Sociology and Education

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Assess the sociological explanations for the educational underachievement of certain social groups, focus on gender, social class and ethnicity.

It has been said that education is a “major social institution”. According to functionalists socialization should be provided by education. In this way young people learn how to become contributing citizens by means of formal subjects. The hard work of these young people is rewarded by the acquisition of formal recognised qualifications. By teaching subjects, such as English, history and religion education promotes a sense of national identity. In addition, education is conducive to the passing on of norms and values to each successive generation. In its wake the economic needs of society are met by means of the creation of a workforce which is literate, skilled and hard-working.

Until the 1960s the education system in Britain was a tripartite system, whereby pupils were by the 11+ exam selected, for there levels of academic career: Grammar schools catered for the top 15-20 per cent of those who passed the 11+ and culminated in the preparation for GCE ‘O’ – an ‘A’ levels. Technical schools were aimed at pupils who showed more practical ability and resulted in qualification for engineers, skilled manual workers and technicians. Secondary Modern schools dealt with the majority of young people, 60%-70%, who achieved the lowest marks at 11+ and provided an education which suited less academic pupils.

The tripartite system was criticised because many working-class pupils failed to achieve their full potential. The feeling of failure was experienced by teachers, parents and pupils alike and gave rise to the self-fulfilling prophecy. Since the 1960s the tripartite system ha been replaced in most parts of the country by the comprehensive school system, whereby pupils can progress to secondary education without selective examination. Browne (2002, pg188-189) Although the comprehensive school system is more conducive to the principle of equality of educational opportunity, discrepancies of equality still remain. Researches by sociologists suggest that ethnic minorities tend to do less well than other members of the population. There are also important variations between and within ethnic groups with certain ethnic minorities which record particular achievement. In the 1980s the government-sponsored Swann Report (1985) as cited in Haralambos (2004,pg 773) found discrepancies between ethnic minority groups. This survey showed that Asians were more successful compared to the white students. However, The Swann Report noted that those of Bangladeshi origin did particularly badly.

There are other facts on ethnicity and underachievement, which mainly apply to African-Caribbeans, Pakistani and Bangladeshi minority ethnic groups. Male African-Caribbeans are over-represented in special schools for those with learning difficulties, and also between three and six times more likely to be permamently excluded from schools than white students for the same offences. Where schools are streamed by abilities, they are over-represented in the lower streams. Evidence suggests that they are placed in lower streams though when they achieve better results than white pupils some students are placed in higher streams.

Despite improvements in achievement for all ethnic groups, the differences between African-Caribbean and Pakistani pupils and their white peers is now bigger than it was ten years ago. They are more likely than other groups to leave school without any qualifications. Browne (2002, pg 239) These differences in educational achievement could be explained for several reasons, e.g. racism of teachers and white pupils, school processes (placing students in sets), structure of the educational system itself, parental influence and language differences. Teachers contribute to the poor educational performance of ethnic minority groups. According to The Swann Report (Swann, 1985) as cited...
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