Mapping Differential Educational Achievement

Differences in UK educational achievement are normally categorised across three main dimensions – class, gender and ethnicity – of which the former is generally seen by sociologists of education as the primary determinant of achievement differences (as measured by exam grades), while gender and in some instances ethnicity is generally preferred by politicians and media commentators – Our schools are failing boys, which is bad news for Britain – for reasons that shouldn’t be too difficult to understand (although that, perhaps, is a story for another time).

Ken Browne (Sociology for AQA, Vol. 1: AS and 1st-Year A Level), for example, captures this often-complex hierarchy by structuring achievement in terms of class (the primary determinant), with gender and ethnicity as secondary determinants. As can be seen from this graphic the argument here is that differences in educational achievement are primarily class-based (upper class children achieve more than working class children) with gender / ethnic gradations within each class.

This graphic is helpful because it provides a simple visual representation that allows students to understand not just within-class differences, (between for example boys and girls) but also cross-class differences; upper class boys, for example, generally achieve more than working class girls. By understanding this students should be able to construct more-nuanced answers to questions about differential achievement.

Taking It Further?

If you’re following the AQA Specification, where Education is a 1st year A-level module, the above will probably suffice in terms of depth of understanding. If you’re following the OCR or CIE Specifications however, where Education is a 2nd year A-level module, you might want to take things a little further by looking at the interrelationship between class, gender and ethnicity summarised through two different approaches (combination and separation) taken from the Cambridge International AS and A Level Sociology Coursebook.


Combination approaches are particularly associated with Marxist perspectives and argue class is the primary source of educational disadvantage, with gender and ethnicity as secondary sources that appear within classes:

• Claire (2004) notes “a strong direct association between class background and success in education: the higher a child’s class, the greater their attainments”.

• Mac an Ghaill argues social class origins remain the single best predictor of educational success or failure, as evidenced by Table E2, using parental occupation as an indicator of class.

Table E2: 5 or more GCSE grades A* – C or equivalent at age 16: Source: Hughes and Church (2010)

Percentages 2008 2002 1989
Higher professional 81 77 52
Lower professional 75
Intermediate / skilled manual 61 52 21
Lower supervisory 47
Routine manual 43
Other/not classified 37 32 12

Evidence for this interpretation is based on comparing differences in gender and ethnic attainment within the same classes. Taking the UK as an example, among the very poorest, those at the lower end of the class scale, there is no decisive evidence girls outperform boys within this group. The picture is broadly similar across all class groupings; although in the 7 – 14 age range there are substantial differences between girls and boys in English (averaging around 10%) the same is not true for Maths and Science (an average 2% difference).

In terms of ethnicity, Asian Indians achieve higher than average educational qualifications when compared to most other ethnic groups (Table E3); however, this group also has higher than average levels of educational underachievement which again suggests social class is a more significant determinant of achievement.

Table E3: 5 or more GCSE grades A*-C by ethnicity: Source: Babb et al.

Percentages 1989 1992 1996 1998 2000 2002 2004
Indian N/a 38 48 54 60 60 72
White 30 37 45 47 50 52 54
Bangladeshi N/a 25 25 33 29 41 46
Pakistani N/a 23 23 29 29 40 37
Black 18 23 23 29 39 36 35

Overall, Gillborn and Mirza argue that of “these three best known dimensions of inequality”, in terms of disparity in achievement:

• gender is the narrowest.
• ethnicity is the next highest.
• class is the highest.

They caution, however, against “the trap of simply arguing between various inequalities”: how and why inequalities combine and are compounded is more significant than simple class or gender or ethnic differences.


The main argument here is not that gender and ethnicity are necessarily more significant than class as determinants of educational achievement; rather, the former are important dimensions of inequality that must be considered as factors in their own right. Evidence to support this argument comes from holding social class constant and measuring achievement differences in terms of gender and ethnicity. In this respect there are small but consistent gender differences in attainment across all social classes; while girls overall consistently outperform boys at GCSE (Table E4), the same is true for achievement within classes:

• working class girls perform slightly better than working class boys.
• middle class girls achieve more than middle class boys.

Table E4: 5 or more GCSE grades A to C or equivalent by gender: Source: Hughes and Church

Male % Female %
1996 40.6 50.5
1997 41.4 51.3
1998 42.3 52.8
2000 44.0 54.0
2005 52.0 62.0
2006 54.3 63.9
2007 56.9 65.8
2008 60.0 69.0

The same is true across all ethnicities. Boys, for example, are more-likely to leave school with no A*-C passes at GCSE. Claire further argues “Black pupils do less well than their peers regardless of class background”:

• working-class African-Caribbean pupils do worse than their working-class peers.
• middle-class African-Caribbean pupils do worse than their middle-class peers.

As she concludes, “social class factors do not override ethnic inequalities for this community”, most notably in the further context that “Black pupils from relatively advantaged backgrounds” achieve at around the same levels as “White peers from manual backgrounds”.

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