An Education in Class

When my dad died a couple of years back, I inherited a shoebox with some of the important things from his life. My dad didn’t keep much — some medals his brother was posthumously awarded after the plane his was travelling in ditched into the Indian Ocean in June 1945, family letters, photos, and some other stuff. Alongside this were my five end-of-year reports from my secondary school days. I don’t remember ever talking to my dad about my schooling. Though a bright man, he had not done well at school and left as soon as he could at fourteen in the 1930s, much as I left at sixteen in the early 1980s. After reflecting on the reports, I’m filled with conflicted feelings. First, I regret that he didn’t pick me up on the accurate and well meant criticisms my teachers offered. But this feeling is tempered by the sense that maybe things turned out okay for me in the end. I found employment in a stimulating and secure workplace and later was able to attend Ruskin College Oxford, which aimed to prepare unqualified adults for university education – two structural advantages that a similarly unqualified sixteen year old would not have today.

I’ve been thinking about the contents of that shoebox a lot over the last half year or so as my ten year old son Max prepared for and then took the test that determines what type of secondary school he will join next September. Kent, the English county we live in, still has a state funded secondary school system that divides kids based on test scores into a privileged twenty percent who attend grammar schools and a secondary modern system for the remaining eighty percent. After Max took the ‘Kent Test’ in September, while we waited for his scores, we visited the various schools that he might (or might not) get to attend. I have done these visits with something of a three-way split personality. I toured the schools first as a parent who obviously wants the best for his kid. I also walked around as a professional sociologist interested in class, stratification, and cultural capital issues. But finally, I was there as someone with working-class origins comparing what I saw with my own experience of education.

Our first visit was to our local community school, one where those deemed to have ‘failed’ would have little choice but to go. By my lights, the school looked pretty good. We saw lots of evidence of extra-curricular activity and achievement, and the building looked modern and well cared for. In her presentation to the assembled parents, the principal made much of the caring and supportive atmosphere the pupils enjoy. My younger self would have loved to have gone to a school such as this, and our neighbour’s kids did and seem to have thrived there.

The following week Max, my wife, and I went to one of the elite grammar schools on our list. It was obvious from the start that this would be a very different experience from our local school. We were met at the entrance by some of the senior prefects, the older ones dressed in business suits. We made our way around the classrooms on the organized tour before dutifully filing in to the lecture theatre to hear the presentation. First up, after a jazz piano recital by one of the musically gifted students, was the school’s head-boy who acted at the master of ceremonies for the evening and seemed more confident in talking to a bunch of strangers than most academics are with years of practice. He introduced some of his younger school mates – each in their way equally confident – before inviting the principal to do her PowerPoint karaoke presentation, reading word for word the bullet points on the screen behind her, ramming home the message through a blizzard of statistics and tables that, though a state school, this was an elite place that we should be grateful to have offspring attend.

This presentation, and indeed the entire event, struck me as Harry Potteresque – this was Hogwarts without the owls and magic lessons. This is a state school funded out of general taxation, yet it aped private schools, especially the trappings that go with them. It seems to me that parents and the school administration were in an unholy alliance, each bidding up the elitism of the education on offer, deliberately distancing it from what the remaining eighty percent would enjoy. Rather than break down class differences, this attitude reinforces class polarization by making parents and their kids aim for socially divisive schooling.

Conservative politicians in Kent believe the grammar system is a good one, though it was phased out in most places by both Labour and Tory Parties during the 1970s. Many right of center politicians in the rest of England dream nostalgically of returning to this set up nationally, viewing it as a meritocratic system that gives all kids a chance of an elite education. But this ideal of meritocracy is just wrong. Most of the kids who pass the test have been rigorously coached on how to do so – as my wife and I did with Max. I’ve spent one afternoon each week in term time ferrying him to cramming lessons that we are lucky enough to afford. We have bought him endless test papers and exercise books and spent hours coaching him on the various aspects of the Kent Test. Max is lucky — his parents have the resources, education, and time to devote to this process. As a concerned parent, sociologist, and former working-class kid, I know that many other boys and girls Max’s age are not so fortunate.

Recently we learned that Max had passed the test with flying colors. We are all delighted that he will receive the type of school education that my younger self could only dream of. But this elation and relief is held in check by the fact that many of Max’s school mates have not passed. By implication they have been told by the age of ten that they have failed and that they deserve a less-good schooling, one that will affect their life chances probably for the rest of their lives. This was indeed another education in class and the way it insidiously structures all our lives. For both parents and children, winners and losers, class and the resources that go with it are being played out on a daily basis.

