Sociology of Education in the 1950's

Sociology of Education in the 1950's


From shortly after World War II, the main emphasis in the sociology of education was a concern about the relationship between education and social mobility. The political orientation of the researchers was liberal, and the research method was the mapping of social inequalities in educational outcomes using quantitative techniques.

Such an approach was 'liberal' in that inequality was opposed but its source was not, unlike the Marxists, located in the social structure. Modern societies were seen as inherently progressive and it was only archaic elements, such as class, that inhibits progress. Modification of these difficulties would produce reform.

The difficulty with this approach, as it later became clear, was that the problems identified by liberal sociologists set many educators to work in opposition to working class cultural practices. What happened with the liberal view of education is that culture is seen as a cause of inequality rather than as one of the effects. However, one advantage that liberal sociology did enjoy was governmental confidence, as is often the case with quantitative research, and as a result, it enjoyed the freedom to engage in empirical research and had a chance to influence educational reform. In fact, this style of research is generally policy orientated.

The origins of the sociology of education in England grew directly out of the research interests of a number of sociologists who were primarily interested in social mobility, and in particular, with the way that patterns of inequality persisted in education. The starting point for this style of research is generally taken to be the L.S.E.'s study of social mobility led by D. Glass (1954). Mobility research led to a concern with, 'education in terms of its function in the provision of a literate and adaptable work-force to meet the needs of an advanced technological society'. (Olive Banks 1982).

The studies concentrated on the relationship between class and educational opportunity. There was great optimism concerning the power of education to transform society. What needed transforming was the wastefulness of the existing school system. The search was on for ways in which schools could maximise their pupils' talents. In doing this, the sociology of education became not just descriptive but prescriptive.

The descriptive work was one of the strengths of the sociology of education of the 50s and 60s. There was a mapping of patterns of educational inequality. The impact of this sort of political arithmetic was to urge sociologists on to search for the 'social determinants of educability' (Flude and Halsey, 1958).

In what was basically an input-output view of the education system it was thought that by engineering the input, then the output could be altered. The input needed to be altered so as to produce greater social justice and efficiency. What this amounted to, was the view that there was something wrong with some of the educational participants, rather than with the system, or with the reward system of society. Essentially, social class characteristics were seen as either a help or a hinderance to an individual's chances of educational and occupational success.

Political arithmetic

By the late 50s/early 60s, the class-related patterns of inequality under the 1944 Education Act were becoming clear. Claiming to be a response to three different types of intellect, the 1944 Act relegated the majority of the country's children to the status of intellectual deficiency. I. Q. testing was shown to consistently favour the middle class child. Children with similarly measured I. Q. could - and often did - have different levels of educational attainment if their social class backgrounds were dissimilar.

What was it then about the background of working class children that so limited their chances of educational success?

At this point, perhaps there was some failure of nerve (and some pragmatism). Class inequality at the educational level was not seen as directly related to class inequality at the societal level. Given that it was class disadvantages that were seen to lead to educational disadvantage, it would have been useful to investigate the basis of the class divisions of society, and the way that they were reproduced.

Note: This is exactly what Marxist sociologists were to do in the 70s and 80s.

By ignoring the wider society, you get a trivialised notion of class, because it ignores political and economic variables and symptoms get misread as causes. Further, in the absence of any theory of reproduction, comment on class becomes philanthropic, 'how can we help the poor things?'.

Schools continued to be seen as the neutral upholders of excellence.

Problems were conceived as deficits. Deprivation was traced to the failure of the working class family, faulty socialisation, restricted language and low expectations. Within schools, working class deviance from the values of middle class academics was seen as a product of failure. Lacey's anti-group (Hightown Grammar, 1970) and Hargreaves, delinquent sub-culture (Social Relations in the Secondary School, 1967), both portray the school-based sub-cultures as a product of failure. Working class cultural forms were both devalued and considered deviant. What was ignored, was that the working class had traditionally distanced themselves from formal education, and why not, since mostly they had little to gain via education?

'It seems obvious enough that popular attitudes to schooling will be heavily influenced by the possibilities, quantitative and qualitative, of social betterment by this route'. (Unpopular Education, 1981)

The nature of the liberal sociology of education was to seek educational improvement through governmental policy decisions. It was the view of working class children as culturally deprived that was the basis of compensatory education, the creation of Educational Priority Areas and the movement towards comprehensive schools. However, it seems particularly difficult to root out class inequalities in schools. Halsey bluntly considers that, 'the essential fact of 20th century educational history is that egalitarian policies have failed'.

The liberal approach seemed to fail. The failure then brought about a political backlash, and the 70s brought loud complaints about falling standards in schools, and the failure of schools to provide a fitting education for the needs of employers.