The Oxford Biblical Studies Online and Oxford Islamic Studies Online have retired. Content you previously purchased on Oxford Biblical Studies Online or Oxford Islamic Studies Online has now moved to Oxford Reference, Oxford Handbooks Online, Oxford Scholarship Online, or What Everyone Needs to Know®. For information on how to continue to view articles visit the subscriber services page.
Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD REFERENCE (www.oxfordreference.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2023. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single entry from a reference work in OR for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 07 June 2023

social class

A Dictionary of Education
Liz AtkinsLiz Atkins

social class 

A term which refers to societal hierarchies, expressed as the positioning of people within that society in relation to one another and determined largely by level of education and occupation and also to a great extent by the individual's economic value relative to other members of society. Social class is closely associated with culture and the cultural beliefs and practices of communities and, as such, forms an important part of personal identity. Because it is hierarchical, those individuals and communities who are at the bottom of the hierarchy are at increased risk of marginalization and social exclusion. Other characteristics which may lead to marginalization and social exclusion such as gender, race, sexuality, or disability, and which also form important aspects of personal identity, are heavily mediated by the social class of the individual. Social class is also closely related to power in society, since economic and political power is principally located with the middle classes—those who have been able to access high levels of education, exploit its advantages, and secure the economic rewards that this has offered.

Concerns around social class in an educational context are related to the significant class‐based inequalities within the education system. These inequalities relate to a situation where young people have widely differing educational experiences—and achieve widely differing outcomes—based on the cultural values, beliefs, and practices associated with education within their community and their physical access (largely determined by catchment area) to higher or lower achieving schools which often offer different types of curriculum. The English education system has historically been complicit in the reproduction of class structures and ensures that young people reach the age of 16 with the credentials and education appropriate to class‐specific occupations. These occupations and levels of credential reflect those that their parents achieved before them, an illustration of the notion of educational inheritance where those parents with limited educational and material resources are unable to generate academic profits for their children in the same way as those with more significant educational and material resources. Concerns related to access to education and educational outcomes within a class context exist in many education systems, particularly those of economically powerful countries with well‐established universal access to education.

Although government defines social class according to a wide range of categories and sub‐groups, it is unrealistic to discuss educational issues within the context of eight or more separate groupings, and in many texts a much broader differential is used and the terms ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’ (and occasionally ‘underclass’) are found. These relate to the social class of the parents of the young person, and are often used to illustrate inequalities in the education system. Hence, the term ‘working class’ has become synonymous with disadvantage and is used in the context of limited parental education and credentials, with occupations which might be defined as mundane, low‐pay, and low‐skill. However, this fails to differentiate the working class from the so‐called underclass, which constitutes the children of parents who either have never worked or are, in the long term, economically inactive. The term ‘underclass’ is synonymous with poverty, social exclusion, and marginalization. In contrast, the term ‘middle class’ is often used to imply advantage and is related to higher levels of educational achievement and professional, technical, or managerial occupations which provide security of tenure, opportunities for advancement and career progression, and high economic returns. In addition to parental social class, a commonly used measure of disadvantage in educational research is the number of children within a school who are eligible for free school meals, or, after 16, the number who are in receipt of the means‐tested Educational Maintenance Allowance.

There are strong social class correlations in the outcomes of national examinations and assessments and in government school league tables, in which schools in more affluent areas drawing from middle‐class catchments invariably dominate the top of the league, with the bottom dominated by schools in disadvantaged areas drawing from more socially excluded catchments. Some areas of education are more transparently class‐specific than others. For example, independent schools have a largely middle‐class intake, while the English further education colleges provide a predominantly skills‐based curriculum to young people from lower social classes. It has been suggested that the present post‐16 system in England offers tripartite ‘pathways’ which reflect the hierarchy of ancient Greek society described in Plato's Republic as well as contemporary social class structures. Within these pathways the academic ‘gold standard’ General Certificate of Education Advanced Levels, the full‐time vocationally orientated level 3 programmes (e.g. BTEC National Diploma), and the occupationally based National Vocational Qualification are the routes into higher education, training, and employment. However, the employment, salary, and thus the life opportunities which result from following the different routes are widely different, particularly for those who do not hold the necessary credentials to enter level 3 post‐16, and who have to undertake lower‐level vocational programmes. Historically, vocational programmes have tended to be regarded as of lower status than academic programmes. They are significant in the replication of classed (and gendered) inequalities and have been widely criticized for socializing young people into particular job roles.

Such class‐based differentials also extend to higher education, where, despite numerous policy initiatives intended to create more opportunities for less advantaged young people, proportionately more middle‐class young people enter university. Of those working‐class young people who do enter higher education, proportionately fewer attend high‐status institutions and proportionately more undertake their higher education programme within a further education setting. They are statistically more likely to withdraw before completing their programme and statistically less likely to achieve higher grades.

Because social class is a characteristic deeply intertwined with personal identity and associated with embedded societal structures, values, and practices it often leads to discrimination. This is multifaceted and takes place at all levels from the use of playground insults such as ‘snob’ or ‘chav’ to the direction of (mainly working‐class) low‐achieving 16‐year‐olds to vocational programmes which are held in lower esteem and provide fewer opportunities in terms of future income and education than the academic programmes to which the higher‐achieving (mainly middle‐class) young people are directed. Because of the complex relationships between social class, inequality, and discrimination, it is a fundamental issue in debates around social justice, equality, and inequality in education.

http://www.statistics.gov.uk/methods_quality/ns_sec/cat_subcat_class.asp Provides government definition of categories and sub‐groups of social class.

Liz Atkins