Just how extensive is educational inequality in Britain today? As a registered blind artist and student,I will critically assess the different explanations that have been advanced to account for educational inequalities.

It’s true to say that whilst studying at Blackburn College and the University Centre Blackburn College I have witnessed at first hand educational inequalities and seen discrimination and avoidance of disability issues and I feel it needs wide research and highlighting not just at Blackburn


Many researchers in the field of education, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s, assumed that inequality of educational opportunity was decreasing and would continue to decrease. In Britain the 1944 Education Act provided free secondary education for all. Since that date there has been a rapid expansion of higher education coupled with an increased availability of grants from various bodies to provide support for those who wish to continue studying beyond secondary level. It was assumed that this would provide greater opportunity of access to all levels of the educational system and as a result the level of attainment of working-class students would increase. A.H. Halsey examined these assumptions using evidence from the Oxford Mobility Study which was based on a sample of the British population in 1972.

Halsey divided the sample into two age groups: those born between 1913 and 1931 and those born between 1932 and 1947. The first group was educated before the 1944 Act, the second after. He then examined the social class origin of university graduates in the two age groups.

The results indicated that the numbers of graduates from all social classes had increased. However the proportions of graduates from each social class had changed little over the years. The percentage of members of class 8 – father is an agricultural worker (including small holders without employees), who gained university degrees had risen from 0.9 to 1.8%; while the percentage of class 1 – father is a professional, high managerial and large proprietor had risen from 15.0 to 27.0%. Class inequalities were highlighted when Halsey presented his data as follows: an extra 1.5% of working-class children went to university after 1944 compared with an extra 13% from upper middle class. Halsey concluded that these figures showed “no clear trend towards the elimination of class inequality in educational attainment” and claimed that his most significant finding is “the persistence of influences which flow from class origin to educational attainment”.

Halsey’s conclusions from university education are echoed by those of J.W.B. Douglas for secondary education. His longitudinal study of pupils in primary and secondary education can be seen as a test of the effectiveness of the 1944 Education Act, since it traced the career of a large sample of British schoolchildren to the age of sixteen in 1962. Douglas found that the proportions of pupils with manual and non-manual backgrounds who obtained grammar school places were similar to those before 1944 (maybe the current Conservative Government should review his writings, as they talk about re-introducing the grammar system soon).

Halsey concluded that “the middle-class pupils have retained, almost intact, their historic advantage over the manual working class”.

Raymond Boudon questions the validity of conclusions drawn from the studies of higher education, such as Halsey’s, and studies covering a short time period, such as that of Douglas. He claimed that statistics on secondary education over relatively long time periods indicate a slow but steady decline of inequality of educational opportunity. Support for his claim is provided by a study based on British data conducted by Westergaard and Little.

Maybe it is this that today’s Conservative government are taking their lead from, as it’s clear that Westergaard and little noted, the expansion of grammar school places has benefitted children from all social classes. However the data indicated a long-term trend towards reduction of inequality of educational opportunity. Comparing children from unskilled and semi-skilled manual backgrounds born before 1910 with those born in the late 1930’s, the proportion who obtained a “grammar school type” of education was ten times greater. Comparing the same two age groups from professional and managerial origins, the proportion was only 1.7 times greater.

Thus the rate of increase in proportion of working-class children attending grammar school is much higher than for those with professional and managerial backgrounds. A somewhat different picture is derived from comparing the proportion not receiving a grammar school type of education. Over the time period covered by Westergaard and Little, the proportion of the top social group not receiving a grammar school education was reduced by nearly a half. However, the reduction over the same period for the lowest social group was only one tenth. Thus over thirty to forty years, out of every hundred children, the top social group had been able to send an additional twenty five to grammar school, the bottom group only nine (food for thought for the current government).

As Westergaard and Little noted, conclusions about changes in inequality of educational opportunity will depend on “the relative weight one attaches to the proportion achieving, as compared with the portion who fail to achieve, selective secondary schooling”.

I feel it is difficult to reach firm conclusions about changes in inequality of educational opportunity. The statistics can be presented and interpreted in a number of ways. In a survey of data from a number of European countries, Boudon found similar trends to those indicated by Westergaard and Little’s study. Indeed, he concluded that “Western societies are characterised by a steady and slow decline of inequality of educational opportunity”.

