Social class

Definition and commentary
Although social class is perhaps the most significant variable affecting levels of educational achievement there is a lack of consensus about what social class actually is and about how to measure it. This has led to social class becoming arguably the most difficult and unaddressed area of diversity education (see Davis and Crozier 2005, under 'Related Articles' for more on this). Although social class, like gender and ethnicity, is a fundamental element of individual identity and active in all social interaction, explicit examination of social class can raise emotions that are uncomfortable and challenging. However, if knowledge and understanding of how social class processes operate within schools and individual teachers is to be developed so that pupils of all social classes can genuinely maximise their full potential, early intervention in professional practice is essential (see Gazeley and Dunne 2006, under 'Related Articles' for more on this).

To some extent the way in which you define social class is determined by whether you view it as a social process or as closely linked to occupational position or social status. There are at least three different approaches to the measurement of social class in education research. Free School Meals data is available in schools and is therefore frequently used as a proxy for social class even though this is in effect a measure of child poverty (see glossary entry on Free School Meals). In the collation of national statistics social class is defined by occupation. The social class of women and of those with less fixed patterns of employment is less easy to measure under these schemes (see glossary entry on National Statistics Socio-economic Classification). Other conceptualisations of social class provide a much broader definition in which social class is created and recreated in a lived process, often at an unconscious level:

“Class has always been both a social filter and a key mechanism individuals utilise in placing themselves and others, regardless of whether a majority of the population identify in class terms. It is this simultaneously wider and deeper conceptualisation of social class that I want to argue for; a view of class as powerfully internalised and continually played out in interaction with others across social fields.” (Reay 1998, p265)

See additional glossary items on: working class and middle class in particular for further information.

Reay, D. (1998) Rethinking Social Class: Qualitative Perspectives on Class and Gender. Sociology, 32, 2, pp. 259 - 275.

For a detailed examination of how class is ‘made’ see:
Skeggs, B. (2004) Class, Culture, Self. London: Routledge.

For further information about social class inequalities relating to education, income, health and work see:
National Statistics Focus on Social Inequalities

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Louise Gazeley, University of Sussex

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