framework of schools from comprehensive to market values.

The publication of league tables meant that schools were more keen to attract those more able students who could boost their position in the league tables. There was more of a focus on what prospective students could do for the school rather than what the school could do for the students.

Some schools had introduced setting and streaming so as to more effectively focus resources on those students who were judged likely to succeed and some schools had started to view students like commodities.

Schools were also putting more resources into marketing to promote a positive image of the school: producing glossy brochures to attract parents and staff were expected to spend more time on marketing activities, mainly opening days and evenings.

Neighbouring schools had stopped co-operating with each other and there was a new attitude of suspicion and hostility in some cases.

Schools lower down the league tables were more obsessed with trying to attract pupils, while the more successful schools were able to be more complacent and selective with the students they chose.

Budgetary concerns such as cutting costs were becoming more important than educational and social issues.

Marketisation and unequal parental choice

Gewirtz et al argued that not all parents had equal choice of schools. The amount of choice was limited by the availability of schools in the local area and the capacity of parents to make informed choices.

They identified three types of parents based on their ability to choose:

  • Privileged or skilled choosers
  • Semi-skilled choosers
  • Disconnected choosers

Skilled choosers

Skilled choosers were strongly motivated to put energy into choosing the ‘right’ school for their child and had the ability to make an informed choice.

Skilled choosers are mainly middle class and some had inside knowledge of the school system, such as those who were teachers themselves and tended to choose the most successful schools for their children.

They had both the knowledge to evaluate schools and the money to be able to move to into the catchment area of a particular school they wanted their child to go to.

Semi-skilled choosers

Semi-skilled choosers have a strong motivation to choose by limited capacity to engage with the market. They are less likely to be middle class than skilled-choosers.

They have just a strong a desire to get their children into the best schools but lack the cultural skills and social contacts to be able to make their choices stick.

For example semi-skilled choosers feel less at home at parents evening, less comfortable asking difficult questions and and are less likely to appeal if they don’t get their first choice of school.

As a result this group are more likely to settle for their child just going to a local school rather than a better school that they originally wanted.

Disconnected choosers

Disconnected choosers are just as concerned with their children’s education and welfare but don’t get involved with the school-choice market because they don’t believe it will benefit their children as they think there is little difference between schools.

They tend to consider a smaller number of school options, typically only the two nearest schools to where they live, and their child typically ends up going to one of these local schools which is unlikely to be the best academically.

Disconnected choosers are more concerned with their child’s happiness than them going to a school with a good academic record, and so sending them to a local school where their friends are also going makes sense.

Disconnected choosers are typically working class and the most likely group to send their children to undersubscribed, underperforming schools.

definitions of skilled, semi-skilled and disconnected choosers

Cultural and material capital and differential choice

Marketisation policies have made education less equal. Middle class parents are in a better position than working class parents to send their children to a school of their choice.

Because middle class parents have more cultural and social capital they are more able to play the system effectively:

  • they can make a better impression with the head teacher at open day.
  • they are more likely to make private appointments to discuss school choice.
  • they are more likely to appeal if they are not successful in their application.
  • In some cases they are more likely to actually know staff at the school.
  • They have more time and money to research and visit schools.

They also have more money which can help with:

  • moving into the catchment areas of the best schools.
  • Extra tuition to get their children into grammar schools.
  • Paying for transport or driving their children to schools which may be several miles away.

In contrast working class parents were more likely to want their children to go to local schools because then they didn’t have to make long and dangerous journeys (which maybe expensive) and they had access to their local community which was a support network.

In Bourdieu’s terms both middle class and working class parents made school choices based on their habitus, or their different lived experiences. And this meant the middle classes having free choice over a wide area, and the working classes simply choosing to stay local, which effectively meant no real choice at all!


This material is relevant to the sociology of education topic, it is especially relevant to demonstrating how social and cultural capital give the middle classes an advantage in education.


(1) Ball, Bowe and Gewirtz (1994) Parents, privilege and the education market‐place

Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

Speech patterns and educational achievement

restricted and elaborated speech codes explain social class differences in achievement.

