Social class and educational opportunities

Social class and educational opportunities is one of the most important issues of educational policy the last decades (Silver, 1973). This essay provides me the opportunity to analyze the relation between social class inequalities and education and to highlight that nowadays education cannot overturn inequalities. The first section of this essay is an attempt to define social classes and to give information about education the previous century, the second section is about the human rights in education, the third section gives useful information about the notion of meritocracy, the next section of this essay is about the findings of sociology of education about the educational inequalities, the next two sections explore the theories of cultural and social capital, and the theory of language codes, chapter seven is about the issue of social mobility which is associated with the equal opportunities of education, chapter eight is about the connection the connection between education and markets and economy. The last chapter is about the problem of ‘opportunity trap’.

1. Social Class and Education
It is quite important to analyse the concept of social class before we go into the procedure of analysis of this topic. There are structures that delimit the circumstances and restrict human behaviour in which individuals are socialized and they are transformed to social beings, the first attempt of identification of these structures was the theory of historical materialism (Hickey, 2000).
Marx and Engels were the first who had tried to analyze the structure and the struggles of social classes in the European capitalism of the 19th century (Hickey, 2000). According to Marx:
‘‘classes are large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in historically determined system of social production, by their relation to the means of production, by their role in the social organisation of labour, by the dimension of the share of the social wealth of which they dispose and their made of acquiring it’’ (Hill: 172).
Moreover, Frederick Engels who had tried to create an adequate theory to Marxism had claimed that social classes could be realised as a complex interaction based on three key aspects, social and economic background and political power, the extent of social mobility defines social class boundaries, class is not the only reason which causes tha social differentiation, in some situations political power and social background determine the social standing more than social class (Hickey, 2000).
Another approach of social classes based on the works of Weber, he believed that economic power is one of the most important factors which guides the construction of social classes, and that there is a connection between life chances, possession of goods and property and all of them are guided by the strict regulations of market exchange (Johnston, 2007).
On the other hand, definition of social class is quite difficult. According to Bourdieu:
‘‘class and class fraction is defined not only by its position in the relations of production, as identified through indices such as occupation, income or even educational level, but also by a certain sex-ratio, a certain distribution in geographical space (which is never socially neutral) and by a whole set of subsidiary characteristics which may function, in the form of tacit requirements, as real principles of selection or exclusion without ever being formally stated (this is the case with ethnic origin and sex). A number of official criteria in fact serve as a mask for hidden criteria: for example, the requiring of a given diploma can be a way of demanding a particular social origin’’ (Bourdieu, 1984: 96).
It is obvious that society is divided into social classes, there are people who have economic, social, and political power and people who live under conditions such as poverty. There is an inequality of opportunities among different social classes, those from the lower they do not have the same opportunities in many aspects of social life such as education. This is obvious if we consider that before the mid-20th century and the explosion of equal opportunities theories individuals from the lower social classes do not have equal opportunities (Young, 1961).
However, the last decades there was an attempt education to become more democratic and it is considered as a public good. According to Hodgson (1998):
‘‘education is no longer the exclusive preserve of a particular social class or the select few’’ (Hodgson, 1998: 8).
2. The Right to Education
The Supreme Court of United States in 1954 claimed that:
‘‘ [i]n these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he [or she] is denied the opportunity of an education’’ (Hodgson, 1998: ).
We can assume that education offers people the opportunity to live a better and successful life, and all people should have the right of access in education. As a result, many governments and global organisations try to raise the rates of access in education and to help people from the lower social classes to have equal opportunities. Many Covenants and Conventions have taken place around the world targeting on the promotion of equal opportunities in education.
In 1948, ‘The Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ (UDHR) has stated that:
‘‘Article 26
Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit’’(
In 1950, ‘The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms’ has stated that:
‘’First Protocol, Article 2
No person shall be denied the right to education’’
In 1966, the ‘International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ has stated that:
‘‘Article 13
1.The States Parties … recognize the right of everyone to education
2.To achieve [ing] the full realisation of this right:
a)Primary education shall be compulsory and available free to all
b)Secondary education in its different forms, including technical and vocational secondary education, shall be made generally available and accessible to all by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education
c)Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education’’
In 1989, the ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child’ has stated that:
‘‘Article 28
1.States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equality of opportunity, they shall, in particular:
a)Make primary education compulsory and available free to all
b)Encourage the development of different forms of secondary education, including general and vocational education, make them available and accessible … and take appropriate measures such as the introduction of free education and … financial assistance
c)Make higher education accessible to all on the basis of capacity’’
However, all of these are not policies, but international treaties, which help goverments to enact human rights to their countries. It is obvious that these treaties targeting on widening the access to education helping people from the lower social classes to have equal opportunities in education.
