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.

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

Learning to Labour is one of THE classic pieces of sociological research from the 1970s. Willis use overt participant observation to explore why working class lads fail at school.

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-labour

Learning 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.

Learning to Labour: 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.

Signposting and Related Posts

This post was written primarily for students of A-level sociology, specifically focussing on the problems of researching in schools using Participant observation, to get students thinking about the Methods in Context part of paper 1.

However the study is also relevant to the education topic more generally, and research methods.

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

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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

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Assessing the Usefulness of Secondary Qualitative Data to Research Education

How useful is secondary qualitative data when researching education? This post considers some of the theoretical, practical and ethical limitations of Public and Personal Documents which are produced in the context of education – such as OFSTED reports, school prospectuses, school reports and messages sent between pupils.  

Public Documents

Personal Documents

Ofsted and Inspection Reports

School Websites

School prospectuses

School policy documents

School text books

School reports on pupils

Pupils written work

Pupils’ and teachers’ diaries

Notes and text messages passed between pupils

Practical Issues with using documents when researching education

Since the 1988 education act many Public documents on education are freely available to the public – OFSTED reports on schools are easily obtainable, and schools publish a wide variety of information about themselves in their prospectuses and on their websites.

Schools also publish a huge variety of policy documents – such as student codes of conducts, equal opportunities policies and information about how they implement every child matters and safeguarding policies – all of which are likely to be made available to researchers on request, since they are a matter of public record. These are useful as they give an account of the ‘official’ picture of schools in Britain from the perspective of management.

Theoretical Issues with using documents when researching education

In terms of validity, while school web sites and prospectuses can be trusted to provide some basic information about what subjects are on offer, GCSE results and extra-curricular activities, the credibility of such sites is undermined by the fact that they produced to advertise the school in a positive light, and all of these web sites put a positive spin on the school or college. For example, although schools are required to publicise their results, they do have some freedom to emphasise the way they report them so they can portray themselves in the best possible light.

Mossbourne
To what extent do school web sites provide a valid picture of school life?

Suggested activity: Visit the web sites of your past school and present college – to what extent do they give you an accurate picture of what life was actually like in that school?

Extension activity: Look at the web site from another school in your area. Pick one that is very different in terms of results and so on. Are the impressions you get of the two schools that different, or are they quite similar, which would suggest that school web sites are designed to a formula and really tell you very little about a particular school.

OFSTED reports may provide greater insight into what’s going on in a school than the statistical snap shot of the yearly GCSE results, but OFSTED inspections only last for three days, and are typically only done every four years, so it is quite easy for a school to put on an act for this short a period and produce a performance which is better than usual.

Ofsted inspections
Might some schools be able to put on a better performance than usual during a brief OFSTED inspection?

Conversely, there are some schools that feel as if they have been harshly judged by OFSTED inspectors, and question the validity of OFSTED reports, feeling that the grade they’ve been awarded does not reflect the reality of school life. This is partly because OFSTED inspectors only really get to see one lesson by each teacher, which is not representative, but also because the focus of different OFSTED inspectors will be different in different schools, raising the prospect that schools are not being judged by the same standard.

Policy documents produced by schools, such as student codes of conduct might be useful for seeing how schools function in an ideal-world, but they lack validity in that they tell you nothing about how many students actually stick to the code of conduct or what’s done with students who break the code of conduct. If you wanted to get more of an insight into this, a researcher would have to gain access to individual reports of each student, which would be more difficult to obtain.

Representativeness and Public Documents in Educational Research

All schools and colleges are required to publish prospectuses and results, so these should cover a 100% sample of educational institutions, but the same cannot be said of OFSTED reports – schools graded outstanding go into ‘light touch’ mode and may not be observed for several years.

Using Personal Documents to Research Education

Suggested starter activity – Have a browse of this interesting blog – ‘Scenes from the Battleground’ – which has had over a million hits and is written by a teacher. What impression does this give you school life?  How valid and representative do you think it is?