Speech and language are important aspects of communication and a child’s ability to learn is related to their ability to communicate effectively with adults and other children.

A child with more developed speech and language skills can learn faster than those with less developed skills, and thus will have better educational achievement.

Moreover a child’s ability at language (in English Language key stage tests, for example) is in fact a measure of their level of educational achievement, so in one respect, a child’s ability to communicate (at least in formal tests) is the same as their level of educational attainment!

This post summarises and evaluates Basil Bernstein’s work on speech patterns.

Speech patterns

Basil Bernstein (1) developed the theory that there are two different types of speech patterns, or speech codes: the restricted code and the elaborated code, the later having a wider vocabulary and more complex grammatical structures than the former.

He theorised that the working classes were largely limited to speaking in the restricted code, while the middle classes used both the elaborate and restricted codes, and that the limited use of the restricted code by working class children explained their relative underachievement in education compared to middle class children.

A comparison of the restricted and elaborated speech code

The restricted speech code

Bernstein stated that restricted speech codes are characterised by ‘short, grammatically simple, often unfinished sentences’.

This code has limited use of adjectives or adverbs and meanings are often conveyed by gesture and voice intonation.

The restricted code tends to operate in terms of particularistic meanings – it is usually linked to a specific context and utterances only make sense to people in that immediate context.

It is a sort of short hand between close friends or partners that have a shared understanding of a social situation such that there is no need to spell out meanings in any great detail.

The elaborated speech code

Elaborated speech code has a wider vocabulary and uses more complex grammatical structures than the restricted code.

It provides more in-depth explanations of meanings than the restricted speech code does and thus operates in terms of universalistic meanings: listeners do not need to be embedded in a specific context to fully understand what is being communicated.

To illustrate the difference between the two speech codes consider a cartoon strip of four pictures:

  1. Some boys playing football
  2. The ball breaking a window
  3. A woman looking out of the window and a man shaking his fist
  4. The boys running away.

A middle class child speaking the elaborated code would be able to describe the pictures in such a way that you wouldn’t need the pictures to fully understand the story, everything would be explained in detail. The explanation here would be free of the context, universal!

A working class child speaking the restricted code would refer to the pictures so that you would need to see the pictures to understand the story. The explanation here would remain dependent on the context.

Speech patterns and educational attainment

Formal education is conducted in the elaborated speech code, so working class kids are automatically at a disadvantage compared to middle class kids.

The elaborated code is necessary to make generalizations and to be able to understand higher order concepts.

Bernstein found that middle class children were much more able to classify things such as food into higher order categories such as vegetables, or meats, for example. Working class kids were more likely to classify them according to personal experiences such as ‘things mum cooks for me’.

Evaluations of Bernstein

His concept of social class is too vague. Sometimes he refers to the working class, others he talks about the lower working class. He also puts all non-manual workers into ‘middle class’ thus ignoring variation between the middle classes.

Bernstein also provides only limited examples of the two types of speech code. He does not make a convincing case that either of them actually exist in reality!

Labov (1973) criticized Bernstein for alluding to the elaborated code being superior, whereas in reality working class and middle class speech are just different, it is only the cultural dominance of the elaborated code in education that makes it seem superior.


The language of African Americans and White Americans can be very different, but it is historically Anglo-American English which is taught as standard English in schools.

Thus African American pupils in the USA have had a particularly negative experience of language in school, often experiencing school as a linguistically and culturally alienating environment.

Rather than their children feeling alienated, some activists adopted ‘Ebonics’ (the language of African Americans) as a medium of instruction, celebrating their linguistic heritage and pointing out differences with the ‘standard’ Anglo-American English.

Ebonics has highlighted the following:

  • it has indicated the extent to which language plays a role in educational success or failure.
  • It raised questions about the appropriateness of standard English in assessments.
  • It highlighted cultural tensions between several minority pupils in schools and the school curriculum.

This topic is relevant to the sociology of education, especially the issue of social class differences in educational achievement.


(1) Bernstein (1971) Class, Codes and Control, Volume 1.

