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

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

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

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

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

Girls Outperform Boys in Education
Girls Outperform Boys in Education

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

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

educational attainment by ethnicity 2014
educational attainment by ethnicity 2014

 

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

Educational attainment by social class
Educational attainment by social class

 

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

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

Educational achievement by disadvantage
Educational achievement by disadvantage

 

Other statistical data included in the pupil characteristics report

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

Some Strengths of Official Statistics on Educational Achievement by Pupil Characteristic 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Effects of Wolfes review on GCSE results

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

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

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

Related Posts 

Official Statistics in Sociology

Assessing the Usefulness of Using Secondary Qualitative Data to Research Education

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Explaining the Gender Gap in Education

This post aims to outline some of the factors which might explain why girls outperform boys in education, focusing on factors external to the school such as changes in gender roles, the impact of feminism and women’s empowerment.

This post aims to outline some of the factors which might explain why girls outperform boys in education, focusing on factors external to the school such as changes in gender roles, the impact of feminism and women’s empowerment.

Factors explaining the gender gap

1. Changes in women’s employment

According to Social Trends (2008) the number of men and women in paid work is now virtually the same. There is a growing service sector where women are increasingly likely to be employed over men and employers increasingly seek women for higher managerial roles because they generally have better communication skills than men. This means women now have greater opportunity than men in the world of work which makes education more relevant to them than in the 1970s when there was a relative lack of opportunity for women compared to men.

Conversely, there is now less opportunity for men. The decline in manufacturing has lead to a decline in traditional working class men’s factory based jobs. Boys like the lads studied by Paul Willis would have intended to go into these jobs. Now these jobs have gone, many working class boys perceive themselves as having no future.

2. Changes in the family

The Office for National Statistics suggest that changes there have been changes in family structure: Women are more likely to take on the breadwinner role; there is now more divorce, and more lone parent families; women are more likely to remain single. This means that idea of getting a career is seen as normal by girls.

However, the increasing independence of women has lead to a more uncertain role for men in British society, leaving many men feeling vulnerable and unsure of their identity in society – suffering from a crisis of masculinity.

3. Girl’s changing ambitions

Sue Sharpe did a classic piece of research in the 1970s, repeated in the 1990s in which she interviewed young girls about their ambitions. In the 1970s there priorities were to get married and have a family, but by the 1990s their priorities were to get a career and have a family later on in life.

4. The impact of feminism

Feminism has campaigned for equal rights and opportunities for women in education, the workplace and wider society more generally. Feminist sociologists argue that many of the above changes have been brought about by their attempts to highlight gender inequalities in society and their efforts to encourage the government, schools and teachers to actually combat patriarchy and provide genuine equality of opportunity which has lead to raising the expectations and self-esteem of girls.

5. Differential socialisation

Fiona Norman in 1988 Found that most parents think the appropriate socialisation for a girl is to handle her very gently, and to encourage her in relatively passive, quiet activities. Parents are also more likely to read with girls than with boys. Gender stereotypes held by parents also mean that ‘typical boys’ need more time to run around and play and ‘let off steam’, and parents are more likely to be dismissive if their boys are in trouble at school often seeing this as just them being ‘typical boys’. These gender stereotypes and differences in gender socialisation disadvantage boys and advantage girls in education.
The Limitation of external factors in explaining differential educational achievement by gender

  1. The decline of manufacturing and crisis of masculinity only affects working class boys, possibly explaining their achievement relative to girls, but middle class girls outperform middle class boys too, who are less likely to associate masculinity with factory work.
  2. McDowell – research on aspirations of white working class youth A sample of males with low educational achievement living in Sheffield and Cambridge aged 15. Followed from school to work. Criticizes the notion of a crisis of masculinity leading to aggressive male identities These lads had traditional laddish identities but were not aggressive or put off by ‘feminized work’ They are best described as reliable workers making the most of limited opportunities available to them.
  3. Willis in 1977 argued that the Lads formed a counter school culture and rejected education even when they had jobs to go to, meaning there are other causes of male underachievement besides the crisis of masculinity.
  4. It is difficult to measure the impact of Feminism – changes in the job market that lead to improved opportunities for women may be due to other technological and cultural changes.
  5. The socialisation girls does not explain why they started to overtake boys in the late 1980s – if anything gender socialisation has become more gender neutral in recent years.

Concepts and research studies to remember

  • Crisis of Masculinity
  • Gender socialisation
  • Gender stereotyping
  • Research studies to remember
  • Kat Banyard – research into gender stereotyping in the family
  • Sue Sharpe – the aspirations of girls.