Westergaard and Little reached a more pessimistic conclusion. They argued that even the most favourable interpretation of the evidence leads them to conclude that “this long-term trend towards a reduction of social differentials in educational opportunity at the secondary stage is moderate and limited”.

The functionalist view of the relationship between education and occupation argues that educational attainment in advanced industrial societies is increasingly linked to occupational status. There is a steady move from ascribed to achieved status and education plays an important part in this process. Educational qualifications increasingly form the basis for the allocation of individuals to occupational statuses. Thus, there is a “tightening bond” between education and occupation.

Using data from the Oxford Mobility Study, A.H.Halsey found some support for this view. He divided the sample into two age groups, those aged from forty to fifty-nine and those aged from twenty-five to thirty-nine in 1972. Comparing the two groups, he found that the direct effect of education on an individual’s first job is high and rising (the coefficient of correlation for the first group was 0.468, for the second 0.522), and the direct effect of education on an individual’s present job was also rising (from 0.325 to 0.345). Halsey concluded that occupational status is increasingly dependent on educational attainment but he also found that the effect of the father’s occupational status upon the son’s educational attainment was also rising. He wrote “The direct effect of the class hierarchy of families on educational opportunity and certification has risen since the war”. Thus social background has an increasing effect on educational attainment at the very time when the bonds between education and occupation are tightening. This leads Halsey to conclude that “education is increasingly the mediator of the transmission of status between generations”. Privilege is passed on more and more from father to son via the educational system. From this viewpoint education can be seen as a mechanism for the maintenance of privilege rather than a means for role allocation based on meritocratic principles.

In the USA, an important publication by Christopher Jencks and his associates entitled “Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America”, attempted to assess, among other things, the relationship between educational attainment and occupational status and income. Jencks’s re-analysed a large body of statistical data collected by sociologists and administrators. He found a fairly close relationship between occupational status and educational attainment claiming that “education explains about 42% of the variance in status”. However, he argues that to some degree this relationship is inevitable since education is a major determinant of occupational status. He writes “Americans are impressed by people with a lot of schooling, and they are deferential towards occupations that require extensive schooling”. However, Jencks does not find what he regards as “enormous status differences among people with the same amount of education”.

Jencks found a surprisingly weak relationship between educational attainment and income. He estimated that on average, the completion of high school adds between 10% to 12% to an individual’s income, and college education adds a further 4 to 7%. However, the rate of return is higher for White middle-class males and less for White working-class males, Blacks and females. Jencks found that none of the expected factors were strongly related to income. He stated “Neither family background, cognitive skill, educational attainment nor occupational status explains much of the variation in men’s income. Indeed when we compare men who are identical in all these respects, we find only 12 to 15 percentage less inequality than among random individuals”. Jencks therefore concluded that educational attainment has relatively little effect on income.

Jencks’s findings have produced a storm of protest, largely because they suggest that as an instrument of social change, education is relatively impotent. In particular, his methodology has been strongly criticised. Several critics have argued that Jencks’s disillusionment with education as a means for producing greater equality strongly influenced his methods and the interpretation of his data. For example, James Coleman refers to his “skilful but highly motivated use of statistics”, (quoted in Karbel and Halsey, 1977, p.23). Thus, though Jencks’s findings have not been disproved, they are regarded with some caution.

If Jencks’s findings are correct, they constitute a rejection of the liberal view of the role and promise of education in society. Particularly during the 1960’s and 1970’s, 1980’s, 1990’s and now many liberals have argued that equalising educational opportunity will reduce economic inequality and we’ve seen the changes from grammar and secondary modern schools to comprehensive schools, from polytechnics to universities, from sixth forms to university centres.

Liberals have argued in particular that, if educational attainment of the poor and the working class in general improves relative to the rest of society, their bargaining position in the market will show a corresponding improvement. This view has been supported by many economists and politicians over the decades. Lester C. Thurow summarises their arguments as follows: increased educational attainment will increase an individual’s skills, his productivity will therefore rise and with it his income. It will also reduce the supply of low skill workers; increase the demand for their services, which will lead to an increase in their wages. The increased supply of highly skilled workers will tend to reduce their wages. The net result is that productivity rises, more money is made available for wages and wage differentials decreases. Education at one at the same time increases output and reduces economic inequality in society. In America, as Thurrow shows clearly, this has not happened. The rate of growth of productivity was well behind the rate of growth in educational attainment. The rapid expansion of higher education and the flood of college graduates appeared to have had little effect on economic growth. Thurrow also rejects the view that a reduction in inequality of educational opportunity produces a reduction in economic inequality. Measured in terms of years of schooling, there has been a reduction in inequality of educational opportunity in the USA from about 1950 to 1970. However from 1949 to 1969 inequality in distribution of income increased.

