‘Working class children are damaged by the English education system,’ says Cambridge professor

The English school system is “profoundly unjust” and creates “demoralisation, demotivation and physical and mental distress” among working class children, a new book by a University of Cambridge professor says. 

In Miseducation: Inequality, Education and the Working Classes, published on 11 October, Diane Reay says “the working classes have never had a fair chance in education... and they definitely do not have one in a 21st-century England that is scarred by growing inequalities.”

Professor Reay, who comes from a working class background and was an inner-city primary school teacher in London before becoming a professor of education at Cambridge, wrote the book out of a “need to make sense of and reflect on the damage inflicted on the working classes through education.

“The damage is now very different in appearance and texture to that suffered by my generation, but its scale and intensity has not diminished. The way class works in education has shifted and changed, but the gross inequalities that are generated through its workings do not change.”

The book is published by the British Sociological Association and Policy Press and is the first in their joint ‘21st Century Standpoints’ book series, which brings important sociological work to non-specialist and academic audiences.

In it, Professor Reay, draws on more than 500 interviews she conducted with parents and children over the past few years, and statistics from educational researchers. She says that:

  • Private school students are 55 times more likely than children receiving free school meals to gain a place at Oxford or Cambridge. Graduates from the poorest 40 per cent of families have average debts of £57,000 compared with £43,000 for the richest 30 per cent.
  • Around 18% of English school educational spending currently goes on the 7% of pupils who are privately educated: “We spend more on our private school system [per child] than does any other country except Chile.”
  • “In fairer and higher-achieving state educational systems such as those in Canada, Japan and Finland, children...who are falling behind receive extra support and more small-group input to enable them to catch up. Perversely, in the English educational system it is the white middle-class children with assertive parents who are more likely to receive extra help and additional resources. It is unsurprising, then, that socioeconomic attainment gaps widen. This may be how the English educational system has always worked, but that does not stop it being profoundly unjust.”
  • An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report in 2013 concluded that schools in England are among the most socially segregated in the developed world. In a UNICEF report in 2007 on how well children are served by their national educational systems, the UK languished near the bottom.
  • “From church schools to city academies to the free schools, schools in the grant maintained sector effectively impose restrictions on entry, selecting pupils with characteristics that they regard as desirable. In the 21st century, we are seeing the dissolution of a comprehensive system that was never fully comprehensive even at the outset, and its replacement by new elements that combine selection, elitism and patronage under the guise of providing diversity and choice.”

Professor Reay writes about her research interviewing students who attended two elite private schools and their parents. “What was striking ...was the certainty and confidence with which these privileged parents approached their children’s schooling. There were neither the hyper-anxiety of many middle-class parents sending their children to state schools nor the doubts and lack of confidence of working-class parents. In their place was an almost unassailable belief that their children were, and would continue to be, educational successes. I was told that their children were ‘incredibly bright’, ‘destined for academic heights’, ‘bound for Oxbridge’ and ‘simply brilliant at sciences’.”

By contrast, during her 20 years spent teaching, “the conditions for the working class children I was teaching worsened rather than improved. The developing culture of audit, regulation and assessment, the introduction of the National Curriculum, the growing reliance on ability setting, but above all the worsening economic conditions of the working classes, made the work of teachers like myself, who wanted all children to realise their potential, increasingly difficult and demoralising.”

In the book Professor Reay also describes her own experience of education as the oldest of eight children of working class parents living on a sink estate in a coal mining town.

“I seem to have been primed to remember and hold on to all the petty humiliations and insults of class throughout my schooling,” she says. “I can remember in vivid detail myriad put downs and negative interactions.

“On my first day at grammar school one of the girls from the private prep school had wafted over with her friends to tell me ‘my family knows your family’. When I gave her a puzzled look she retorted, ‘your grandmother was our servant’, and drifted away. Although she was in a number of top-set classes with me, she never spoke to me again. I learnt from this, and myriad other daily micro acts of class discrimination, to fade into the background, to become as small and invisible as I could make myself.

“The convention in a book like this is to set out the problems and then to offer solutions. But our current situation defies any formulaic approach. What is needed is a sea-change in hearts and minds, not just better policy in education.”

For more information or to contact Diane Reay, please contact: 

Tony Trueman
British Sociological Association
Tel: 07964 023392 

Review copies are available from Kathryn King at Policy Press.


1. Miseducation: Inequality, Education and the Working Classes by Diane Reay:
Paperback ISBN 9781447330653 £9.99; Epub ISBN 9781447330660  £7.99;
Epdf ISBN 9781447330646  £60. It can be ordered from the Policy Press website: www.policypress.co.uk 

2. The next books in the 21st Century Standpoints series will be Snobbery, by David Morgan (July 2018), and What's Wrong with Work? by Lynne Pettinger (January 2019). The series editors are Professor Les Back, Goldsmiths, University of London, Professor Pamela Cox, University of Essex, and Professor Nasar Meer, University of Edinburgh.