Birmingham University researcher Cheryl Gore observed the final run-up to GCSEs in four secondary schools and found that there was an unacceptable disparity in the amount of time children were given for revision and exam practice. She was also disturbed to see how teacher expectations varied from one school to another.
In one 11-18 independent girls' school, the GCSE candidates were able to begin class revision as early as February because some of their course syllabuses had been completed.
But in another 11-16 comprehensive school, which catered for a multi-ethnic, working-class community, children were still being introduced to new topics in May. And even at that late stage some pupils were unfamiliar with the format of their approaching exams.
Ms Gore, who is based in Birmingham's department of cultural studies and sociology, says that her findings suggest that teacher expectations - and the emphasis on exam preparation - are largely determined by a school's socio-economic composition.
In the independent school, teachers viewed pupils as being within the same social category as themselves. At the 11-16 comprehensive, however, some teachers felt there was a sharp social divide between the staffroom and the classroom.
"One white male design teacher (in the second school) informed me that 'poorly educated parents tend to have poorly educated children'," Ms Gore reports in a study that is to be published early next year.
"He also talked to me about the way the white working-class children spoke: 'They say likkle instead of little, not like you and me,' he said."
And he was not the only member of staff who appeared to have very low expectations of pupils. Most pupils were not expected to gain more than a grade D, and some of the African-Caribbean girls complained that the school's careers teacher always tried to put them on training schemes.
"Neil wanted to be a pilot, and Mr Jones (the careers teacher) said, 'I don't think so', and embarrassed him," one girl recalled.
"Lyndon wanted to be a paramedic and he (Mr Jones) goes, 'No way are you going to get the grades to be a paramedic'. Lyndon really felt small."
Ms Gore says that she handed the head of the school a poster advertising an open day at Birmingham University. But, to the best of her knowledge, the poster was never displayed.
Pupils at the other two state schools she visited were more aware of further and higher education opportunities. In one of these schools, an 11-18 girls' comprehensive with a mixed social-class intake, an African-Caribbean girl told her that the deputy head, a white woman, had encouraged her to stay on and take A-levels rather than become a hairdresser. But in the fourth school - an 11-18 mixed comprehensive - the teachers also had low expectations of pupils. One Year 13 Sikh girl told her: "When I decided to apply for law, the head of sixth-form shoved this article under my nose saying how qualified barristers and solicitors don't get jobs ... and he shoved this other article under Jasbinder's (another Sikh girl) nose and he said: 'There aren't many jobs in the media.' "And what really got to me was when he said, 'Don't bother applying to Birmingham University because you aren't going to get in anyway."
Ms Gore says that her research has convinced her that teachers and careers officers should be made more aware of the ways in which they may categorise pupils in terms of ethnicity and social class. Awareness-raising exercises should be built into initial teacher training and INSET courses.
She also believes that school inspections should be carried out specifically to determine whether pupils are adequately prepared for GCSE and A-level exams.
Furthermore, pupils in all schools should be made aware of routes into further and higher education. They should be taken on visits to colleges and universities and should have an opportunity to speak to students who come from a similar background to their own.
"If such changes were implemented, the standard of education in less effective schools could be greatly improved and the inequalities that currently exist within the education system would be significantly diminished," she says.
Cheryl Gore's study appears in Anti-racism and Social Welfare, to be published by Aylesbury