Barlett and Burton (2021): Introduction to Education Studies, fifth edition

Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

Why do Males and Females Choose Different Subjects?

parental and teacher stereotypes combine to reinforce gendered subject images!

Despite gender becoming more fluid in recent decades, students continue to choose subjects aligned to stereotypical, traditional male and female gender identities.

While it is true that subject choice is becoming gradually less gendered, gender stereotypical subject choices are still apparent when we look at the statistics in the 2020s.

For example, 95% of candidates studying Health and Social Care BTEC are female while Computer Science and Engineering are dominated by males.

For a more in-depth dive into gendered subject choices at different levels of education in 2022 please see my post on gender and subject choice.

Explaining gendered differences in subject choice

There are three broad explanations for why boys and girls continue to choose gender stereotypical subjects:

  • factors external to the school such as socialisation in the family home and peer group pressure.
  • In school factors such as the gender of the teachers teaching certain subjects and gender stereotypes held by teachers.
  • Ingrained gendered subject images which is a result of home and school factors.

Socialisation and gendered subject choice

Some research suggests that the gender stereotypes of parents still influence what toys boys and girls and play with, with some parents believing that certain types of toys are only really suitable for boys and girls.

Girls being steered into playing with dolls from an early age may influence their choice to study health and social care later on as teenagers, with its focus on child care.

Similarly, boys being steered towards toy tools and trucks may result in a higher proportion of them choosing to study engineering at university.

More generally, socialisation differences may result in different levels of self-confidence for boys and girls.

The results of laboratory experiments also suggest that men are more likely to enter competitive arenas than women because of higher levels of confidence (Gneezy et al., 2003; Niederle and Vesterlund, 2007).

Colley (1998) found that peer groups often subscribe to gender stereotypes and may encourage girls to choose more traditionally feminine subjects at GCSE and vice-versa for boys.

Teacher Labelling and gendered subject choice

Traditional beliefs about masculinity and femininity may still be held by teachers, lecturers and careers advisors, especially in mixed schools.

Some contemporary sociological research suggests that teachers’ gender stereotypes result in girls being less likely to choose STEM-related choices within high school and beyond ((Lavy and Sand, 2018; Lavy and Meglokonomou, 2019; Terrier, 2020).

There is a gender divide based on the subjects taught by men. Male teachers are more likely to specialise in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and PE, whereas women are more likely to teach humanities and languages. A lack of educational role models in STEM and PE can put some girls off taking these subjects. The effect is particularly visible among teenage girls who feel that male PE teachers cannot understand their needs properly (Gender Trust).

The fact that subjects in secondary schools such as English are more likely to be taught by women, and girls may feel more drawn to such subjects because they prefer the discursive style of female teachers. Similarly, subjects which boys are more likely to choose at GCSE and A-level, such as computing and physics, are more likely to be taught my males lower down in secondary schools, and boys might be more drawn to these subjects because of the more matter of fact way they are taught by male teachers.

Colley (1998) notes that girls in single-sex schools are twice as likely to study maths at university. This could be because the cultural pressures to not study maths are less likely to exist in single sex schools

Gendered Subject Images

The combination of external and internal factors above results in subjects becoming gendered: they develop an identity as essentially male or female.

This makes it harder for boys to choose ‘female’ subjects and girls to choose ‘male’ subjects.

Colley believes that the gender-identity of subjects may well shift with curriculum changes. For example the introduction of more technology into music is correlated with more boys choosing to study it.

Conclusions: Why do gendered differences in subject choice persist…?

Boys are more likely to choose traditionally male subjects and vice versa for girls as a combination of home and school factors such as gender stereotyping held by parents and teachers, which affects boys and girls self-concepts which are in turn reinforced by peers.

In a review of the literature Skelton et al (2007) noted that ‘gender stereotyping’ and ‘differential constructions of gender among pupils and teachers’ are probably the most significant factors in explaining gendered differences in subject choice.

It is very difficult to pinpoint one main causal variable for gendered differences in subject choice, the reasons are due to a multitude of factors.


This material has been written primarily for students studying the education option as part of their A-level in sociology.

%d bloggers like this: