Reproduction of Social Class:
the Role of Educational UnderachievementClick for educclassquick.pdf, a one page plus handout of the points on this webpage.

Aim of Lesson The place of language competence in achievement and underachievement.
Objectives All learn that socialising institutions maintain social class divisions by generating uneven language competence.

Key Concepts:Click for one page handlout plus same exercises in .PDF format

  • Sociological Reproduction (dynamic of maintenance)
    • Social class leading to (for many) educational underachievement
  • Agents of reproductive maintenance:
    • family, peer group, school, work
  • The Social Distribution of Knowledge:
    • Language competence (ability) of children:
      • Elaborated and Restricted codes

We are looking at the relationship between educational underachievement (and achievement) and its role in the reproduction of social class.

Reproduction is not simply a biological term, it is sociological. It is about how a social situation serves to reproduce itself into the future. Reproduction takes place through processes of individuals being socialised into and within social groups. The middle class socialises its offspring to reproduce the middle class, the working and under classes socialise their own to reproduce more of their same.

Crucial in this maintenance is the place of educational underachievement amongst working and under classes, leading to fewer life and work opportunities than middle and upper classes.

Educational underachievement (and comparative achievement) can be described as the dynamic of the Social Distribution of Knowledge. The Social Distribution of Knowledge is a key concept especially for an information age as we experience it today.

Educational underachievement and achievement takes place within current key social institutions.

Family, peer group, school and work are key social institutions and are dynamic determinants of social class. They all have a part to play in educational underachievement, and its distribution amongst people reproducing social class.

Social class is a determinant of what kind of socialisation takes place; but it is socialisation that reproduces social class.

Educationalists know that if socialisation can be subjected to intervention, social class becomes fluid and a child from a lower social class can have the opportunity to change and advance.

For a child and its family, work expectation also affects educational effort, including among peers and in schools. So work is also a characteristic even for a child: that is, part of what education and training is for.

The key performer in this dynamic from the earliest days of family upbringing, of peer groups and of school activity is competence in language. It gives skill to handle knowledge.

In order to do higher value work, reach across different managers and workers, and to deal with complex information, education must provide children with a speech competence that can:

The speech performance here requires choices of words and phrases known as elaborated codes.

Example of the above: someone who is well read and can use more complex words: who reads a wide range of newspapers, and who can take part in these debates at a complex level. In middle class homes even the youngest child shows evidence of more subtle delivery of speech.

But many people are restricted to communalised speech-behaviour (that is, within their community). They have speech performance that:

These are known as restricted codes.

Example of the above: someone who can carry out mobile phone texting to known friends, and whose spelling is being over influenced by this skill. They have tended to limit themselves to red top newspapers.

For families and their children a key consideration is assumptions of career potential.

It is known that children from middle class families can perform both elaborated and restricted speech codes. They are able to progress well in academic based education and take a professional route. Basic skills are needed to underpin more abstract thought.

Children from working and underclass homes are limited to restricted codes, and thus have a burden of educational disadvantage in terms of the academic route. They become limited in success to vocational type education. Basic skills are needed to allow vocational training to take place and fill a range of manual and kinetic jobs. Yet more and more jobs are becoming information based and need complex speech competence.


  1. By way of background briefly discuss an imaginary biography of a child growing up in 1860 Smedley VillageClick here to see the village map to work from. (a fictious place). The work expectation is a craft, or farm labouring. What do they need to learn? What sort of schooling is available pre-1870? What kinds of children do other children meet? What about girls being different from boys?

  2. More substantially look at Smedley Suburb in 2000Click here for this urban layout resource to help answer this question. with its distribution of urban living and construct a biography of a child who either succeeds at a professional route or is restricted to a less skilled vocational outcome. Remember that still today most education is academic; most successful education is of those who can do subjects. Give the key points of such a child's life in terms of family background, peer groups and school attended. Always consider "reproduction of social class" and the language skills being developed.
  3. Extended thinking: how can the cycle be broken where social class reproduces educational underachievement and educational underachievement therefore reproduces social class? In the information age, and in the vital performance of language, how crucial is the social distribution of knowledge? Is a large measure of educational underachievement an aim of a modern economy?
  4. Try to bring complex issues together: urban choice, vocational and academic, family background, peer groups, school resourcing, work expectations, needs of an information economy (having a large measure of "useful" underachievement or does the information age now repudiate this?)


Bernstein, B. (1971), 'Social Class, Language and Socialization', in Cashdan, A. et al. in the Language and Learning Course Team (1972), Language in Education: A Source Book, Open University, 102-110, reproduced from Bernstein, B. (1971), Class, Codes and Control, Vol. 1, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 170-189.

Swift, D. F. (1971), 'Social Class Analysis', in Cosin, B. R. et al. in the School and Society Course Team (1972), School and Society: A Sociological Reader, 180-184, reproduced from Swift, D. F. (1968), 'Social Class and Educational Adaptation', in Butcher, H. J. (ed.), Educational Research in Britain, London: London University Press, Vol. 1, 289-296.

Smedley, N. (1977), East Anglian Crafts, London: B. T. Batsford.

Smedley VillageClick for Smedley map in agricultural times and Smedley SuburbClick for the Smedley map as a suburb. are creations of Adrian Worsfold.

Created originally for a demonstration lesson at interview.