Teachers are the ‘front line’ of education, with the primary day to day responsibility students’ education and well-being.
If you want to understand the impacts that education policies are having on different types of student, then teachers are probably best placed to be able to tell you.
However, there are a number of potential problems when researching teachers:
Teachers have hectic working lives
Teachers work very long hours and often suffer with high stress levels, and they may not be willing or able to spend more time to engage with researchers.
For this reason questionnaires may be a better choice of method than interviews and observations may also be a good choice as these don’t really take up any time, but they could add to teacher stress, so it might be difficult to get teachers to agree to being observed.
The validity of information you get from teachers may be compromised because of their professional status.
Teachers are bound by the GDPR and have a duty of care towards their students and so probably will not share data about their students with researchers from outside of the school.
Teachers could also be concerned about ‘impression management’ – they may want to present themselves in the best light possible and some may feel duty bound to present their school in a good light, because to do so is good for marketing and student recruitment, which could limit the critical views you get from teachers as a researcher.
On the other hand, there are also ‘jaded’ teachers that are fed up with their jobs, and are just time-serving their way to retirement – if you got a group of these together in a group interview, you might just get unrepresentative biased moaning about how bad life is as a teacher.
If you want to gain access to teachers in a school you will have to approach the senior management team, and these may limit your access to the teachers you can research, possibly directing you towards the better and more compliant teachers to pain their school and the management in a positive light.
Even if you had unlimited access to teachers, they may not wish to be critical of the school for fear of this getting back to their superiors. In some schools there may well be very few critical teachers, and if research findings showed negative views of the school, in such cases it would probably be obvious which teachers were responsible for such negative comments, even if data was anonymous.
Home may be the best place to research teachers?
You don’t have to research teachers in their school setting don’t forget, you may get more valid information if you interview them in their homes, away from the school setting, away from the ‘front stage’ where they are performing their teacher role.
Will Britain Ever Have a Black Prime Minister? aired on the BBC IN 2017, which looked at the relative average life chances of a Black British child progressing through life… NB Thank you kindly to whoever uploaded this to You Tube (it won’t be there forever, the BBC have unjustly removed this from iPlayer already)
In the summary below I focus on some of the educational disadvantages black children face highlighted by the programme…
Teachers mark black children’s test scores more harshly than other ethnic groups
For in-school test scores, the scores for black British students are consistently lower throughout schooling, until we get to the actual GCSE Results, when the scores of Black British students increase dramatically, with Black African students actually overtaking white British students.
The suggested explanation for this is that in school tests are marked by teachers who know their students and thus know their ethnicity, and that they have an unconscious bias against black students, and thus mark their test scores at a lower level, while GCSEs are marked independently – the markers do not know the students who sat them, and thus do not know their ethnicity: when the tests are marked in a neutral, unbiased way, the scores of black and white pupils are much closer together.
This is backed up by research conducted by Professor Simon Burgess which compared the results of test scores marked by teachers who knew the students sitting the tests (and hence their ethnicity) with the results of tests marked independently, where the markers did not know the ethnicity of the students who sat the tests: the results for some ethnic groups were lower when the teachers knew the ethnicity of the candidates, suggesting that there is an unconscious bias against certain ethnic groups.
This seems to be pretty damning evidence that teachers hold an unconscious bias against black students
Black students are less likely to get three As at A level than white students
Here we are told that….
Only 4% of black children get 3 As or more at A level, compared to…
10% of white pupils
28% of independent school pupils, who are disproportionately white.
In fact, the programme points out that you are more likely to be excluded from school if you are black than achieve 3 As at A-level
This seems to be less an example of evidence against black students, rather than evidence of the class-bias in A level results.
The Chances of being admitted to Oxford University are lower for black students compared to white students
The programme visits Oxford University, because every single Prime Minister (who has been to university) since 1937 has attended this bastion of privilege.
We are told that black applicants are less likely to be accepted into Oxford University than White students, even when they have the same 3 As as white students.
In an interview with Cameron Alexander, the then president of the African students union, he comes out and says that Oxford University is ‘institutionally racist’ and that structural factors explain the under-representation of black students – he points out the dominant culture of Oxford University is on of elite, white privilege, one in which staff identify more with independently schooled children, who have benefitted from the advantages of huge amounts of material and cultural capital; while they fail to identify with the hardships a black child from an inner city area may have faced – the result is that privileged white student has a higher change of being accepted into Oxford than a black student, even when they have the same grades as a the privileged white student.
As with the example of test scores above, at first glance this evidence seems damning, however, Oxford University has previously explained this by saying that black students have a higher rejection rate because they apply for harder courses on average than white students.
So what are the chances of a black person ever becoming Prime Minister…?
