Balancing the Scales: Overcoming Social Class Inequalities in Education

A fortnight ago I blogged about the inherent social class disparities within education in England and Wales. In doing so, I considered that the English and Welsh education system was founded upon elements of control exerted upon working classes, as opposed to liberation. I also suggested that (counter to popular discourse) it is unhelpful to claim that raising attainment of working class children is simply about state schools needing to apply more effort. While issues of social mobility are not confined within the perimeter fences of schools (and I have previously acknowledged that a net cast much wider is required to address all of the challenges) that is not to say that hard working teachers in great schools all over the country are not doing their utmost to facilitate success for the young people they teach. This blog acts as a follow up to my previous post and offers some perspectives as to whether ‘contemporary’ schooling can overcome or inadvertently reproduce social class inequality, and by no means purports to be a solution for such a complex problem.

Barriers to learning and overcoming inequality, do we create our own walls?

Barriers to learning and overcoming inequality: Do we create our own walls?

On Aspirations

Many interventions that take place within and around schools often focus on raising aspirations in young people, based on the premise that young people from less affluent backgrounds do not have the life goals of their peers. In addition to this there is often attention paid to attainment, over engagement (Perry and Francis, 2010). There is some interesting research around this that was conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (Goodman and Gregg, 2010), which alluded to the habits (for further information see discussion of Bourdieu in previous blog) of working classes concealing a far more important issue. It is suggested that what often appears as low aspiration on the surface, and outward behaviours we would associate with low aspiration, is often concealing a very real high level of aspiration internally. This internal aspiration has been steadily eroded by negative experiences as a working class child during schooling. Furthermore, what often appears to be a ‘disengaged parent’ alongside this, is often a parent who does not hold the cultural capital to support their child in line with the high expectations of the school. This idea has been supported by other authors (Kintrea et al, 2011) who allude to the fact that if all young people did go on to fulfill their aspirant goals then the labour market as it exists in our country would not have sufficient opportunities to accommodate their targets. What we encounter then, is a situation where many young people (granted, not all)  may hold sincere ambitions but lack a knowledge and understanding of how to fulfill the ambitions they possess and perhaps this is where intervention strategies could reside, along with working with parents and carers to support this process.

Directing finances toward aspiration based interventions may not always be rewarding and instead there is opportunity to focus on supporting parents and carers to work on their skills to support their child, involving them in the learning and life of the school in order to align expectations. Just one example of a pilot study attempting to encompass these aims is that of ‘Family Literacy’; where parents and young children in England and Wales took part in a combined course to improve skills instruction and literacy development. Outcomes suggested that gains were achieved in the reading and writing skills of the children while parents simultaneously became better equipped to support their child through school (Carter-Wall and Whitfield, 2012).

Even within this arena of focus, schools, with full intention of generally helping their students, can inadvertently reproduce social class inequality. As when interventions of this nature are provided to an entire student body they often tend to benefit the middle-class children in attendance first, as these children are equipped (personally and at home) to act on the information provided, as interestingly discussed by Diane Reay and Helen Lucey in their article on choice and inner city schooling (2003). This follows a similar theme to the hypothesis of Maximally Maintained Inequality (MMI), whereby expansion and opportunities in education may be thought to reduce the impact of family background in having an effect on education access and success. This is countered by more advantaged students finding new ways to access and fill the spaces and opportunities created, thus maintaining the inequality (until a saturation point is reached or different access criteria is employed).


School Choice

Working class children are more likely to attend schools that may be performing less well than others (Cassen and Kingdon, 2007) and research has shown that low income families often have a narrower choice of primary schools (Burgess et al, 2011) in terms of an ability to move to different catchment areas for example (when related to non-fee paying schools). This is much the same in other Western education systems with a mirrored effect in the United States (Brantlinger, 2003) where parental choice is neutralised by affordability issues in purchasing a new home in a new area. An interesting inference perhaps then is that working classes develop a strong affinity with their locality and tend to become bound to it. We have to consider of course whether there is actually anything wrong with this at all, but it does pose a challenge in breaking the cycle of reproduced inequality. One UK Government initiative to expand the education market is through encouraging the implementation of Free Schools, of which more than 400 were approved for opening within England by the last Coalition Government. While a whole blog could be dedicated to discussing Free Schools, essentially they are state-funded, non-profit-making, independent schools that are free to attend and should be subject to the same School Admissions Code as other state-funded schools. Despite the Government suggesting this would improve access and choice of quality education in more deprived areas, there seems to be a reality that this is not the case. There are some suggestions that many Free Schools are becoming havens for more affluent students with intakes controversially not representing the demographic of their local area. The Free School model originates partly from Sweden, where some critics of the scheme have strongly argued that free schools have actually increased socioeconomic segregation due to a rejection of children perceived as more ‘challenging’, and that demonstrations of improved attainment has not been readily evident (Wiborg, 2010, Allen 2010). While widening school choice has some attractive properties, it will always need monitoring and management, as parents and carers of children from poorer backgrounds need support in exercising their voice in speaking out against unsatisfactory standards in schools within their catchment.