Thurrow concludes that “our reliance on education as the ultimate public policy for curing all problems, economic and social, is unwarranted at best and in all probability ineffective”.

Jencks’s disillusionment with liberal views of the promise of education grew steadily during the 1960s as he observed the failure of the war on poverty which was spearheaded by a drive to improve the educational attainment of the poor. He rejected liberal views on a number of counts. Firstly, he argued that they put the cart before the horse. He echoes many of the views given in this assignment by maintaining that inequality of educational opportunity can only be reduced by first reducing inequality in society as a whole. He stated, “Equalising opportunity is almost impossible without greatly reducing the absolute level of inequality”. However Jencks’s main contribution lies in his claim that educational attainment bears little relationship to income. If he’s correct, then a reduction of inequality of educational opportunity will have little effect on income inequality. His evidence suggests that equalising educational opportunity would do very little to make adults more equal.

Jencks carries his argument one stage further by suggesting that even if everybody had the same educational qualifications; income inequality would be little changed. He states, “Giving everyone more credentials cannot provide everyone with access to the best paid occupations. It can only raise earnings if it makes people more productive within various occupations. There is little evidence that it will do this. If this argument is correct, equalising everyone’s educational attainment would have virtually no effect on income inequality”. Put simply, there are well paid jobs and badly paid jobs. If everyone had the same educational qualifications, some would still end up in well paid jobs, others in badly paid jobs.

Jencks thus rejected the view that reforms in the educational system can lead to significant changes in society as a whole. His main concern was equality in income. He argued that a more equitable distribution of income requires direct government intervention in the economic system rather than “ingenious manipulations of marginal institutions like the schools”. Direct political actions necessitate a commitment to the ideal of equality. He concluded by saying, “The first step toward redistributing income is not, then, devising ingenious machinery for taking money from the rich and giving to the poor, but convincing large numbers of people that this is a desirable objective”. Thus Jencks sees changes in values rather than changes in educational system as the route to the kind of society he wished to see.

I believe that by defining schools as “marginal institutions” Jencks has relegated them to the side-lines of any radical policy to change society. Karabel and Halsey reject this view arguing that Jencks has ignored what actually goes on inside schools, how they legitimate success and failure, how they justify social stratification, how they legitimate inequality in society as a whole. Karbel  and Halsey provide a timely warning in their criticism of Jencks, “Though it brilliantly demolished the peculiarly American myth that school  reform can serve as a substitute for more fundamental social change, inequality may unfortunately have replaced it with another equally destructive myth: that viable strategy for social equality can afford to ignore the schools”.

I believe that like other members of society, we artists are committed to, or at least influenced by political ideologies and values. To some extent, this will affect our choices of theoretical perspectives, our methodology and our interpretation of data. Much of the criticism within the field of education has been levelled at the ideological assumptions and value judgements which are presumed to underlie the various viewpoints. I will try to briefly examine this criticism.

Functionalist perspectives are often criticised for having a conservative bias, a prejudice in favour of maintaining things the way they are. The functions of education outlined by Durkheim, Parsons and Davis and Moore are often similar to the “official versions”, presented by government departments. As such they are accused of uncritically accepting the establishment view and in doing so, supporting it. Their conservative viewpoint may prevent them from considering many of the possible dysfunctional aspects of education. A more radical political standpoint and less apparent commitment to the dominant values of their society may well produce a very different picture of the role of education in society.

For too long, we have been preoccupied with the question of inequality of educational opportunity. Morally it’s felt to be wrong and it’s also fitted government policy which for successive governments has been concerned with getting the best return on investment in education. The “wastage of talent “involved in unequal educational opportunity has reduced the efficiency of the educational system in meeting the demands of the economy. For decades it has been argued that a commitment to liberal ideology has influenced this type of research, directed the question asked and the answers provided. Liberalism is concerned with reform within the framework of existing social institutions. It does not advocate radical change.