In short, a black person has a 17 million to 1 chance of becoming Prime Minister, compared to a 1 in 1.4 million chance for a white person…
Or in short… a black person is 12 times less likely to become Prime Minister in the U.K. compared to a white person…
Unfortunately this programme has already disappeared from iPlayer, despite the fact that anyone in Britain with a T.V. has already paid for it, which is just bang out of order.
GCSE and A level statistics show us subject choices are very gendered – even in 2017, boys tend to choose typically male subjects and girls tend to choose typically female subjects.
Interactionist theory points to teacher stereotyping and labeling as one of the main explanations for these gendered differences in subject choice, but what evidence is there that teachers stereotype pupils along gender lines?
Almost a third (32%) of young people think that more boys choose STEM subjects than girls because they match ‘male’ careers or jobs. The perception that STEM subjects are for boys only is the primary reason that teachers believe few girls take up these subjects at school.
More than half of both parents (52%) and teachers (57%) admit to having themselves made subconscious stereotypes about girls and boys in relation to STEM, and over half (54%) of teachers claim to have seen girls dropping STEM subjects at school due to pressure from parents.
This research was based on a sample of 8,644 people in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, including 2,793 boys and 2,667 girls aged 7-16, 909 young men and 875 young women aged 17-23, and 1000 parents and 400 teachers.
The fact that this research is only based on a sample of 400 teachers, and the fact that the sample is online and random, raises questions about how generalisable these findings are to the wider population of teachers. We simply don’t know!
Labelling theory holds that if a teacher labels a pupil a certain way, they will accept that label and it will become true.
The labels which teachers give to pupils can influence the construction and development of students’ identities, or self-concepts: how they see and define themselves and how they interact with others. This in turn can affect their attitudes towards school, their behaviour, and ultimately their level of achievement in education.
Labelling refers to the process of defining a person or group in a simplified way – narrowing down the complexity of the whole person and fitting them into broad categories. At the simplest level labelling involves that first judgement you make about someone, often based on first-impressions – are they ‘worth making the effort to get to know more’, are you ‘indifferent to them’, or are they to ‘be avoided’.
According to labelling theory, teachers actively judge their pupils over a period of time, making judgments based on their behaviour in class, attitude to learning, previous school reports and interactions with them and their parents, and they eventually classifying their students according to whether they are ‘high’ or ‘low’ ability, ‘hard working’ or ‘lazy’, ‘naughty’ or ‘well-behaved’, ‘in need of support’ or ‘capable of just getting on with it’ (to give just a few possible categories, there are others!). (*See criticism one below).
According to a number of small-scale, interpretivist research studies of teacher labelling, the labels teachers give to students are sometimes based not on their behaviour but on a number of preconceived ideas teachers have about students based on their ethnic, gender or social class background, and thus labelling can be said to be grounded in stereotypes.
A closely related concept to labelling theory is the that of the self-fulfilling prophecy – where an individual accepts their label and the label becomes true in practice – for example, a student labelled as deviant actually becomes deviant as a response to being so-labelled.
Labelling theory is one of the main parts of social action, or interactionist theory, which seeks to understand human action by looking at micro-level processes, looking at social life through a microscope, from the ground-up.
Classic studies on teacher labelling in education
Most of the work of labelling theory applied to education was done in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Three classic works, summarised below include:
David Hargreaves (1975) Deviance in Classrooms
R.C. Rist (1970) Student Social Class and Teachers’ Expectations: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Ghetto Education
Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) Pygmalion in the Classroom (the ‘famous’ self-fulfilling prophecy experiment!)
David Hargreaves: Speculation, Elaboration, Stabilization
David Hargreaves et al (1975) in their classic book ‘Deviance in Classrooms’ analysed the ways in which students came to by typed, or labelled. Their study was based on interviews with secondary teachers and classroom observation in two secondary schools, focusing on how teachers ‘got to know their students’ entering the first year of the school.
Teachers have only a very limited idea about ‘who their students are’ as individuals when they first enter the school, based mainly on the area where they came from, and they thus have to build up an image of their students as the school year progresses. Hargreaves et al distinguished three stages of of typing or classification:
In the first stage, that of speculation, the teachers make guesses about the types of student they are dealing with. The researchers noted that there were seven main criteria teachers used to type students:
how far they conformed to discipline
their ability and enthusiasm for work
how likeable they were
their relationship with other children
whether they were deviant.
Hargreaves et al stress that in the speculation stage, teachers are tentative in their typing, and are willing to amend their views, nevertheless, they do form a working hypothesis, or a theory about with sort of child each student is.
In the elaboration phase, each hypothesis is tested and either confirmed or contradicted, and through this process the typing of each student is refined.
