Miseducation and the Working Class

A couple of weeks ago my daughter passed the ‘Kent Test’, the exam ten year olds in my area sit in order to stream them for their secondary education. In our town, the options are stark.  Those who pass, like my daughter, get to attend some of the best state schools in the whole of England.  Those who ‘fail’ and don’t have alternative means go to the local secondary school which has been in what is euphemistically called ‘special measures’ for a number of years now. This school has seen turnover in teachers and the management team and struggles on just about every educational indicator.

In most of England, the 11+ test, as it is universally known, was done away with four decades or more ago.  The test and the grammar/ secondary modern school binary system persist in a few local authorities, almost always Conservative controlled. In Kent, the test allows the top 20 percent access to a very privileged education, and unsurprisingly, those students do well, as they are the most capable at that age. For the remaining 80 percent, however, the experience is qualitatively different. Without a critical mass of academically able students, the secondary modern schools do not perform well in league tables, government reports that measure success in terms of final grades rather than ‘value added’. In turn these schools find it harder to recruit good staff who will stay in post for any length of time, further damaging the perception of the secondary modern’s status. There are some exceptions to the rule, but non-grammar schools are seen as the option for those with no other choice.

Reviving and expanding the grammar school system has long been at the top of the Conservative Party’s wish list in England and was a central plank of the ill-fated election manifesto fought earlier this summer.  For conservatives, the grammar system rewards merit, talent, and hard work and thus demonstrates individual worth and achievement. The system also appeals to the idea of social mobility that emerged during the post war period. The exam, which kids sit in September of their final year of junior school, is supposed to be preparation proof. Ideally all the children taking the test do so on a level playing field.

The reality is completely different. The system is clearly riddled with class privilege, weighted heavily in favour of the middle classes and their off-spring and against working-class kids. Let me explain. My daughter, along with thousands of others in her cohort, have been preparing for the test for almost two years. This preparation involves resources, what sociologists label ‘capital’ – economic, social, cultural, and political. In Kent, an entire industry of after school clubs, private tutors, and crammers has sprung up to service middle-class parents’ desire to give their children an edge. These families have an enormous advantage. They have the money to pay for tutors and extra-curricular activities, and they often have more time to take kids to these events, and they can furnish students with mock exam papers to help kids practice for the test. These resources make the system heavily classed, long before kids enter the room to sit the test.

As a result, most middle-class students sit the test, while many working-class parents decide, for various reasons, that they don’t want to put their children through the ordeal and run the risk of their being labelled as failures. And class privilege does not stop there. If a child doesn’t do well enough to win a place in a grammar school, there is an extensive appeals procedure. Here, again, middle-class parents can flex their capital, and if that route fails, most can afford to send their children to private school, opting out of the state system altogether.

While the grammar system has limited reach in England, it does expose a growing educational divide in the country which reaches from preschool through to further and higher education in the wider UK. The scandal in the education system has been brutally exposed in a brilliantly angry book by recently retired Cambridge University professor Diane Reay. In her book Miseducation: Inequality, Education and the Working Classes, Reay weaves together the results of decades of research and a pile of educational statistics.  She is fantastically well placed to write this book, having been raised in a large working-class family, the daughter of a coal miner.  She was one of the lucky ones to earn a place at her local grammar school in the 1960s, when the system was universal. She went on to college and to teach for two decades in the progressive inner London school system of the 1970s and 80s. After completing a PhD in sociology of education, she eventually became a professor of education at Cambridge, the most elite seat of learning in the UK if not the world.

If Miseducation were just an academic account of class inequality, it would be a great book, useful in so many ways.  But it is more than that. Reay combines a relentless series of data illustrating how class works with the voices of the kids caught up in a system that fails them. In addition, Reay reflects upon her own experience of the system from the inside, as the optimistic bright school girl enduring classed put downs, the undergraduate who felt like a fish out of water, and the Cambridge professor who was regularly told she had ‘made it’.

In my own writing, I trace both what Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb talked about long ago as the ‘hidden injuries of class’ and what I call the ‘hidden rewards of class’. Reay’s book reveals many ‘injuries’ but few if any ‘rewards’. Miseducation is an account of the long cold class war being waged against working-class families, denying generation after generation of kids the chance of decent education while blaming them for the paucity of their aspiration. As my daughter enjoys her final year in junior school, she can look forward to a privileged secondary education even as the remaining 80 percent of her peers, children of 10 and 11, have already been labelled as failures. A miseducation indeed!

Tim Strangleman

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4 Responses to Miseducation and the Working Class

  1. Pingback: Breaking the class ceiling: New books challenge the meritocracy trap | The High Asia Herald

  2. Pingback: Counting on Class: The Continuing Appeal of Meritocracy | Working-Class Perspectives

  3. Denise A. Narcisse says:

    For more than a decade, I have taught at an open admissions university located in Youngstown, Ohio. Based on this first-hand experience, it is clear to me that we must move beyond colleges providing open admissions if we are to reduce social class differences in educational opportunities in America. Gross inequalities in educational opportunities exist at grade-school level and earlier. There is a grass-roots group called NYC Coalition for Educational Justice. Perhaps Reay’s book covers similar groups that might serve as a model for a national coalition for educational justice. I look forward to reading the book. And thank you for your post.


  4. Mark James says:

    For too long the question of class has been ignored in British educational circles. As someone who taught in the East Midland coalfields for over 30 years I recognise the narrative outlined by Reay. Anybook on Class inequalities in education that burns with indignation and rage is to be welcomed.

    In my city, Sheffield, the scrabble for good education is not done through cramming for an exam , but by buying in the right catchment area. Whether the education in those schools deemed to be outstanding is as a good as is claimed is a mute point. That point applies to elite Universities like Cambridge even more so. As someone who worked in a ‘ special measures ‘ school I got tired of being labelled, alongside the kids, as inferior.

    The discourse throughout the latter part of my teaching career was about ‘ teaching and learning’ where the latest pedagogical craze would be positioned as the solution to working Class underachievement. Once found wanting the newest pedagogy would be superseded by the next one and so on and so forth.

    But we know all of this. What we do not know is the solution , if there is one or many. Without fundamentally challenging the class inequalities of our society I fear we are doomed to repeat the lessons that Reay has outlined. For me the solution lies outside of the classroom not in it.

    Liked by 1 person

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