The effect of cultural deprivation on education

cultural deprivation refers to the inferior values of the working class, including immediate gratification and fatalism.

Cultural Deprivation theory holds that some groups, such as the lower social classes, have inferior norms, values, skills and knowledge which prevent them from achieving in education. Inferior language skills, and the fact that working class parents do not value education are largely to blame for working class underachievement, rather than material deprivation.

You might also hear ‘cultural deprivation’ theory referred to as ‘working class subculture theory‘ reflecting the fact that this theory has its origins in the 1960s, details of which I cover below.

Cultural Deprivation and education

Cultural deprivation and education

Five ways in which cultural deprivation can disadvantage children in education include:

  1. Working class parents may show a lack of interest in their children’s education
  2. Lower class parents are less able to help their children with homework
  3. Lower class children are more likely to speak in a restricted speech code. Rather than the elaborated speech code- Basil Bernstein argued this.
  4. Working class children are more concerned with Immediate Gratification rather than deferred gratificationBarry Sugarman argued this.
  5. The underclass has a higher than average percentage of single parent families. Melanie Philips argued this.

Class subcultures and education

Cultural deprivation theory has its origins in the 1960s when sociologists thought there was a clear class divide between the working and middle classes.

All of the studies below suggest that working class cultures are deficient and that working class children are deprived as a result. These explanations thus put the blame for working class underachievement on the working class families themselves. In these explanations, working class parents basically teach their children norms and values that do not equip them for education in later life.

The value system of different classes

In 1967 Herbert H Hyman authored an article (1) titled ‘The value system of different classes’ arguing that the value system of the lower classes created a self-imposed barrier to them improving themselves.

Compared to the middle classes, the working classes:

  1. placed a lower value on education
  2. placed a lower value on achieving high occupational status
  3. Believed there was less opportunity for social advancement.

Hyman thus concluded that the working classes were less motivated to achieve in school than the middle classes.

Immediate and Deferred Gratification

Barry Sugarman argued that there were two distinct working and middle class subcultures which had different value systems. He argued there were four main differences, but the one he is best know for is the distinction between immediate and deferred gratification.

Values of the working class subculture

Compared to the middle classes, the working classes are more likely to have….

  1. Immediate gratification: a focus on seeking pleasure in the moment, rather than delaying pleasure for future reward. This encouraged working class children to leave school early to earn money immediately rather than staying on when they were 16-19 to gain higher level qualifications which would get them a higher paying job a few years later.
  2. Fatalism: an acceptance of one’s situation and a belief that one’s lot in life could not be changed. This meant working class children didn’t believe education could help them in life, they just accepted they would go into working class jobs which required no qualifications.
  3. Present-time orientation: a focus on the present and lack of desire to plan for the future.
  4. Collectivism: loyalty to the group, rather than the individual aspiration which the education system demands. A good example of collectivism could be in the lads which Paul Willis studied in Learning to Labour.

These combined values meant that working class children were disadvantaged compared to middle class children as the middle classes benefited from deferred gratification, motivation to improve, future-time orientation and individualism, which fitted with the values of the education system.

cartoon explaining the difference between immediate and deferred gratification

Recent evidence for cultural deprivation theory

Connor et al (2001) conducted focus group interviews with 230 students from 4 different FE colleges from a range of class backgrounds, some of whom had chosen to go to university and some who had not chosen to go to University. The main findings were that working class pupils are discouraged from going to university for three main reasons:

  • Firstly, such candidates want ‘immediate gratification’. They want to earn money and be independent at an earlier age. This is because they are aware of their parents having struggled for money and wish to avoid debt themselves
  • Secondly, they realise that their parents cannot afford to support them during Higher Education and did not like the possibility of them getting into debt
  • Thirdly, they have less confidence in their ability to succeed in HE.

Research by Leon Fenstein (2003) found that low income was related to the restricted speech code. His research revealed that children of working-class parents tend to be more passive; less engaged in the world around them and have a more limited vocabulary. Children from middle-class households had a wider vocabulary, better understanding of how to talk to other people and were more skilled at manipulating objects.

These studies actually show that cultural and material deprivation are related

Evaluations of cultural deprivation theory

  • If we look at ethnicity and gender differences in achievement – to triangulate, it does seem that cultural factors play a role!
  • It seems that it isn’t just cultural deprivation but also material deprivation that explains underachievement
  • Marxists would argue that cultural deprivation theorists blame the working class parents for the underachievement of their children whereas these parents are really the victims of an unequal society in which schools are run by the middle classes for the middle classes.
  • Both Hyman and Sugarman may have exaggerated the differences between working class and middle class culture, and especially today the class structure is much more complex.

This material is mainly relevant to the sociology of education, especially the topic of social class differences in educational achievement (home based factors).

Related Posts include:

The effects of material deprivation on education

The effects of cultural capital on educational achievement

Related External Posts – Useful 

Earlham’s Pages – do their usual ‘overwhelming for anyone but an A* students whose interested in Sociology approach’ (personally I like it though, then again I’m several levels above both of those criteria) – lots of contemporary links at the top (no summaries) and then a useful overview of ‘class subcultures’ below.

Factors influencing class based differences in educational achievement – probably written by a student but it’s quite a useful summary!


(1) Barry Sugarman (1970) Social Class, Values and Behaviour in Schools.

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