Social Inequality In Education


The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted society on a global scale, and the field of education has not been immune to its effects. Educational institutions worldwide were thrown into the unknown as governing bodies grappled with the challenges posed by the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, the education system faced significant issues. UNESCO reported that approximately 260 million children and adolescents were not attending school before the pandemic, a number that surged to over 1.5 billion by April 2020. Rather than introducing new problems, the pandemic has magnified long-standing societal issues, especially social inequalities in educational attainment and access. There are various sociological theories that can be used to help explain social inequality in education and to assess their applicability in the context of the pandemic.

Cultural/Social Capital and Concerted Cultivation

One of the earliest explanations for social inequality in education comes from Pierre Bourdieu's theories of capital. Bourdieu emphasizes cultural and social capital as determining factors in educational involvement across different socioeconomic backgrounds. Cultural capital, in its embodied, objectified, and institutionalized forms, influences an individual's social capital and, consequently, their success in education. Additionally, the concept of concerted cultivation highlights differences in parenting practices across social classes. Upper-class parents tend to engage in "enrichment activities," such as structured discussions and organized activities, which give their children an advantage in the educational system. Applying these theories to the pandemic, they provide a foundation for understanding how differences in capital can impact educational participation. For example, research on Irish education during the pandemic revealed that children of parents with lower education levels were less likely to receive educational resources and lacked essential materials like textbooks. While these theories offer a broad overview of inequalities, they tend to focus on structure more than individual agency and do not fully consider the intersectionality of gender and ethnicity.

Costs and Benefits

Rational Action Theory, as proposed by John Goldthorpe, shifts the focus from structural explanations to individual agency. Goldthorpe argues that people make decisions about education based on their goals, available pathways, and the evaluation of costs and benefits. This theory acknowledges the increased access to education across various socioeconomic levels but also highlights that working-class students face greater barriers to success. The theory suggests that structural inequalities persist due to differential evaluations of costs and benefits, resulting in the continued underrepresentation of working-class students. In the context of the pandemic, Goldthorpe's theory is evident in the use of predictive grade schemes for university applications, which may inadvertently disadvantage students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. However, this theory tends to overemphasize agency at the expense of structural factors, which should be considered alongside individual actions.

Family Investment Model (FIM), and Family Stress Model (FSM)

The Family Investment Model (FIM) and the Family Stress Model (FSM) take a dual approach to understanding social inequality in education. FIM underscores the significance of family resources in a child's educational development, including financial investments and parental time. It demonstrates how families' income and purchasing power influence a child's educational development, leading to advantages for higher social classes. On the other hand, FSM relates family economic strain to parental psychological stress, which, in turn, affects children's relationships with peers and educators. This hybrid model provides a more inclusive approach, addressing the impact of both direct and indirect factors on educational outcomes. During the pandemic, research in Germany revealed class differences in homeschooling efforts, highlighting how family resources and economic strain affect the time invested in education.

Effectively Maintained Inequality (EMI)

Effectively Maintained Inequality (EMI) focuses on the structural aspects of the education system itself. EMI argues that variations in the education system perpetuate socioeconomic gaps in student progression and success, favouring academically equal but socioeconomically advantaged students. Even as education expands and reforms, qualitative differences in the education system maintain inequalities. The pandemic underscored the importance of these structural aspects. For example, the Finnish education system, with its emphasis on self-directed learning, performed well during the pandemic, while the more centralized Australian system faced challenges due to disparities in resources between government and non-government schools.


The COVID-19 pandemic did not create social inequalities in education but amplified and brought them to the forefront of public awareness. Sociological theories that explain social inequality in education offer valuable insights into the challenges faced by students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. As we grapple with the implications of the pandemic, it is essential to recognize that the issues of social inequality have been pervasive and long-standing. The pandemic has merely laid them bare, prompting us to address them more urgently and comprehensively.

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Send tips or suggestions to Author: Robert Joseph Kelly, postgraduate student of business management at Maynooth University.