Thus theories such as cultural deprivation and solutions such as compensatory education suggest a reform of existing institutions rather than a revolutionary change in the structure of society. Many social scientists appear to operate from the viewpoint that education is a good thing and that reforms in the educational system will lead to progressive social change in society which, while far from perfect, is heading in the right direction. Particularly during the 1970s, sociologists such as Michael Flude argue that reforms such as compensatory education can “be seen as part of a persuasive liberal ideology that diverts attention from the exploitive and alienating practices of dominant classes and the need for fundamental social change”.

I argue, as an registered blind artist and student, that a liberal ideology, with its emphasis on reform rather than radical change tends to prevent a critical examination of the structure of society as a whole.

The ideological basis of liberal reforms has also been attacked by the interactionists. Supporters of compensatory education have been accused of basing their views on a commitment to middle-class values. Thus lower working class subculture is judged to be deficient because it is evaluated in terms of middle class standards. Nell Keddie suggests that the uncritical acceptance by many social scientists of teachers’ definitions of knowledge and ability is based on the fact that both teachers and social scientists share the same middle class prejudices. She maintains that the middle class values of many social scientists limit their vision and therefore prevent them from asking important questions. However, the interactionists themselves have been criticised for their value judgements, for their commitment to cultural relativism and what Bill Williamson calls their “romantic libertarian anarchism”. By this I believe he means that the views of some interactionists seem to be coloured by unrealistic commitment to a vision of society without government in which everybody is free to express themselves in their own way, in which all knowledge and all views are equally valid. Williamson suggests that this view is a romantic dream with little or no chance of translation into practice. As such it diverts attention from a realistic consideration of the nature of power in society.

By comparison with the above viewpoints, the ideological bases of Marxian perspectives are clear cut. They begin from value judgement that capitalist societies are exploitive, repressive and anti -democratic.

This should not, however, detract from their usefulness. They lead to interpretations of the role of education in society which might not be possible if society as a whole were not examined from a critical stance. As Bowles and Gintis state, “As long as one does not question the structure of the economy itself, the current structure of schools seems eminently reasonable”. Many of the questions that Marxists such as Bowles and Gentis ask derive directly from their commitment to socialism. At worst, their answers provide a fresh and stimulating view of the role of education in capitalist society.

So we artists, just like social scientists, like everyone else, are people of our time. As such our views will tend to reflect those that are current in wider society. Karabel and Halsey suggested that changing views in sociology of education are shaped more by changing times than by the logical march of a scientific discipline. They argue this is particularly true of the move from functionalist to Marxian perspectives.


Word count 3,260.










Halsey, A.H. – “Government Against Poverty in School and Community” in Wedderburn, 1974

“The EPAs and their Schools” in Eggleston, 1974

“Towards Meritocracy? The Case of Britain” in Karabel and Halsey, 1977

“Whatever Happened to Positive Discrimination” – The Times Educational Supplement 21st January, 1977

“Education, Economy and Society” – The Free Press, New York, 1961

Douglas, J.W.B – “The Home and the School” – MacGibbon & Kee, London, 1964

“All Our Future” – Peter Davies, London, 1968

Boudon, R. – “Education, Opportunity and Social Inequality” – John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1974

Westergaard, J. and Little, A – “Educational Opportunity and Social Selection in England and Wales: Trends and policy Implications” in Craft, 1970

Jencks, C. – “Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and schooling in America” – Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1975

Karbel, J and Halsey, A.H – “Power and Ideology in Education” – Oxford University Press, New York, 1977

Thurow, L.C – “Education and Economic Equality” – in Karabel and Halsey, 1977

Durkheim, E – “Moral Education” – The Free Press, Glencoe, 1961

Parsons, T – “The School Class as a Social System” – in Halsey, Floud and Anderson, 1961

Davis, K and Moore, W.E. – “Some Principles of Stratification in Bendix and Lipset, 1967

Flude, M. –“Sociological Accounts of Differential Educational Attainment” – Flude and Ahier, 1974

Flude, M. and Ahier, J. – “Educability, Schools and Ideology” – Croom Helm, London, 1974

Keddie, N. – “Classroom Knowledge” in Young, 1971

“Tinker, Tailor …. The Myth of Cultural Deprivation” – Penguin Books,     Harmondsworth, 1973

Williamson, B – “Continuities and Discontinuities in Sociology of Education” – in Flude and Ahier,                                                                                                                          1974

Bowles, S. and Gintis, H. – “Schooling in Capitalist America” – Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1976


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