Tim Strangleman

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7 Responses to An Education in Class

  1. JunkChuck says:

    The same dynamic comes to play within the confines of many individual schools–I haven’t read the Ayers article, and perhaps I should. My wife and I worked tirelessly with our children, reading to them from birth, keeping books in their hands, enforcing mandatory homework time while being available to supervise and assist as necessary, choosing activities with creative and intellectual components, severely limiting commercial television–basically, all the things one is supposed to do. The result, no doubt assisted by some good genes on their mother’s side(!), is bright, articulate, high-achieving children–99th percentile kids who work hard. Philosophically, I would have argued in favor of an education system that provided equality and access to all students right up to the point where our local school district adopted an “un-leveling” program in which classes based on achievement were discontinued in favor of mixing kids or all aptitudes and achievement so as not to stigmatize the lower performing kids. I recognized that many of those children simply lacked the home support that we provided for our kids, but when my own children began complaining about how bored they were becoming my philosophy went out the window. I’m not proud of that, but there it is. A meeting with guidance counselors revealed that the point was for the lower-performing students to be inspired by their more accomplished peers, while those peers became mentors of a sort, bringing up the performance of those on the bottom–and allow me to explain that I don’t mean qualitatively when using words like “lower” or “achievement”–we’re talking about results on standardized tests, which were the ultimate goal for this policy change.

    And that’s what floored me. The curriculum was purposefully made to be less challenging, and my own children somewhat disregarded because the scores weren’t averaged. My kids’ 99% met little–the tests didn’t judge between 71% and 99%, as long as the minimum standard was met. But, if they could get the kid scoring 66% up to 70% the school would increase it’s performance numbers. In essence, the kids at the top were left to their own devices “they’ll do well, regardless” I was told. That’s a quote. The curriculum was designed to sustain the kids in the middle and raise the upper segment of the lower performing kids. The lowest of the low, who could be marked as remedial, were likewise written off statistically, especially in the older grades.

    Happily, our district changed approaches very quickly–and my children moved from middle school into high school, where the menu of challenge-level and advanced placement classes, as well as opportunities for dual-enrollment programs with a nearby university, mitigate the affects of the un-leveling. We still refer to 8th grade, the year of the change, as “the lost year” because their was so much treading water, intellectually. I can’t imagine what it would be like facing a system in which students were irrevocably slotted into a particular paradigm of either model–not at that early age.


  2. Fred Anderson says:

    There seems to me to be a slightly weird assumption lurking in the background, here. Namely, that there are a limited number of opportunities to do useful work and to be fairly compensated for that; and that only those with the elite educations are likely to have access to those jobs. That society really has no use for the other 80% who weren’t asked to join the party.

    Instead, it seems to me that there is almost infinite need in the world, and hence almost infinite opportunity to do something useful and be paid for it — that we need all the help we can get.

    In some perfect, magical world, each (okay, most) would contribute according to his/her abilities and education’s role would be to uncover each child’s unique capabilities and hone/develop those. And in fairness, those who contribute more would be compensated better than those who contribute less. (I’m a Lockean.)

    But there would be no story line where 80% were condemned to poverty (or some proximate neighborhood) because we couldn’t find anything useful for them to do.


  3. Roy Wilson says:


    As a child of the working-class with graduate degrees galore, I share your misgivings about the future that awaits Max in the “good” school. It seems to me that, however ambivalently you do so, you share with the headmaster and thd rest the attitude that you deplore. I share that ambivalence. What were Max’s thoughts about the diffefences between the schools and the futures those differences might portend?


  4. professorjvg says:

    Marissa, I agree completely that we need to be doing much more to create equitable schooling in low-income neighborhoods and we’re far from providing quality schooling for all kids, even while we believe that education is the route to social and economic mobility.

    Charters are great at generating positive press, but looking more closely, their successes are not always what they seem. Here’s one example the growing critique of charters:

    To many of us, the focus on charters is diverting attention away from the need to create genuinely equitable schooling regardless of your parents’ zip code. We know how to create great schools for low-income kids with experienced teachers, supports for kids and families, rich curriculum, and connections to community. I’m concerned that we’re instead waiting for the wealthy creators of charter schools to take care of inequities for us.


  5. professorjvg says:

    In his book “To Teach” Bill Ayers talks about his adamant opposition to standardized tests until his son came home with high scores, and for a moment, Bill admired these brilliant test writers for revealing the his son’s many gifts.

    What strikes me about this beautifully written post is that not only does your son now have access to different ways to different knowledge and ways of learning, but also all of this induction into the worlds of suits and ceremony and “bidding up the elitism”. In the U.S. these actual differences in status are more hidden in the interest of sustaining the belief that it’s all about scientific sorting into gifted and honors programs in the same schools based on objective psychometrics.

    Beyond that, different high schools just happen to be located in different neighborhoods, so in cities like mine, there are skirmishes over who gets to go to the new and well equipped schools on the north side of the city, but there’s almost no open discussion about why the south side schools are older and the curriculum more narrow.


  6. Marissa says:

    This reminds me of the lottery system used in charter schools, offering a lucky few the opportunity to attain the education necessary to climb out of poverty, while many others must remain mired in this broken and failing system. Countless kids fall between the cracks of poverty and it is essential that we work to salvage these kids from the precipice of a life of poverty and distress as compared to an empowered and educated life


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