The Fixing, and Fear, of Failure

In my previous blog I discussed the idea of Rational Action Theory (RAT) where young people make decisions as best they can with information available to them in relation to their life circumstances and associated risks. A fear of failure may be a key factor in influencing decision making of young people. Constant assessment, and relentless use of setting and streaming classes based on ‘ability’ may have a fixing of failure effect (Reay, 2009). In environments such as this it may be that working class students become demotivated, likely to fail, as they begin to self position themselves not only in the hierarchy of the setting system in the school, but the strata of society beyond the school gates. This perhaps is one of the ‘negative experiences’ that erodes away at the ‘concealed aspirations’, as discussed earlier. Diane Reay (2001) has argued that some parents will put great pressure on schools to protect systems of streaming and setting for what they perceive to be the ‘good’ of their own children. To challenge the culture of fixing failure, I would suggest that schools have to be brave in the face of resistance from middle-classes and embrace heterogeneity within schools and classrooms, avoiding early tracking into streamed and differentiated structures.

Prof. Carol Dweck: On 'potential'

Prof. Carol Dweck: On ‘potential’

It is also important that young people understand that failure is an acceptable aspect of a learning journey and that we can all make improvements over time. This has been popularised recently by the work around Growth mindset by Professor Carol Dweck (which we have embarked upon as a culture shift at my own school – see blogs by Chris Hildrew, current Deputy Headteacher). Teachers can support learners by modelling failure, providing effective feedback and helping them develop skills around self-regulation (what many great teachers aspire to do!)

Across this blog and the last, it is clear that social class inequalities have persisted in education in Britain for over a century, and overcoming an institutionalised issue will require a long concerted effort. But to me the fact remains; no matter how great the challenge, education has such immense influence over the lives of young people that everything within education’s power should be employed to equip working class children for life in an uncertain and competitive world. Furthermore, we as educators need to question our own cultural capital, our habits and employ rational thinking and ask: are we prepared to help bridge the gap? I would imagine we would hear a resounding ‘yes!’.


Allen, R. (2010) Replicating Swedish free school reforms in England, Research in Public Policy (CMPO Bulletin), Issue 10, pp. 4-7.

Brantlinger, E. (2003) Dividing Classes. 1st ed. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Burgess, S., Greaves, E., Vignoles, A. and Wilson, D. (2011) ‘Parental choice of primary school in England: what types of school do different types of family really have available to them?’, Policy Studies, 32(5), pp. 531–547.

Carter-Wall, C. and Whitfield, G. (2012) ‘The role of aspirations, attitudes and behaviour in closing the educational attainment gap’, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Cassen, R. and Kingdon, G. (2007) Tackling low educational achievement, York: JRF

Goodman, A. and Gregg, P. (2010) Poorer children’s educational attainment: How important are attitudes and behaviour? York: JRF

Kintrea, K., St Clair, R. and Houston, M. (2011) The influence of parents, places and poverty on educational attitudes and aspirations. York: JRF

Perry, E. and Francis, B. (2010) The Social Class Gap for Educational Achievement: a review of the literature, London: RSA

Reay, D. (2001) ‘Finding or losing yourself?: working-class relationships to education’, Journal of Education Policy, 16(4), pp. 333–346.

Reay, D. (2009) ‘Making sense of white working class underachievement’ in K. Sveinsson (ed). Who cares about the white working class? London: Runnymede Trust

Reay, D. and Lucey, H. (2003) ‘The Limits of ‘Choice’: Children and Inner City Schooling’, Sociology, 37(1), pp. 121–142.

Wiborg, S. (2010) ‘Swedish free schools: Do they work?’, Lakes Research Paper, 18.



Filed under Education

4 responses to “Balancing the Scales: Overcoming Social Class Inequalities in Education

  1. This is superb Ash. I’ve just read it twice and it needs another read already! Excellent stuff.

  2. More About Luck

    “But to me the fact remains; no matter how great the challenge, education has such immense influence over the lives of young people ” – It goes beyond education, wealth concentration plays a big part here. Take for example the following study which looked at the lives of 17000 people born in a single week in 1970. Those with similiar high levels of academic ability were still drastically affected by the wealth of their parents.

    • Absolutely, it transcends education but morally you do what you can else you risk contributing to a reproduced inequality. Your point is correct and hilights the issues with access to, and opportunities within, education. Globally, maternal education and paternal income has a key part to play.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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