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Michael Rosen: Class selects the educational elite

This article is over 13 years, 2 months old
A recent report into educational achievement shows the enduring strength of the class divide
Issue 2128

A complex and highly contentious issue in education has been raised by a recent study. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) and a government agency, the National College of School Leadership, have produced a report looking at how to improve educational achievement among white working class pupils.

The report called for school funding to be ‘reconfigured and used sensitively’ in deprived areas, in part to ‘recognise the impact of deprivation on the achievement of white working class pupils’.

John Bangs, the head of education at the NUT, said, ‘It’s absolutely right to support kids from ethnic minority groups but head teachers want also the flexibility to support kids from white working class backgrounds, particularly those coming from tough and deprived areas.’

He added, ‘Underachievement of ethnic groups has been the focus and the issue of social class hasn’t been…The sensitivity shouldn’t be about, ‘They’re getting it and we are not’…It’s not about the racial divide, it’s about class and this is an area that we have got to tackle if we really want to reduce the gap between rich and poor.’

Now, there are quite a few potential pitfalls here, and Bangs did his best to avoid them. Clearly racism impacts on educational achievement for children from ethnic minority backgrounds.

But achievement is affected hugely by class. The education system is made up of many schools and colleges. These aren’t equal in status or wealth.

It’s no coincidence that the layer of top management, whether that’s in business or the ‘professions’ was mostly educated either in the private sector or at highly selective schools.

Below this are the middle management layers, many of whom went to what localities know to be ‘good’ schools, which often operate below-the-radar systems of selection and receive extra funding.

And below this is the majority of the population who used to go to what were called ‘secondary modern’ schools, then ‘comprehensive’ schools, many of which have now been forcibly turned into ‘academies’. Most of these children will go on to do working class jobs.

So how come this is sorted out by the time children are 12? The short answer is the one that Bangs mentions – it’s about class – but this doesn’t really spell it out. Why should being working class affect how do you do at school?

Quite rightly, some people have answered this in terms of the kind of squeeze that affects all working class children – lack of money, time and living space.

But there’s something else. It’s to do with the nature of what we might call ‘school knowledge’. This is based on what used to be called ‘book learning’, it favours the written word over the spoken, the theoretical and abstract over the practical.

Schools themselves are arranged hierarchically with systems of regulation that are controlled from the top, as is the relationship with parents and the locality.

What all this means is that the kinds of knowledge and social qualities that you might have as a working class family are not affirmed and welcomed by most schools.

Conversely, if you have the kinds of knowledge and social qualities that come from being educated privately and/or at a ‘good’ school, then the chances are that your children will find school knowledge easier to absorb and school systems familiar.

I can walk into a class of seven year olds and within ten minutes see how these processes are at work. A reward system of smiley faces and stars punishes most children for not being good enough.

The arrangement of the tables in the classroom punishes most children for not being good enough at their work.

The top table is given more theoretical, abstract work to do. The parents of those children not getting the smiley faces and who are on the ‘lower’ tables rarely, if ever, have their skills and knowledge affirmed.

This is a tiny example of what is repeated thousands of times within single schools and between the different kinds of schools.

I don’t have much argument with what Bangs is saying, other than to say that the real discrimination in the system is both in the nature of our schools and in the nature of education itself.

Our struggle for a better system has to involve opposing all selection, opposing academies, and opposing any practices that discriminate against anyone.

This also means demanding much more inclusive kinds of schoolwork, classroom practice and relationships with parents and community.

Michael Rosen is the author of many children’s books and is the current Children’s Laureate


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