By Diane Reay, University of Cambridge
It is unsurprising that in the age of aspiration we have ended up with an aspirational educational system; one that promises much but signally fails to deliver in terms of fairness and realising the potential of all children. Both longstanding and more recent policies are to blame. Underpinning social injustice in education is the historical legacy of a tripartite system that is much more pernicious than the grammar, technical and secondary modern school divide. The private school sector has long been one of the principal means by which elitism and social divisions are produced and perpetuated in English schooling. Yet, rather than being subject to critique and reform it is held up as the ideal to which the state sector should aspire. Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden wrote in ‘Education and the Working Class’ over fifty years ago that our educational system was one based on the principle of selecting and rejecting in order to rear an elite. It still is. The current faltering commitment to comprehensive schooling is fundamentally undermined by structures such as private schooling that perpetuate privilege and segregated schooling. As a consequence English education has always been about addressing the wishes, ambitions and needs of the few not the many.
But segregation is also growing within the state sector both between schools and within them. While on the surface middle and working class children appear to be receiving the same comprehensive education, in some cases while attending the same schools, the entrenchment of policies of choice and excessive testing, assessment, sorting and sifting mean that they are increasingly educated apart as they move through the school system. The divide in English education is not just between state and private, but also within the state sector itself. In the past the barriers to realising working class educational potential came through failing the 11-plus and being consigned to schools seen to be second-rate, or being relegated to the bottom stream of a grammar school. Now OECD research shows that middle class students tend to be taught in smaller classes and have access to better quality teaching resources than their working class peers. Although nominally receiving the same education as middle class students who attend state schools, working class children are subject to a narrowing of the curriculum and a degree of teaching to the test that is not experienced by their middle class peers. They are also more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers and to experience a higher turnover of staff. The historical legacy of different education for different classes still overshadows the state sector. But the inequalities it perpetuates have been reinforced by the neoliberal drive towards markets, competition, regulation, and individualism.
After 150 years of state education the working classes have moved from being positioned as educational failures because they received too little education to being failed educationally because they receive an education that is ill-equipped to realise their potential. The concept of ‘the left behind’ has gained popular currency since the Brexit vote but the working classes have always been left behind in English education. And widening access and participation in higher education is not the panacea it is held up to be. While everyone should have the opportunity to go to university, getting more and more working class students to move on to higher education, when they then accrue average debts of £60,000 and frequently end up in low paid, casualised work, operates as a cruel form of optimism. Despite the constant aspirational babble that we can all be winners, the hyper-competitive culture that education has become fixes failure in the working classes so that the upper and middle classes have the opportunity to shine academically. One hundred years ago R H Tawney argued that parents should want for all children what they want for their own child educationally. For Tawney this encapsulated what it meant to be a good citizen. English society has never attempted let alone achieved this. It is time we tried.
Diane Reay addresses the issue of class in education in her latest book Miseducation: inequality, education and the working classes, Policy Press, 2017
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