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Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement : The Data

Page last updated: 02/09/2016 .




Learning objectives for this document

  1. Reading statistical tables and charts
  2. Recognition of relationships between social class positions and educational achievement.




Sociological studies in advanced industrial countries including the UK have shown that educational achievements (as measured mainly by educational qualifications achieved) are closely related to social class background and that upper and  middle class students on average out perform working class students at all levels of the education system. For example, sociologists from the 1950s onwards have regularly pointed to the progressive under-representation of working class students in:  

 higher streams in primary (i.e. middle schools)
 numbers passing the 11+ examination
 numbers in higher streams in grammar schools and subsequently in comprehensives
 numbers remaining in school after the minimum school leaving age
 numbers passing O levels, gaining high grade GCSE passes and passing A levels
 numbers enrolled on undergraduate courses
 numbers involved in post graduate study.

Despite a wide range of government educational policy initiatives such as the introduction of free secondary schooling for state educated students and apparently fair, objective methods of selection (the 11+ examination) for the different types of school (Grammar, Technical, Secondary Modern) in the new Tripartite system in the 1944 Education Act, the expansion of state expenditure on education, the subsequent recognition of the limitations of the Tripartite Secondary System and its replacement almost everywhere by Comprehensive Secondary Education, the raising of the school leaving age to 15 and subsequently 16, the development of Education Priority Areas , the schools initiatives too numerous to mention of the Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown administrations and the expansion of opportunities for further and higher education, it can still easily be demonstrated that working class students are less likely to be educationally   successful than are their middle class peers counterparts.

Sources of Data

I shall use eight sources of relevant data on relationships between social class and educational achievement and one source on relationships between educational qualifications and earnings ..

Source 1:Youth Cohort Studies of the educational achievements of 16 year olds 1989-2006 published on the Department for Education and Skills DfES [subsequently DCFS and now DfE] website.

[The 1989-1999 data refer to GCSE Examination results in  for England and Wales whereas the 2001-2006 data refer to England only]

Click here for the YCS Report  on 16 year olds published in 2007. Notice that  the DfE no longer publishes YCS data and that the YCS data here are the latest available.

Parental Occupation [SEG] 1989 1991 1992 1994 1996 1998 1999 2001 2003 2006
Professional/Managerial 52 58 60 66 68 63        
Other Non-manual 42 49 51 58 58 60        
Skilled Manual 21 27 29 36 36 40        
Semi-Skilled Manual 16 20 23 26 29 32        
Unskilled Manual 12 15 16 16 24 20        
Other /Not Classified 15 18 18 20 22 24        
Parental Occupation [NS-SEC]                    
Higher Professional             75 77 76 81
Lower Professional             62 64 65 73
Intermediate             49 51 53 59
Lower Supervisory             34 34 41 46
Routine             26 31 33 42
Other/Not Classified             24 26 33 34

An individual's social class position is often approximated by his/her occupation  but the occupational classification schema used by the UK Government were altered in 2000 so that the statistics for 1989-1998 are not comparable with the statistics for 1999- 2006 .Nevertheless the data do show that children whose parents are in professional and managerial occupations are more likely than children whose parents are in manual occupations to gain 5 or more GCSE A*-C grade passes.

Click here for a diagrammatic presentation of these data for years 1999-2006. [Once you have reached the diagram [chart two] you may also click Sheet 1 or scroll over the diagram itself if you wish to revisit the actual statistics!]



  1. W hat percentages of pupils of Professional/Managerial and Unskilled Manual parents respectively gained 5 or more A*-C GCSE Pass Grades   in 1989 and 1998?
  2. The results of both of these pupil categories improved between 1989 and 1998 but what happened to the difference in results between these two pupil categories?
  3. What percentages of pupils of Higher Professional, Intermediate and Routine Occupation respectively gained 5 or A*-C GCSE Pass Grades in 2004?
  4. How would you describe the relationships between parental social class and educational achievement in general terms?
  5. Suggest three possible reasons for these relationships.


Source 2: GCSE Attainment and Free School Meal Eligibility


Table : Gender, Free School Meal Eligibility and Percentages of Pupils gaining 5 or more GCSE A*-C  Grades including English and Mathematics 2008/9 - 2012/13 [Source : DFE SFR 2011/2012  and DFE SFR 2012/13 GCSE Attainment and Pupil Characteristics: ]

Pupil Category

% gaining 5 or more A*-C GCSE Grades inc English and Maths in 2008/9

% gaining 5 or more A*-C GCSE Grades  inc English and Maths in 2009/10

% gaining 5 or more A*-C GCSE Grades inc English and maths in 2010/11

% gaining 5 or more A*-C GCSE Grades inc. English and Maths in 2011/12

% gaining 5 or more A*-C GCSE Grades inc. English and Maths in 2012/2013

% gaining 5 or more A*-C GCSE Grades inc English and Maths in 2013/14

%gaining 5 or more A*-C GCSE Grades inc English  and  Maths in 2014/15

Boys FSM






29.2 29.3

Girls  FSM






38.0 37.2

Total FSM






33.5 33.1

Boys NFSM/Unclassified






55.4 56.2

Girls NFSM/Unclassified






65.7 65.8

Total NFSM/Unclassified






60.5 60.9

All Boys






51.6 52.5

All Girls






61.7 61.8

All Pupils






56.6 57.1
Gender Gap-F-M


7.4 7.3 9.3 8.1 10.1 9.3

Total NFSM-FSM Gap








 Between 2006/9 and 2014/15 the gender gap fluctuated between 7.3% and 10.1% while the NFSM-FSM gap fluctuated between 26.3% and 27.8% It is very important to note however that as  a result of methodological changes introduced in 2013-2014 results in 2013/14 and 2014/15 are not comparable to earlier results.