Moreover, if we study the educational systems in many European countries we will realise that all of these treaties were almost fulfiled, the majority of European countries have established compulsory education between the ages of 5 to 16 years old and compulsory education is free of charge
Furthermore, equal access to higher education is one of the most important dimensions of ‘Bologna Process’. According to London Communique in 2007:
‘‘Higher education should play a strong role in fostering social cohesion, reducing inequalities and raising the level of knowledge, skills and competences in society. Policy should therefore aim to maximise the potential of individuals in terms of their personal development and their contribution to a sustainable and democratic knowledge-based society. We share the societal aspiration that the student body entering, participating in and completing higher education at all levels should reflect the diversity of our populations. We reaffirm the importance of students being able to complete their studies without obstacles related to their social and economic background. We therefore continue our efforts to provide adequate student services, create more flexible learning pathways into and within higher education, and to widen participation at all levels on the basis of equal opportunity.’’(London Communique, 2007: 5).
It is obvious that all of these treaties helped to the reduction of social class inequalities in education, and, as a result, many people can assume that we live in a society which is based on the notion of meritocracy.

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3. The Notion Of Meritocracy
The notion of meritocracy assumes that every individual has the same opportunities in education and as a result is themselves which should be blamed for the failure in educational attainment, the concept of meritocracy is associated with liberalism which is rooted in Enlightment, liberalism constructs an aspect of society which is fair and egalitarian where people rise and fall and this function based on individuals merits, it represents a society which fair competition creates inequalities (Zamudio, Russel, Rios, & Bridgeman, 2011).
According to Young (1961):
‘‘Today all persons, however humble, know they have had every chance. They are again and again. If on one occasion they are off-colour, they have a second, a third and fourth opportunity to demonstrate their ability. But if they have been labelled ‘dunce’ repeatedly they cannot any longer pretend; their image of themselves is more nearly a true, unflattering, reflection. Are they not bound to recognize that they have an inferior status – not in the past because they were denied opportunity; but because they are inferior’’ (Young,1961, pp. 107-108).
The fact that we live in the era of meritocracy make us think that differences in educational attainment between children from different social classes do not exist anymore, and all students have the same opportunities. However, there are some sociological approaches which claim that there are still substantial differences.
4. Education and Social Inequalities
Although, there are policies that widening access in education, inequalities based on property and income very often determine educational attainment, it is obvious that students from the lower social classes have more chances and opportunities, however, there are still substantial differences (Hatcher, 2000).
There are some sociological approaches which support that education is a mean of social reproduction. Education creates inequalities and the children from the higher social classes use the distinctions created by schools to reproduce and reassure their position in the social structure (Tomlinson, 2005).
Pierre Bourdieu had stated that the educational system plays an important role to the reproduction both of power and symbolic relations across social classes, education reproduces the existing social structures (Banks, 1971). School prepares students for the role that they should fulfil in the contemporary society and economy, as a result, the manipulation of educational system is quite important (Banks, 1971).
Furthermore, Bowles and Gintis, had stated that differences in educational attainment between children from different social classes are attributed to the unfair distribution of resources and this is more important than the inequalities of the structural system of society (Cole, 1988). They believed that schools organisation promotes and support the reproduction and legitimation of inequalities, education prepares individuals for the capitalist economy and not for the expanded opportunities in their lives, education serves the capitalist economy and not the fair purpose of personal development (Bowles & Ginits, 1976).
School is one of the most important social institutions because it produces the next generations of workers, which some of them will have well-paid jobs and some students will not, as a consequence, produces the next generations of people that they will be placed in the higher social classes and people that they will be placed in the lower social classes reassuring the contemporary social structure and the capitalist economy (Hatcher, 2000). Education it is used by the higher social classes to reassure and secure their dominance over the lower social classes, people from the lower social backgrounds do not have the opportunity to influence policies and to be the main beneficiaries of them (Reay, 2001).
