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Underachievement in Schools: Are Cultural Factors Responsible?

By marathongirl Feb 16, 2012 1527 Words
Lynne Knight Student No: 059034824th October 2011

Examine the view that cultural factors provide the most likely explanation for underachievement for some pupils.

In the society we live in, one of its major institutions is Education. In the National Curriculum, certain guidelines are set out for a National expected level of achievement for each year group. Some pupils achieve a much higher level than this guideline, whereas others fall significantly below this.

It is believed that a number of cultural factors are responsible for this wide range of achievements, even though pupils in the same school are exposed to the same lessons in the curriculum and information available within the school.

Various studies conducted and concluded by Sociologists to support this have been widely documented and one of the factors raised was that of parental attitudes from differing social classes from within the home. In his study of parents and their attitudes to education, J.W.B. Douglas believed that fundamentally, parental attitudes and values towards their children’s educations had a direct impact on their level of attainment. His observations concluded that parents of working class children were not as interested in their education as the parents within the middle classes and therefore education was not high on the list of priorities.

This view was echoed by Leon Feinstein (1998) whose belief was also that middle class parents provided a higher level of encouragement to their children. He talked also of a ‘Subculture’ which he believed existed abundantly within the working class. This ‘subculture’ was defined as one where those who belong to it have a different set of values and attitudes to the mainstream culture.

In support of both Douglas and Feinstein, Herbert Hyman (1967) also added that this ‘subculture’ of the lower class are a “self imposed barrier to education and career success” in that they do not believe that they have many career opportunities and so do not place great emphasis on it. Therefore they are more likely to leave school early to take on unskilled work.

Barry Sugarman (1970) elaborated the subculture barrier theory further, directing this again at the working class. He listed four key features of this subculture which pose a barrier to educational achievement.

The first was Fatalism, which was the belief that all events occur due to what happens to the individual and that proactivity on their part has no influence on the end result.

The second was Collectivism. This was defined as working class members seeing themselves as part of a group with no individual ideas or ambitions.

The third was Immediate Gratification, which meant seeking gratification in the present, as opposed to deferring gratification for any long term goals to be achieved.

The final key point made by Sugarman, was Present Time Orientation which meant the working classes generally made no plans for the future.

In further support of influences on education within the home, another study conducted on social classes in 1990 – 1991 indicated that the highest percentage of those aged 25 – 29 with the highest level of qualification had a father who was in a higher social class, hence the higher the social class, the higher the children’s level of educational achievement.

The emphasis of these Sociologists appear to have been put upon parental attitudes, therefore, the level of under attainment appeared to begin within the home, but the most common determining factor seemed to be attitude differences of parents between the social classes.

Another cultural factor which has been examined by sociologists is the subject of Poverty and how levels of income affect the educational achievements of children.

Studies undertaken by others such as Lisa Harker (2006) have concentrated on Material resources available which could have a direct influence on the level of attainment of a child. Harker talked of ‘Material Deprivation’, in her study of Poverty and the impact it had on a child’s education. She reviewed a study undertaken by the Housing Charity Shelter and concluded a number of factors which contributed to poor academic achievement due to impoverished conditions. One of these was cramped housing, which made the studying environment difficult. Lack of space also made illness more likely as the damp crowded conditions spread more bacteria and viruses and subsequently caused more absences from school. As there was also less space to play, this was likely to have a detrimental effect on cognitive development and so consequences of this included increased levels of aggression, depression and mental illness. Lack of material resources likely to have been caused by poverty, such as drawing and writing materials, books and educational toys were believed to have also contributed to impaired cognitive development.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (Platt 2007) suggested that as well as families being on low incomes being a strong factor for underachievement in schools, the ethnic groups of those families were significant. Although the study indicated that the ethnic groups who were underachievers also had low incomes, there were some ethnic groups who were inconsistent with this. For example, the highest rate of impoverished children were the Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Black Caribbean children compared to white children with a much lower rate in comparison. However, the levels of attainment between the Indian children and the Black Caribbean children were very different.

There is also some evidence to support this in a further study conducted in 2009/10 on pupils’ GCSE results at the end of Key Stage four. The study found that generally, those children who were on lower incomes had a lower rate of 5+ GCSE passes at grade A* - C than those on a higher income. However, it was found that the highest rate of achievement in both groups came from the Chinese ethnic group, followed by the Asian and then the Black Caribbean pupils. These were all groups considered to be generally lower income, which suggests inconsistencies with the ‘low income, low attainment’ theory. Reasons for this could be those which support the Parental Attitude and values theory voiced by JWB Douglas. The Chinese and Indian ethnic groups had a very strong work ethic, often working beyond what is considered ‘normal hours’. These strong values and ethics were instilled into their children from an early age and most likely therefore to have been applied to their education, hence the high rate of attainment.

Sociologist Basil Bernstein (1975) had an interest in education and how it can reinforce inequalities throughout society. He particularly paid attention to linguistic skills and developed the view that children adopted two distinct codes of language from and early age according to the social class they belong to.

The first was known as the ‘Restricted Code’. This was applied to the speech of working class children, the characteristics of this code being that of assumptions. A lot of what was said was not explained fully with reasons why. One of the influencing factors could have been that working class people lived in a strong community setting where norms and values were assumed and people interacted more as a group and therefore, following patterns of behaviour from each other meant less of a need to explain details. The parents of the working class children tended to use reprimands without explanation such as “Get down from that tree!”

The second code, applied to middle class children, was the ‘Elaborated Code’. This was a more articulate style of linguistics, where speech was more tailored to individual demands. For example, a parent using the elaborated code would be more likely to say “Get down from that tree! You will fall and hurt yourself.” There was more ability to express one’s ideas and opinions more freely and apply knowledge within a wider range of speech.

Bernstein believed that it was this speech code that was more appropriately matched to the language and speech codes used in schools. Therefore, working class children were at a disadvantage as their range of speech was not as wide as those using the elaborated code, leaving them open to misinterpreting information.

The speech code theory was supported in a study by Joan Tough (1976) who summarised that a child speaking in restricted code, i.e. from a working class background would be very likely to have received limited answers to questions at home and therefore not be well informed and also less inquisitive. She also suggested that they would have found it hard to adhere to codes of practice used in schools, due to having more difficulty interpreting the teacher’s language and not understanding information that is being conveyed.

Pierre Bourdieu (1986, 1988) developed the concept of ‘Cultural Capital’. This was a reference to the way in which the middle classes had a ‘wealth’ of knowledge, ideas, intellectual interests and an understanding of what was required of them to achieve well at school. This, like wealth, can be likened to Capital but in the cultural sense.

To summarise the cultural factors involved, it could be said that parental attitude, social class, income level including material resources, ethnic group and Cultural capital all contribute either individually or in conjunction with each other towards the under achievement of some pupils.

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