1. Using  information in the above table  on Gender, Free School Meal Eligibility and Educational Attainment answer the following questions.

  • What percentage of all boys gained 5 or more A*-C GCSE grades including English and Maths in 2014/15?
  • What percentage of all girls gained 5 or more A*-C GCSE grades including English and Maths in 2014/15?
  • What percentages of boys eligible for FSM and ineligible for FSM/unclassified  gained 5 or more A*-C GCSE grades including English and Maths in 2014/15?

         What percentages of girls eligible for FSM and ineligible for FSM/Unclassified  gained 5 or more A*-C grades including English and Maths in 2014/15?

2. Which factor seems to be the more significant influence on educational achievement :  Gender or Free School Meal Eligibility?

3. Which factor seems to be the more significant influence on educational achievement: gender or social class?



Click here for a diagrammatic presentation of  data on relationships between eligibility/ineligibility for free school meals 2003-2015. Click here and scroll to pages 10-13  for DfE diagrams on relationships between FSM eligibility, gender , ethnicity and GCE attainment 2013/14. These data are published annually in January and so you can keep up to date via the DfE site.

Click here for data on Free School Mral Eligibility and access to Higher Education.

Source 3

The Coalition's Record on Schools: Policy, Spending and Outcomes 2010-2015 by Ruth Lupton and  Stephanie Thomson . This is  a first class paper providing  detailed, insightful information on Coalition schools policies. Scroll down to page 45-47 for detailed data and diagrams on educational attainment and free school meal eligibility. There are one or two technicalities here that you may need to discuss with your teachers!


Source 4: Attainment at Level 2 [ =attainment of 5 or more GCSEs at Grades A*-C or equivalent qualifications ] and Level 3 [attainment of 2 or more A levels or equivalent qualifications]

Click here  for a DFE document entitled Level 2 and Level 3 attainment by young people in England. You may then scroll down to page 8 of this document for the Section on Free School Meal Eligibility which shows attainment by FSM and the attainment gap between the FSM group and their peers at Levels 2 and 3 between 2009 and 2013. It will be seen that both of these attainment gaps are substantial and have changed little in recent years. You may summarise these results here.

Source 5: Focus on Social Inequality [Edited by P. Babb J. Matin and P.Haezewindt ONS 2004] provides data on relationships between social class [measured by parental occupation] and participation in Higher Education .

Percentages of 18-21 Year Olds Participating in Higher Education and Type of Parental Occupation.








2007/8: All students

[NS SEC data]

2007/8:Female students

[NS SEC data] 

2007/8: Male students

NS SEC data]

Non-Manual %







41.2 45.6 37.2

Manual %







21.0 24.5 17.8

Total %








The above data indicate that, for example, in 1960 27% of the children of parents in non-manual occupations participated in Higher Education compared with 4% of the children of parents in manual occupations. Also in 1960 only 5% of all 18-21 year olds   participated in Higher Education.

The final columns of the table are s taken from a 2009 Department of Business, Innovation and Skills  Paper distinguishing between Higher Education Participation Rates of  male and female students from NS SEC Classes1, 2 and 3 and NS SEC Classes 4,5,6 and7.  Clearly the 2007/8 data are based upon different social class schema and are therefore not fully comparable with the previous data.

Click here for a diagrammatic presentation of these data. [However I have not included the more recent DBIS statistics in this diagram since they are not fully comparable with the earlier data]

Source 6 Widening Participation in Higher Education [Department for Business , Innovation and Skills July 2015]: New Link added July 2015

Click here and scroll to Page 4 Table 1 for information on differences in access to Higher Education between pupils eligible and ineligible for Free School Meals  2005/6- 2012/13. Access to HE for pupils eligible  for free school meals increased significantly but the access gap between those eligible and ineligible for free school meals narrowed only slightly .



  1. What has happened to total participation in Higher Education since 1960?
  2. Briefly describe the differences in access to Higher Education between the children of non-manual occupation parents and of manual occupation parents.
  3.  Give three brief reasons why children of manual occupation parents are less likely than the children of non–manual occupation parents to participate in Higher Education.
  4. At some point you may need to investigate the possible effects of higher tuition fees on access to Higher Education.  


Source 7: Office of National Statistics Data 2011  indicate that  individuals ’ educational qualifications have a major impact on their earnings potential .

Source 8.  The Educational Backgrounds of the UK Professional Elite [Sutton Trust Report] March 2016

Approximately 7% of UK pupils are educated in private schools and privately educated pupils[ especially those from prestigious Public Schools such as Eton and Harrow are disproportionately more like to secure employment in elite occupations. The above report provides very detailed information on this issue . It also has a clear concise Executive Summary.


The data used in this document suggest that there are very significant social class differences in educational achievement and also that higher educational achievements are associated with higher earnings.

  • The Youth Cohort Study data indicate strong relationships between parental social class and educational achievement at GCSE level. [Source 1}

Taken in combination these findings mean that many working class children are themselves unlikely to earn high incomes in adult life because of their limited educational qualifications. Class advantage is to some extent transmitted from generation to generation although many working class children are successful in education and socially mobile in their employment careers..

In the following documents  we shall investigate in more detail the relationships between social class membership and educational achievement before turning to relationships between gender and educational achievement and "race" , ethnicity and educational achievement.