Related Posts

Evaluating the role of External Factors in Explaining the Gender Gap in Education

Explaining the Gender Gap in Education – The Role of Internal Factors

Feminist Perspectives on Family Life

Class Differences in Education – The Role of In school factors

 

This post looks as how in school processes such as teacher- pupil relationships, subcultures, banding and streaming and the Hidden Curriculum all relate to class differences in education

1. Teacher pupil relationships

Howard Becker: Labelling and the Ideal Pupil – In the 1970s, Howard Becker argued that middle class teachers have an idea of an ‘ideal pupil’ that is middle class. This pupil speaks in elaborated speech code, is polite, and smartly dressed, He argued that middle class teachers are likely view middle class pupils more positively than working class pupils irrespective of their intelligence.

Rosenthal and Jacobsen argued that positive teacher labelling can lead to a self fulfilling prophecy in which the student believes the label given to them and the label becomes true in practise.

2. Pupil Subcultures

Willis’ (1977) research involved visiting one school and observing and interviewing 12 working class rebellious boys about their attitude to school during their last 18 months at school and during their first few months at work. Willis described the friendship between these 12 boys (or the lads) as a counter-school culture. Their value system was opposed to that of the school. They Lads attached no value to academic work, more to ‘having a laff’ because they thought that their future work roles in factories would not require them to have qualifications. They saw school as irrelevant.

Mac an Ghail’s study of Parnell School (1994) – Found that there was a greater variety of working class subcultures that Willis’ research suggested. He found three types of subculture

  1. The Macho Lads – just like Willis’ Lads
  2. The Academic Achievers – these were working class kids who were doing well and tended to come from the upper end of the working classes
  3. The New Enterprisers – these focused on vocational subjects and were interested in business and technology – were still concerned with success rather than rejecting school.
  4. Class and gender- Boys from different class backgrounds experience school differently

Working class boys are generally under pressure to express traditional anti-school masculinities

Middle class boys are more likely to try hard at school, expressing their masculinity through being competitive in examinations

However, middle class boys still feel some pressure to be seen to not be making an effort in school.

3. The organization of teaching and learning

Banding and Streaming disadvantages the working classes and some minority groups – Stephen Ball (1980s) found that following comprehensivisation working class children were more likely to be put into lower sets

Bourdieu argues that schools are middle class environments full of teachers with middle class values and tastes

It has been argued that the absence of working class teachers with their distinct accents and dialects means that teachers fail to relate to working class children

Cultural Capital and Social class differences in educational achievement

cultural capital refers to the skills, knowledge, attitudes and tastes through which typically middle class parents are able to give their children an advantage in life compared to working class children.

Cultural Capital refers to the skills and knowledge middle class parents have that they can use to give their children an advantage in the education system.

A closely related concept is Social Capital – which is the support and information provided by contacts and social networks which can be converted into educational success and material rewards.

cultural capital

Three ways in which middle class parents use their cultural capital

  1. Middle class parents are better educated and are more able to help their children with homework
  2. Middle class parents are more skilled in researching schools
  3. Middle class parents teach their children the value of deferred gratification

Two ways in which middle class parents use their social capital

  1. They speak to parents of children who already attend the best schools
  2. They are more likely to know professionals who work in the best schools

Supporting evidence for the importance of cultural capital in education

Diane Reay (1988) – Mothers make cultural capital work for their children. Her research is based on the mothers of 33 children at two London primary schools. The mothers of working class children worked just as hard as the middle class mothers. But the cultural capital of the MC mothers gave their children an advantage.

Middle Class Mothers had more educational qualifications and more information about how the educational system operated. They used this cultural capital to help their children with homework, bolstering their confidence and sorting out their problems with teachers.

Stephen Ball argues that government policies of choice and competition place the middle class at an advantage. Ball refers to middle class parents as ‘skilled choosers’. Compared to working class parents (disconnected choosers) they are more comfortable with dealing with public institutions like schools, they are more used to extracting and assessing information. They use social networks to talk to parents whose children are attending the schools on offer and they are more used to dealing with and negotiating with administrators and teachers. As a result, if entry to a school is limited, they are more likely to gain a place for their child.

The school/ parent alliance: Middle class parents want middle class schools and schools want middle class pupils. In general the schools with more middle class students have better results.. Schools see middle class students as easy to teach and likely to perform well. They will maintain the schools position in the league tables and its status in the education market. 

Analysis point

For the sociologists in this section, the cause of lower class failure is the very existence of inequality itself in society and differences in power held by the working and middle classes.

The role of Cultural Capital – Evaluations

Cultural capital has proved difficult to operationalise and measure

However, more and more research suggests this is important in explaining middle class success and working class failure

Helps to explain why the Middle classes always do better despite compensatory education

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