How the Education Establishment Supports Inequality

March 1, 2015

It’s often difficult to convince people how low the expectations are for working class kids can be in schools. I have a lot of anecdotes from a lot of schools. So many times I have been told that I cannot expect much from “kids like these”. I have been told that I haven’t understood that a school being slightly above average for the number of students on Free School Meals means I cannot expect students to spend a whole lesson learning. I have been told that kids from a particular area “don’t have parents like yours” and so will not care about how they do in school. More than anything, low standards of behaviour are excused on the basis that being disobedient and disruptive is normal for the working class. They simply don’t know any better. The ability of middle class teachers to paint anywhere with council housing as the ghetto, never ceases to amaze me. The worst possible home environment is assumed, again and again, even in schools where the parents evenings indicate that most parents are actually interested, aspirational and articulate.

Probably the most dangerous version of this caricature, is the idea that this difference between the classes requires a difference in the curriculum. It is accepted that academic subjects are fine for our children, and, incredibly, so is didactic teaching and the expectation that children can control themselves. But working class kids won’t be interested in any of that. If they are going to cooperate they must be given a curriculum that isn’t too full of content; that would just demotivate them. What working class kids is something to motivate them; something which does not assume they are capable of being interested in anything more than what they are already used to. The middle classes can have knowledge of all that is worthwhile; working class kids just need to be motivated by being told about matters that are relevant to their lives. Middle class kids can study poetry and nineteenth century novels; working class kids can study text messaging and reality TV.

The worst examples of this sort of snobbery were probably those during the early days of the free school movement. Activists who were desperate to prove free schools were selective struggled to find anything to indicate this in their admissions policies. So, instead, they looked at the curriculum. The claim was that an academic curriculum would deter working class parents from sending their kids to a school. So we saw arguments like these:

it is not uncommon for free schools to market themselves in various ways as appropriate mainly for abler and more middle class families … eg compulsory Latin, lack of vocational provision, focus exclusively on Russell Group as a destination, expensive uniform, religious tests and so on. [my emphasis]

Education for Everyone blog

Numerous studies have shown that languages are a class and gender thing. Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to be encouraged to learn them by their parents, less likely to see the point of them and less likely to have parents at home who can help with their homework. It is a particular problem for boys, whose parents are more likely to encourage them in science than in languages.

…When [founder of the West London Free School, Toby] Young says that all children will have to learn Latin at Key Stage 3 (and either Latin or a modern language after that), he excludes the kids of parents for whom Latin is a frightening prospect. So much for comprehensive entry.

From The New Statesman

What we have is a bun fight for the middle-class aspirational children: we have lots of glossy prospectuses and PR in order to recruit the children that are most likely to do well.

“And I don’t buy this idea that admission is open to all. The minute you put Latin on the curriculum for the first few years or put pupils in stripey blazers, you will only recruit one kind of child, regardless of how many times you say your school is for everybody.”

Headteacher quoted in the Guardian

I had hoped that people were a bit more circumspect about their low expectations for working class kids these days. But just this week I was amazed to see the following gem on the ASCL website, reacting to the discrepancies in access to academic subjects across the country:

it seems to me that there’s a big assumption behind the gloomy tone of his comments and indeed of the BBC coverage; that the government’s prescription for improving social mobility was right after all. As far as I can see, the ‘MorGovian’ way to get more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds into Russell Group universities is to ensure that all such pupils study ‘academic’ subjects – an EBacc compatible Key Stage 4 curriculum, for example – and that they aren’t incentivised to study ‘vocational’ subjects, as was the case under Labour.

I would have thought a better way of improving social mobility would be to ensure pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds get the best possible results from a curriculum that motivates and inspires them, whether that be ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’. The trick is to get the curriculum right for each individual. After all, success breeds success; youngsters are surely far more likely to want to keep on with this education thing if they’re doing well at it. Staying on in education (taking respected, high-value qualifications, I should add) is surely the best bet for ensuring long-term success in the labour market.

In fact, I can’t help wondering if the whole question of advantage and disadvantage is a big red herring here. Doesn’t aptitude matter more than social background? Shouldn’t we be more interested in guiding youngsters into the various curricular paths according to where their interests and prior attainment suggest they are most likely to succeed? Okay, a disproportionate number of disadvantaged pupils may have fallen behind by Year 9, but surely such students need intervention and support rather than a curriculum pathway which risks even further demotivation.

This was written by a headteacher on the blog of an organisation representing headteachers across the country. If headteachers are willing to argue in public that students from deprived backgrounds need a curriculum based around motivation rather than academic achievement, what chance do they have? The education establishment still firmly believe that what is appropriate for their children is far too demotivating for other people’s children.



  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. Sorry to ‘hijack’ this post- it’s just the quickest way I thought I could ask … What has happened to websofsubstance? After this blog (and continued thanks for it) Harry’s site was the next one I would browse for his excellent insight and views.

  3. Sadly Andrew, this issue pre-dates Free Schools by some decades. I would argue it is not surprising, when teachers are recruited not primarily for their scholarship, or even their potential as outstanding classroom practitioners…but as agents of social change.

  4. Okay, a disproportionate number of disadvantaged pupils may have fallen behind by Year 9, but surely such students need intervention and support rather than a curriculum pathway which risks even further demotivation

    Does the headteacher quoted not realise that telling working class students they are not good enough for an academic education ia going to be more demotivating than anything else?

  5. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was genuinely about children being allowed to study subjects which interest them. There was a huge assumption when choosing schools that we would be delighted that my Special Needs son would be encouraged to do bricklaying at 14. I didn’t expect him to get brilliant GCSE grades but he did really enjoy History. It seems curriculum is more about exclusion than personalising education, even assuming the latter is a desirable outcome.

    I don’t think the National Curriculum in 1988 was perfect but I did admire the principle of entitlement to learning. My younger brother had been forced onto a Rural Studies CSE course.

  6. “More than anything, low standards of behaviour are excused on the basis that being disobedient and disruptive is normal for the working class.”

    Ever read “Education And The Working Class”, by Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden – an inquiry into the then-issue (late 50s / early 60s) of the clever working class child going to grammar school? The fact that they’d get a good education, and that previously “middle-class” careers would be opened up to them, was a given. No, the question was – how would this affect their working-class identity ? People worried about that sort of thing in those days. Luxury !

  7. I cannot recommend highly enough Jonathan Rose’s volume The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, which is mainly about the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It’s inspiring.

  8. A very Left Wing (he thinks) friend of mine posted this on a Left Wing forum:

    “All children should be taught to read, write and count at school.”

    He was accused of being a B.N.P. and/or E.D.L. troll.

    As far as he could tell, their reasoning went like this:
    1) Working class (i.e. poor) children can’t learn complicated things like reading, writing and counting. Anyone who disagrees with this is a Right Wing ideologue or a class traitor.
    2) Any attempt to teach them will fail. This will result in horrific emotional damage. Anyone who disagrees with this is a child abuser.
    3) The capitalist system has ensured that ethnic minorities are the poorest sections of our society. Anyone who disagrees with this is a racist.

    so it follows that

    4) Only a racist would expect poor children to learn to read, write and count.

    Stands to reason, dunnit?


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