Personal documents in the context of education include school reports on pupils, pupils written work, pupils’ and teachers’ diaries and Notes and text messages passed between pupils

Practical Issues

For a start, these will be very difficult to access. Things like teacher mark books, records of conversations with students, and disciplinary records may not be available because of the ethical requirement to safeguard children’s privacy. The same could also be true of the written work of pupils.

Where private messages and texts are concerned, it is unlikely that researchers will be allowed access to students personal mobile phones or tablets, and even if they could gain access, threads of conversation may have been deleted shortly after they took place, and the more ‘anti-school’ such messages are, the more likely they are to have been deleted.

Validity and Personal Documents

The kind of personal documents which are readily available are likely to be of a public nature (social media accounts for example) and because they are public, they would have been subjected to impression management so they are acceptable – so while this can give us an insight into what teachers and staff think is socially acceptable, using these to give us a picture of what people actually think about school life is problematic. The more ‘personal’ and private a document is, then the higher the validity is likely to be – however, the number of people who write down in-depth personal accounts of their school experiences is tiny.

Representativeness

If one could gain access to social media accounts and personal messaging services, representativeness should be good as the majority of students have access and make use of these services.

As mentioned above, hardly anyone keeps diaries any more, and so representativeness here is a problem.

If a researcher is lucky enough to gain access to disciplinary records, these may not be representative of the actual underlying patterns of student disobedience – teacher bias may increase the number of certain types of students who have undergone disciplinary procedures.

Ethical Issues when using public and private documents in educational research

There are no particular ethical problems with using publicly produced documents,

When using private or personal documents, there are some ethical concerns. If the researcher is given access to teacher mark books, records of conversations with students, and disciplinary records this won’t necessarily be with the informed consent of the pupils for example.

Related Posts 

Secondary Qualitative Data Analysis in Social Research

The Strengths and Limitations of Education Statistics

Social Class and Educational Achievement Essay Plan

Evaluate the extent to which home based, rather than school – based factors account for social class based differences in educational achievement (30)

sociology essay plan social class education 2

 

sociology education revisionFocusing on home background initially, we can look at how material and cultural factors might affect a child’s education.

The lower classes are more likely to suffer from material deprivation at home which can hold children back in education because of a lack access to resources such as computers, or living in a smaller house means they would be less likely to have a quiet, personal study space. In extreme situations, children may have a worse diet and a colder house, which could mean illness and time off school. According to Gibson and Asthana, the effects of material deprivation are cumulative, creating a cycle of deprivation. This would suggest that home background influences a child’s education.

Also, the amount of money one has and the type of area one lives in affects the type of school a child can get to. Richer parents have more choice of school because they are more likely to have two cars or be able to afford public transport to get their children to a wider range of schools. Also, house prices in the catchment areas of the best schools can be up to 20% higher than similar houses in other areas – richer parents are more able to afford to move to these better schools. At the other end of the social class spectrum, those going to school in the most deprived areas may suffer disruptions in school due to gang related violence. All of this suggests that location, which is clearly part of your ‘home background’ in the broader sense of the word, is a major factor in educational achievement.

Cultural deprivation also has a negative effect on children at home. Bernstein pointed out that working class children are more likely to be socialised into the restricted speech code and so are less able to understand teachers at school compared to their middle class peers who speak in the elaborated speech code. The classes are also taught the value of immediate rather than deferred gratification, and so are less likely to see the value of higher education. In these theories, home background influences children all the way through school.

Although the concept of cultural deprivation is decasdes old, more recent research suggests it is still of relevance. Fenstein’s (2003) research found that lower income is strongly correlated with a lack of ability to communicate, while research by Conor et al (2001) found that being socialised into poverty means working class students are less likely to want to go to university than middle class students because they are more ‘debt conscious’.