When the third stage, stabilisation, is reached, the teacher feels that ‘he knows’ the students and finds little difficulty in making sense of their actions, which will be interpreted in light of the general type of student the teacher thinks they are. Some students will be regarded as deviant and it will be difficult for any of their future actions to be regarded in a positive light.
Labelling and Social Class
A lot of the early, classic studies on labelling focused on how teachers label according to indicators of social class background, not the actual ability of the student.
Rist found that new students coming into the Kindergarten were grouped onto three tables – one for the ‘more able’, and the other two for the ‘less able’, and that students had been split into their respective tables by day eight of their early-school career. He also found that teachers made their judgments not necessarily on any evidence of ability, but on appearance (whether they were neat and tidy) and whether they were known to have come from an educated, middle class family (or not).
Labelling Theory and the Self Fulfilling Prophecy
Self Fulling Prophecy Theory argues that predictions made by teachers about the future success or failure of a student will tend to come true because that prediction has been made. Thus if a student is labelled a success, they will succeed, if they are labelled a failure, the will fail.
The reasons for this are as follows (you might call these the positive effects of labelling):
teachers will push students they think are brighter harder, and not expect as much from students they have labelled as less-able.
Building on the above point, a positive label is more likely to result in a good student being put into a higher band, and vice versa for a student pre-judged to be less able.
Positively labelled students are more likely to develop positive attitude towards studying, those negatively labelled an anti-school attitude.
The above may be reinforced by peer-group identification.
It follows that in labelling theory, the students attainment level is, at least to some degree, a result of the interaction between the teacher and the pupil, rather than just being about their ability.
A classic study which supports the self fulfilling prophecy theory was Rosenthal and Jacobson’s (1968) study of an elementary school in California. They selected a random sample of 20% of the student population and informed teachers that these students could be expected to achieve rapid intellectual development.
They tested all students at the beginning of the experiment for IQ, and again after one year, and found that the RANDOMLY SELECTED ‘spurter’ group had, on average, gained more IQ than the other 80%, who the teachers believed to be ‘average’. They also found that the report cards for the 20% group showed that the teachers believed this group had made greater advances in reading.
Rosenthal and Jacobson speculated that the teachers had passed on their higher expectations to students which had produced a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Criticisms of the labelling theory of education
Negative labelling can sometimes have the opposite effect – Margaret Fuller’s (1984) research on black girls in a London comprehensive school found that the black girls she researched were labelled as low-achievers, but their response to this negative labelling was to knuckle down and study hard to prove their teachers and the school wrong.
Given the above findings it should be no surprise that the Rosenthal and Jacobson research has been proved unreliable – other similar experimental studies reveal no significant effects.
Labelling theory attributes too much importance to ‘teacher agency’ (the autonomous power of teachers to influence and affect pupils) – structural sociologists might point out that schools themselves encourage teachers to label students – in some cases entry tests, over which teachers have no control, pre-label students into ability groups anyway, and the school will require the teacher to demonstrate that they are providing ‘extra support’ for the ‘low ability’ students as judged by the entry tes.
One has to question whether teachers today actually label along social class lines. Surely teachers are among the most sensitively trained professionals in the world, and in the current ‘aspirational culture’ of education, it’s difficult to see how teachers would either label in such a way, or get away with it if they did.
More Recent Research on Labelling Theory
Waterhouse (2004), in case studies of four primary and secondary schools, suggests that teacher labelling of pupils as either normal/ average or deviant types, as a result of impressions formed over time, has implications for the way teachers interact with pupils.
Once these labels are applied and become the dominant categories for pupils, they can become what Waterhouse called a ‘pivotal identity’ for students – a core identity providing a pivot which teachers use to interpret and reinterpret classroom events and student behaviour.
For example, a student who has the pivotal identity of ‘normal’ is likely to have an episode of deviant behaviour interpreted as unusual, or as a ‘temporary phase’ – something which will shortly end, thus requiring no significant action to be taken; whereas as a student who has the pivotal identity of ‘deviant’ will have periods of ‘good behaviour’ treated as unusual, something which is not expected to last, and thus not worthy of recognition.
This post has been written primarily for A-level sociology students, although it will hopefully be a useful primer for anyone with a general interest in this subject.
Official Statistics on schools, teachers and educational achievement provided by the United Kingdom government provide an overview of the education system. They are useful for providing an ‘introduction to the state of education in the U.K’, before embarking on the core content of any sociology of education course and providing a basis for comparing the U.K. education system to the education systems of other countries, which would be relevant to the module on global development.
I will also provide a brief discussion of the validity and representativeness of the official statistics below, tying this into research methods.
I only deal with state-schools in this post, I’ll do a separate post in future on private, or independent schools in comparison to state schools.
The Government spent 83.4 billion on education in 2015-16, or 4.4% of GDP, a decrease from 5.3% in 2011-12
The above chart, from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (link below), clearly shows you the extent of the Tory funding cuts to education since 2010.