We can assume that the notion of meritocracy is just a myth because it does not examine some factors which cause inequalities such as capitalism, class, racism and patriarchy, equal opportunities in education act as an equalizer of inequalities but the notion of meritocracy and liberalism avoid to examine the contradictions that take place between this belief and the reality of inequalities in education (Zamudio, Russel, Rios, & Bridgeman, 2011). Although, many governments have tried to eliminate social class inequalities in education, many students from the lower social classes do not have equal opportunities. There are some sociological theories such as the theory of social and cultural capital, and the theory of language codes which highlight the educational inequalities.
5. Cultural and Social Capital
The social and cultural capital of students is a very important factor which enhances the inequalities in education. There are some sociologists who have tried to shed light on this issue with the theory of social and cultural capital (Bourdieu 1986, Coleman 1988, Hargreaves 2001).
According to Bourdieu (1986), cultural capital has three forms, the objectified, the embodied and the institutionalized state. The embodied state deals with the culture and the cultivation, and cannot be direct transmitted and depends on the investor’s personal investment (Bourdieu, 1986). The objectified state deals with the possession and access in cultural goods such as books and pictures and the institutionalized state deals with the original properties of cultural capital such as educational qualifications (Bourdieu, 1986). In the field of education cultural capital is quite important because according to Bourdieu (1973):
‘‘academic success is directly dependent upon cultural capital and on the inclination to invest in the academic market’’ (Bourdieu, 1973: 96).
Moreover, children from the higher social classes feel familiar with the school, they have better communication with the teachers and much more chances to succeed in school whereas the children from the lower social classes do not feel comfortable in school because the environment in school, is totally different with the environment in their homes (Dumais, 2002).
On the other hand, social capital is connected with the possesion and participation in a durable network based on institutionalized relationships of recognition, these networks provide to their members the ‘credential’ which render them capable of crediting in the various aspects of the social world (Bourdieu, 1986). The size and the connections that they take place in this network play an important role when we refer to the volume of this kind of capital, individuals that participate could have benefits from the connections with other individuals, in the form of cultural, symbolic and economic capital, howerer the reproduction and maintance of social capital demands a continuous effort of sociability (Bourdieu, 1986).
Moreover, Coleman (1988) he claimed that the only way to define social capital is by its operation, social capital is consisted of some different entities which they have two similar elements, the fact that they contain some perspectives of social structures, moreover, they support and make easier some certain actions within the social structure which are taken place by the individuals, social capital exists among the structural connections among individuals or corporate individuals, it comes from the changes among the relationships between actors that help and support certain actions (Coleman, 1988).
Furthermore, according to Hargreaves (2001), social capital can be understood as a both private and public good, its private form is quite important because helps individuals to succeed in their lives, as a public good is an essential component to the creation of communities, it helps people to create social groups and networks and when the social capital of these groups and networks becomes strong renders the participants capable of resolving much more easier their collective problems (Hargreaves, 2001).
These aspects of social and cultural capital render us capable of understanding, up to a point, the reasons of social class inequalities when we talk about equal opportunities in education. For example, the theory of cultural capital help us to realize that children form families with high cultural capital have access to cultural goods and of course their parents with their knowledge guide them and help them to succeed in school and university. In addition, there is also more interaction between the members of a higher social status family and children participate in conversation with adults whereas in the lower social status families, children do not participate actively in discourses with adults, as a result, these children should build alone their construction of reality (Banks, 1971).
It is obvious that education promotes these inequalities because there are not any effective educational policies which target on the elimination of cultural and social capital differences. Students with high social and cultural capital, have more chances to succeed in education. School’s culture represents the culture of the higher social classes and educational systems reinforce these inequalities (Dumais, 2002).
6. Language Codes
Apart from, the theories of social and cultural capital, there is another form of social class inequalities which promotes inequalities in education. The theory of language codes which based on the works of Basil Bernstein. Bernstein had tried, to connect the class differences in educational attainment with the class differences in the way which the different social classes use the language (Banks, 1971). In the late 1950’s and 1960’s Basil Bernstein had tried to give an explanation to the low school performance of children from the working class and this attempt was based on the theory of language codes (Silver, 1973).
Bernstein had stated that there are two different language codes, the restricted code which usually is used from the ‘working class’ families and the elaborated code that frequently used from the middle and higher social class families (Banks, 1968). Although, the majority of working class children used the restricted code the official language of school is the elaborated one, and this is obvious that affect badly the school performance of students from the lower social classes. This is obvious if we consider that when children go to the primary school, there are some students who already know how to speak and write the language of the school, as a result, there is a gap in the school performance between these students and the students who are not familiar with this language. Students who know who to write and read have more chances to do well in school. Unfortunately, there are not any educational policies to reverse these inequalities.