Cultural Capital Theory also suggests that home background matters to an extent – this theory argues that middle class parents have the skills to research the best schools and the ability to help children with homework – and to intervene in schools if a child falls behind (as Diana’s research into the role of mothers in primary school education suggested). However, cultural capital only advantages a child because it gets them into a good school –suggesting that it is the school that matters at least as much as home background. There wouldn’t be such a fuss over, and such competition between parents over schools if the school a child went to didn’t have a major impact on a child’s education!

In fact, one could argue that probably the most significant advantage a parent can give to their child is getting them into a private school. To take an extreme case, Sunningdale preparatory school in Berkshire costs £16000/ year – a boarding school which confers enormous advantage on these children and provides personalised access via private trips to elite secondary schools Eton and Harrow. In such examples, it is not really home background that is advantaging such children – it is simply access to wealth that allows some parents to get their children into these elite boarding schools and the schools that then ‘hothouse’ their children through a ‘high ethos of expectation’ smaller class sizes and superb resources.

Similarly, the case of Mossborn Academy and Tony Sewell’s Generating Genius programme show that schools can overcome disadvantage at home – if they provide strict discipline and high expectation.

Although all of the above are just case studies and thus of limited use in generating a universal theory of what the ‘major cause’ of differences in educational achievement by social class might be, many similar studies have suggested that schools in poorer areas have a lower ethos of expectation (from Willis’ classic 1977 research on the lads to Swain’s research in 2006). It is thus reasonable to hypothesis that the type of school and in school factors such as teacher labelling and peer groups might work to disadvantage the lower classes as Becker’s theory of the ideal pupil being middle class and Willis’ work on working class counter school cultures would suggest, although in this later case, Willis argues that the lads brought with them an anti-educational working class masculinity, so home factors still matter here.

Finally – Social Capital theory also suggests that home background is not the only factor influencing a child’s education – rather it is the contacts parents have with schools – and later on schools with universities and business – that are crucial to getting children a good education, and making that education translate into a good job.

So is it home background or school factors that matter? The research above suggests home background does have a role to play, however, you certainly cannot disregard in school factors in explaining class differences in educational achievement either – in my final analysis, I would have to say that the two work together – middle class advantage at home translating into better schooling, and vice versa for the working classes.

If you like this sort of thing – then you might like my A-level sociology revision bundles: The bundle contains 5 full, 30 mark sociology of education essays, written for the AQA specification.

sociology education revision

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For links to more essays, please see my main page on exam advice, short answer questions and essays.

The Effects of Material Deprivation on Education

The Effects of Cultural Deprivation on 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.

Evaluate Sociological Perspectives on Vocational Education (30)

Evaluations in italics!

VocationalSkills
Vocational Education refers to teaching people the specific knowledge and skills to prepare them for a particular career. Vocational Education can either be on the job training – such as with apprenticeships, or courses focused on a particular career in a college (typically 16-19).

The New Right introduced Vocational Educational in the 1980s. At the time they argued that Britain needed job-related training in order to combat high levels of unemployment at that time, and in order to prepare young people for a range of new jobs emerging with new technologies, and to make them more competitive in a globalising economy.

Two vocational policies the New Right introduced were National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) and the Youth Training Scheme (YTS). The former involved building a portfolio of evidence to prove you had the specific skills necessary for a job, and the later involved on the job training, in which trainees received a small wage, funded by the government.

At first glance, the expansion of Vocational Education in the 1980s seems to support the Functionalist view of education – as it seems be about getting people ready for work and performing the function of ‘role allocation’ more effectively, however, there were a number of criticisms of early Vocationalism

Two criticisms of these policies were that NVQs were seen by many as an inferior qualification to the more academic ‘A’ level subjects, and much on the job training was of a low quality because it wasn’t very well regulated – some trainees were basically just glorified tea boys (according to research by Marxist sociologist Dan Finn in the 1980s.)

New Labour expanded Vocational Education, seeing it as a way to provide individuals with the training needed to be competitive in a globalised Post-Fordist, high skilled/ high waged economy.