There are 32, 142 schools in the U.K.
For an overview of the different types of school please see this post: different types of school in England and Wales (forthcoming post).
The majority of schools in England and Wales are state funded, and there are 5 times as many primary schools as secondary schools.
There are 21000 primary schools
There are 4100 secondary schools
This means primary schools are lot smaller in scale in that each of them has, on average, fewer pupils in them, and should be more ‘locally based for most parents; while secondary schools are a lot larger, will have many more pupils in them, have more of an ‘education factory’ feel to them and be more widely dispersed, meaning children will have to travel further to them.
There are 5.5 million pupils in primary schools in the U.K. and 3.8 million secondary school pupils (figures for state maintained schools)
The number of pupils in secondary schools decreased by 2.4% between 2011 and 2015
The number of pupils in primary schools increased by 8.3% between 2011 to 2015.
This probably reflects demographic trends in the United Kingdom (although by all means do verify this); if this is the case, it means we might reasonably expect to see an increase in secondary school numbers over the next few years.
There are 122 000 pupils in special schools, and 15 000 in pupil referral units
The numbers of pupils in both special schools and pupil referral units are increasing: between 2012 and 2016:
the number of students in special schools increased by 17,000, or 21%,
the number of students in pupil referral units increased by 2600, or 16.2%
A total of 14.4% of pupils have Special Education Needs
but only 2.8% of them have an SEN statement with a further 11.6% receiving SEN support, mostly within mainstream maintained schools.
Between 2010 to 2015 the number of pupils with special educational needs fell from 21% to 15%
NB – if you read this in conjunction with the previous chart, then it suggests that special educational needs students are becoming increasingly segregated into special schools and/ or pupil referral units, rather than being dealt with in mainstream secondary schools.
Another thing to note about the chart above is that it’s highly unlikely that the number of statemented SEN children are increasing while there’s been a fairly sharp decrease in non-statemented SEN kids, this has got ‘change in labelling’ written all over it as an explanation (no pun intended).
In 2015 the proportion of 16-18 year olds in education and work-based learning was 81.6%
This is he highest level since consistent records began in 1994
At age 16 the participation rate was 94.1%
At age 17 it was 87.8%.
At age 18 it was 63.8% (but of course, most of the ‘missing’ 36.2% will be in paid-work!)
NEETS – The number of 16-24 year-olds Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) across the UK has fallen to around 15%
There were 1.3 million students studying towards their first degree in 2015/16, an 8% increase since 2010/11
In 2015 there were 456 900 full time equivalent teachers in England and Wales
The overall number of teachers has increased over the last five years, but this increase is mainly in primary teachers. The number of secondary school teachers has actually decreased.
13% of qualified teachers drop out after just one year of teaching, and 30% drop out after five years of teaching
The current number of qualified teachers aged under 60 (and not in receipt of a pension from the Teachers’ Pension Scheme) that have worked in state funded schools in England and were not employed as at December 2013 is 227 100
How useful are these education statistics?
Such statistics are a useful starting point if we wish to make cross-national comparisons between the U.K. education system and the rest of the world, which would be useful for students of global development, given that education plays a key role in development. Indeed if we wish to compare the relationship between education and development in several countries, statistical rather than qualitative comparisons may be the only way of doing so.
From an arrogant, modernisation theory perspective, these statistics provide an indication of the level of investment required in terms of expenditure and teachers, and the types of outcome that less developed countries should be aiming for.
Most of the education statistics above count as ‘hard statistics’, i.e. there’s little room for disagreement over the ‘social facts’ which they show – for example, it’s hard to argue with the stats on ‘number of schools’ and ‘number of qualified teachers’.
However, others are much softer, and have more validity problems, and can be criticised for being social constructions rather than reflecting underlying reality: the statistics on special educational needs clearly come under this category – there is simply no way the underlying numbers of students with ‘SEN’ have decline from 21 to 15% in 5 years while the number of certificated SEN kids have increased – what’s really happened is that the number of kids which schools categorise as having Special Education Needs has decreased in the last 5 years, probably because the Tory’s cut previously existing funding for this category of student in 2010 (ish).
Links to statistics on education in the United Kingdom:
Most of the statistical sets below are updated yearly, or more frequently.
Education and Training Statistics for the U.K. – published by the department for education. In this source you’ll find data on the number of schools, teachers, and teacher-pupil ratios as well as basic educational achievement data by Free School Meals, gender and ethnicity. Published annually in November.
School Workforce in England – covers teacher numbers and pupil-teacher ratios in primary and secondary schools in England and Wales. Published annually every June.
Special Education Needs in England – details of children with special education needs, by type of need, and broken down by school type and gender (statistics derived from the ‘schools census’).
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