Magoosh GRE


| March 14, 2015

Most of the developed economies such as the UK are faced with somewhat a paradoxical situation. Formal education, within such societies, tends to be available to all children and young people on a more or less equal basis (Brown & Lauder 2004). Furthermore, their education systems offer high quality experiences, are well resourced, and more likely to have sophisticated mechanisms that focus attention on the most disadvantaged groups (Brown & Lauder 2004). It is reasonable therefore to suppose that formal education equalizes the effects of different family backgrounds and that education will offer a route out of poverty especially to the most disadvantaged young people.
Evidence, however, seems to show that class continue to be a major determinant of the educational outcome for most young people. Education is supposed to be enabling and educative for all the young people in a way that challenges existing social structures, yet evidence suggests that youths from the working class and minority groups have generally been excluded from participation in education (Jenks 2003). It is apparent that the social and family backgrounds still play a decisive role in education that most young people receive in the UK, and impacts as well on their employment prospects. Rather than eradicating poverty, education seems to be confirming existing social hierarchies (Jenks 2003).
This analysis thus conducts a critical evaluation on the extent to which class continue to affect the success and experience of young people in education. A case study of education in the UK will be employed. Before we critically explore on the extent to which class continue to affect the success and experience of young people in education, it is worth examining what we mean by “class”?
Put in simple terms, “class” is a social relation. It is associated with the economic, social and political power and is evident in how institutions are organized; laws framed and how societal resources are distributed (France 2007). It is also a lived experience and is very much dependent on the family and community resources (Davies 1999). In this regard, “Social class” can therefore be defined as simply grouping together people and according them status within the society in accordance to the groups that they belong to.
The idea originates from the work of Pierre Bourdieu, an influential sociologist theorist. Working alongside other colleagues, Bourdieu developed the “cultural capital concept” during the early 1960’s to help address a particular empirical problem – the fact that economic obstacles did not provide sufficient explanation for the huge disparities in educational outcomes of children from different social settings (Bourdieu, et al., 1999). Bordieu argues that education institutions seem to be perpetuating and reproducing structured social inequalities by rewarding possession of elite cultural capital and establishing elitist standards which are biased in favour of the upper and middle class children at the expense of the others (Bourdieu, et al., 1999).
Following Bourdieu’s perspective, it is apparent that the higher education institutions in the UK have become one in which social class appear to play a significant role. Despite the widening participation, which has seen UK higher education expand to meet increased student demand, there are large socio-economic and ethnic gaps prevalent within the higher education institutions (Kehily 2007). The Higher Education Statistics Agency data indicate that most of the higher institutions in the UK which are perceived as being elite (with high status) tend to attract majority of young people from the higher social class as illustrated in the figure below (Osho 2011).
hbThe more prestigious universities such as those under the Russell group banner are a reserve for students from the upper social classes with those from the lower social classes and ethnic minorities being under-represented (Osho 2011).

Further, despite an increase in the enrollment of students in Universities, young people from the social disadvantaged background seem to be enjoying less success within the higher education. Research by Andy Furlong and Alasdair Forsyth from the University of Glasgow detailed barriers to the success of these students in higher education. Their report which is based on a study of school leavers in Scotland found that such students were more likely to prematurely reduce their participation levels in higher education by foregoing the opportunity to progress to the more advanced courses and may as well drop out of courses (Furlong & Forsyth, 2003). Also, the researchers found that such students were more likely to follow complicated paths namely: deferred enrolment, switching, and repeating or restarting their courses (Furlong & Forsyth, 2003).
Moreover, research by Smithers & Robinson (1996) confirms that while there had been a widened participation in higher education institutions, only a small proportion represented those from the lower social classes. For example, in 1995, only 9% of the young people admitted to the higher education institutions in Britain were from the unskilled and semi-skilled backgrounds, 29% were from skilled backgrounds while the vast majority 62% came from the professional and associate professional family backgrounds (Smithers & Robinson 1996).
Class distribution of entrants to higher education in Britain during the year 1995arv

It is clear that young people from the two lowest social classes (unskilled and semi-skilled backgrounds) are highly under-represented in higher education institutions accounting for only 9% of the entrants. Those from the middle social classes are under-represented to a lesser degree accounting for 29% of the entrants whilst those form the two highest social classes (professional and associate professional backgrounds) are over-represented accounting for more than 61% of entrants.
More recently, a report by the Department for Education and Skills in England (DfES, 2006) reviewed the educational outcomes for the ethnic minorities of ages 7, 11, 14 and 16. The study found that the mean score of the Black African, Black Caribbean, Bangladeshi and Pakistani students were below that of the white British peers (DfES, 2006). In providing an explanation for the educational outcomes of such ethnic minorities, the study revealed that the huge ethnic gap was largely due to the substantial differences in their socio-economic status (DfES, 2006).
Education can be both challenging to existing power structures and also enhancing democratic development. However, in its current configuration, education is implicated in creating, enhancing and reproducing inequality. Most of the education systems continue to be controlled by institutional differentiation where in students from upper classes tend to be favoured more, with most of them occupying institutions of higher status and achieving better grades than those from the lower and middle classes. Clearly, social class still plays a decisive role in the success and experience of young people in education.
Bourdieu, P. et al., 1999. The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society, Cambridge: Polity
Brown, P. and H. Lauder, 2004. ‘Education, Globalization and Economic Development’, In: Ball, S. (Ed.) The Routledge Falmer Reader in Sociology of Education, London: Routledge Falmer.
Davies, 1999. ‘Subcultural Explanations and Interpretations of School Deviance’, Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 4 (2)
DfES, 2006. Ethnicity and education. London: DfES. Available from:
[Accessed on 2nd February 2012}.
France, A., 2007. Understanding Youth in Late Modernity, Maidenhead, Open University Press.
Jenks, C., 2003. Transgression, London: Routledge.
Furlong, A. and A. Forsyth, 2003. Socio-economic disadvantage and experience in higher education. Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Kehily, M.J., 2007. Understanding Youth: Perspectives, Identities and Practices, London: Sage and Open University Press.
Osho, Y., 2011. “Post 2010: Opening up Oxbridge and Russel Group Universities”, the sociological imagination. Available from {Accessed 3rd February 2012}
Smithers, A. and P. Robinson, 1986. Trends in higher education. London: CIHE.

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