The working classes still get less of everything in education, including respect, argues Diane Reay. She suggests that in order to move towards a fairer educational system, the UK needs to implement a National Education Service that provides the same standards and level of resources to all children, regardless of class and ethnic background.

Historically, the English educational system has educated the different social classes for different functions in society. However, in the 21st century, the expectation is that the English state system is providing roughly the same education for all. In my new book I argue that it does not. Even within a comprehensive school, when young people are all being educated in the same building, the working classes are still getting less education than the middle classes, just as they had when my father was educated at the beginning of the 20th century. We are still educating different social classes for different functions in society.

The book is based on a mix of statistics, more than 500 interviews and my personal memoir of growing up as a free school meal child living on a council estate. The book argues that, despite a whole plethora of policy initiatives from testing regimes, league tables, school choice, academies and free schools, the return to traditional models of both primary and secondary curriculum and to a preoccupation with ‘school improvement’ and ‘school effectiveness’, little has changed in relation to how the working classes are valued within education. And despite the incessant focus on social mobility, England is at the bottom of the league table for working class children achieving high academic levels.

Figure 1: The percentage of high achieving children by family background for selected countries

Source: OECD, 2010

The academy and free school movement has made things worse for working class children, with more segregation and polarisation, and a growth in the unfair distribution of resources. So, for example, £96m originally intended for improving underperforming schools was redistributed to academies.

In spite of free schools and academies receiving more funding per pupil than state comprehensive schools, they typically educate fewer children in receipt of free school meals, and have a more advantaged intake than the comprehensive schools do.

England does not have an education system that is serious about realising the potential of all children, with those on free school meals and receiving pupil premium 27% less likely to achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C, including English and maths. Four-fifths of children from working-class minority ethnic families are taught in schools with high concentrations of other immigrant or disadvantaged students – the highest proportion in the developed world, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Half of all free school meal children are educated in just a fifth of all schools.

“A working class child starts the educational race halfway round the track behind the middle class child.” – Diane Reay

There are predominantly middle-class comprehensives and predominantly working- class and ethnically-mixed comprehensives – and despite all the rhetoric around pupil premiums, pupils in the more working-class comprehensives get less money per head. They get fewer qualified teachers. They get higher levels of teacher turnover and more supply teachers. Even if they are in the same schools as middle-class children, they are in lower sets and yet again they get less experienced and more supply teachers. Working class children also get a more restrictive educational offer. Since the schools attended by most working class children are not doing well in the league tables, there is a lot of pressure on their teachers and headteachers to increase their league table position. That means a more concentrated focus on reading, writing and arithmetic than in schools serving more affluent intakes.

All the children I interviewed had a powerful sense of their position in the academic hierarchy. From reception, growing numbers of children are in sets aged four, and they can tell they’re only in ‘the monkeys’, which is not a good group to be in. That means they’re not very clever. But latest research shows that it is the wealth and inclination of parents, rather than the ability and efforts of the child, that have the most bearing on a child’s educational success today. If you’re a working class child, you’re starting the educational race halfway round the track behind the middle class child. Middle and upper class parents are able to guarantee their children’s educational success through private tuition, extra resources and enrichment activities.

Image credit: Copyright, Ros Asquith, used with permission

In particular, the difference between amounts spent on educating children privately or in the state sector is stark. Research from University College London that found £12,200 a year is the average spending on a privately educated primary pupil, compared with £4,800 on a state pupil. For secondary, it’s £15,000 compared with £6,200.

To make things worse, an analysis of Department for Education data reveals that schools with the highest numbers of pupils on free school meals are facing the deepest funding cuts: in secondary schools with more than 40% of children on free school meals, the average loss per pupil will be £803. That’s £326 more than the average for secondary schools as a whole. And primary schools with high numbers of working class pupils are expected to lose £578 per pupil.

Another disturbing trend is the disrespect with which working class children are treated in some super-strict schools. Some academies operate on the principle that working class families are chaotic and children need school to impose control. There’s lots of lining up in silence, standing to attention when an adult comes into the room, and chanting mantras.

The OECD has consistently pointed out that increasing the social mix in schools improves the attainment of working class students without affecting that of their more privileged peers. It also decreases the social distance between different groups of children and helps to allay the mistrust, wariness and anxiety about those who are different from us. That mistrust obviously came out in the Brexit vote. Yet, if you put children together in classrooms, they start to learn that what they share is much greater than the differences between them.

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Note: This article draws from the author’s latest book, Miseducation: inequality, education and the working classes. It originally appeared at our sister site, British Politics and Policy, and gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.


About the Author

Diane Reay – LSE
Diane Reay is Visiting Professor of Sociology at the LSE and Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge. Her new book Miseducation: inequality, education and the working classes was published by Policy Press in October 2017.

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