The main plank of Labour’s Vocational Policy was The New Deal for young people which Provided some kind of guaranteed training for any 18-24 year old who had been unemployed for more than 6 months. This was set up in 1998 and initially cost £3.5 billion. Employers were offered a government subsidy to take on people under 25 who had been unemployed for more than 6 months. By March 2003 almost 1 million people had started the New Deal, and 40% of them had moved on to full-time unsubsidised jobs.

A second central aspect of New Labour’s Vocational Policy was the introduction of The Modern Apprenticeships scheme in 2002.There are many different levels of Apprenticeships in a huge range of industries, and they typically involve on the job training in sectors ranging from tourism to engineering. Those undertaking them are paid a small wage, which varies with age, while undertaking training.

Some of the early modern apprenticships were criticised for being exploitative – some companies simply hired workers to a 6 week training course and then sacked them and rehired more trainees as a means of getting cheap labour. However, overall, apprenticeships have been a huge success and there are now hundreds of thousands of people who do them in any one year.

A third strand of New Labour’s Vocational Policy was The Introduction of Vocational A levels –Today, the most commonly recognised type of Vocational A level is the BTEC – Which Edexcel defines as being ‘designed as specialist work-related qualifications and are available in a range of sectors like business, engineering and ICT. A number of BTECs are recognised as Technical Certificates and form part of the Apprenticeship Framework.’

While the purpose of this was to try and eradicate the traditional vocational-academic divide it was mostly working class children went down the vocational route, while middle class children did A levels, which many middle class parents regard as the only ‘proper qualifications’, and from a broadly Marxist analysis Vocational Education simply reinforces the class divide.

In conclusion, the fact that Vocational Education has gradually been extended over the years suggests that successive governments see it as playing an important role in our society, especially in getting children ready for work and providing them with the type of skills our economy needs. It is also clear that a number of children simply are not suited to a purely academic education, so in an increasingly diverse society, it is likely to have a continued role to play. However, we also need to recognise that there are problems with it, such as with unscrupulous employers using on the job training as a means of getting cheap labour, so steps need to be taken to ensure it is effectively regulated.

Gender and Educational Achievement – Evaluating the Role of Out of School Factors

One of the out of school factors which could explain why girls do better than boys in education is that girls have higher aspirations than boys.  Here’s some recent research which supports this while also suggesting that the relationship between gender and aspiration is also strongly influenced by social class background.

The data below’s taken from  The British Household Panel Survey and is based on a sample of nearly 5000 10-15 year olds. This research found (among other things!) that that boys are less likely than girls to aspire to go to college / university across all ethnic groups. The numbers are especially divergent for the white ethnic group – 57% (boys) and 74% (girls).

Gender and aspiration

However, when you break things down by social class background (NB this is analysis!) things look more differentiated – Basically, boys from professional class backgrounds aspire to university, but those from all other social class backgrounds generally do not, while girls from all social class backgrounds seem to aspire to go to university.

gender class and aspiration

To put it bluntly (OK crudely) what these statistical comparisons suggest is that working class boys don’t generally aspire to go to university, whereas working class girls do.

Strengths of this data

Nice easy comparisons – As evidenced in the perty charts.

You can use it as broad supporting evidence of girls aspirations being higher than boys, with an ‘analysis twist’

Limitations of this data 

Of course the above statistics (this is a classic limitation of quantitative data) tell you nothing about why working class boys but not working class girls do not aspire to go to university. It could be due to parental attitudes filtering down differently to girls than boys, or it may be other factors which have nothing to do with socialisation. These stats don’t actually tell us!

Questions for discussion 

  • Summarize the relationship between social class, gender and educational aspiration
  • Suggest one reason for the above relationship

Extension Question – This information was relatively easy to find, it’s quite easy to understand, directly relevant to the AS Sociology syllabus and gives you some easy analysis points – how many of the new (forthcoming) AS text books would you expect to find this information in?

 

 

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