7. Social Mobility
The lack of policies which target on the elimination of inequalities in education, affects social mobility. The connection between education attainment and social class is very important and substantial because it correlates with the social mobility (Boudon, 1974), and it is obvious that the notion of social mobility would not have existed if social inequalities had not taken place in our society.
According to, Aldridge, social mobility:
‘‘describes the movement or opportunities for movement between different social groups and the advantages and disadvantages that go with this in terms of income, security of employment opportunities for advancement etc ’’ (Aldridge, 2001: 1).
Although, educational attainment improved across all the individuals from different classes, substantial differences according to social backgrounds still exist (Fitz, Davies, Evans, 2006). Social origin determines individuals destination and that it is obvious when we think that people with the same qualifications do not have frequently similar class destinations (Fitz, Davies, Evans, 2006).
The connection between social origin and educational attainment is extremely strong, there are four factors that determine this connection, firstly, the poverty, very often prevents children from the lower social classes to succeed in education because they do not have enough money to buy for example, their books, secondly, family plays an important role because it is very common for the families from the lower social classes not to have many expectations from their children when it comes to education, thirdly, the neighbourhood is very important factor because the social groups that people participate in are quite important, moreover, school-based factor determine in many cases the connection between social origin and educational attainment, because some schools do not have the appropriate funds to provide to their students qualitative education (Miliband, 2003).
It is obvious that social inequalities reduce the chances of social mobility, students from the higher social classes have more chances to have better educational careers and qualifications from students from the lower social classes (Shavit & Blossfeld, 1993), although, the existing notion of meritocracy and the educational reform and policies that have taken place the last decades. On the other hand, the ideas of equality of opportunities which are related to liberalism and meritocracy, helped many people from the lower social class to have different class destinations, especially, the 1960’s, because until then education was privilege of the higher social classes (Tomlinson, 2005).
However, a lot of students especially those from the lower social classes have not the same opportunities. Although, our society based on the notions of liberalism and meritocracy, there is a link between social class and educational attainment, prevent them from any chance of social mobility. It is obvious that without social mobility, inequalities based on social class will not be reduced. Moreover, nowadays, there is a connection between education and economy, as a result, inequalities become more obvious.
8. Education, Markets, and Economy
As it was mentioned before, the notion of meritocracy is associated with liberalism (Zamudio, Russel, Rios, & Bridgeman, 2011), this happens because it suits with the current, free market policies and theories (Crawford, 2010). Nowadays, education is an important factor because promotes and enhances the competitiveness and the economic productivity (Ball, 2008). The global economic competition has change dramatically the function and the purpose of education, education should prepare students to meet the demands of economy, the assumptions of economish clearly determine educational systems (Ball, 2008). Moreover, education should improve individual’s skills, it should create a productive workforce according to the theory of human capital (Tomlinson, 2005) which suggests that education and ability are crucial factors for individuals, because highly skilled people are more productive and as a result they can find a better job in the job market.
We live in the era of ‘knowledge economy’. This idea firstly introduced in a book of Drucker (1966) which called ‘The Effective Executive’, offering a clear description to the differences between the duties of a worker that work in his era, and the duties of a worker in the knowledge economy (Ball, 2008). The whole educational system should ensure and promote a base of specialised workers with the appropriate skills flexible and lifelong learning methods should replace the traditional methods supporting the idea of ‘knowledge economy’ (Ball, 2008).
Tony Blair in a speech when he was a Prime Minister (1997-2007) confirmed the important role of education as a mechanism of economic policy, however, the first sings of the forthcoming connection between education and economy appeared in 1976, when the Prime Minister James Callaghan stated that schools should prepare students for the needs of employers (Ball, 2008).
As a result, those who had been excluded from their right to education have not many chances to find a well-paid job, students from the lower social classes do not have the same opportunities in social mobility. It is obvious that without the appropriate educational policies, the connection between education and economy will make the inequalities in education much more obvious, reproducing the current social structure. However, as we have mentioned, nowadays, all people have more chances to succeed in education (Young, 1961), the majority of people have the right of access in education, but this, create another important social problem, the problem of the ‘opportunity trap’.
9. The Opportunity Trap

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