why is there class in the classroom?

Dave Spencer explores the reasons for working-class under-achievement in the British education system.

There is an iron law in the sociology of education which states that the working class in Britain do badly in the education system. A recent study by the Sutton Trust should therefore come as no surprise. It found that over 2007-9 five elite private schools sent 946 students to Oxbridge whereas 2,000 comprehensives sent 927  between them. No surprise too at the recent UCU survey of educational attainment in various parliamentary constituencies. They found that  12.1% of people have no qualifications and 29% have degree level or above.  But this varied considerably from area to area with some working-class areas having over 30% with no qualifications.

prison warder: for many a classist education system is a trial

The basic question of course is – why do the working class do so badly?  At one time there was a straightforward argument between Nature and Nurture, genetics or environment.  It is difficult to argue these days, as some psychologists did in the 1960s, that the reason women and blacks did badly in the education system and society in general is because they are less intelligent. But many people still assume that the reason working class children do badly in the education system is because genetically they do not have the ability. Elitism or the idea that the people at the top of our class hierarchy are there because they are more intelligent is still alive and well. Just look at the smug buggers on the Coalition front bench!

The Nurture theory is directly the opposite of the Nature theory.  It was advocated in the 1950s by Brian Simon and Robin Pedley of Leicester University who first argued for Comprehensive Schools. Ability has nothing to do with genetic intelligence but to do with the way the child is brought up and the environment and culture in which they live.  JB Watson made the famous statement that given a dozen healthy infants and a choice of different environments he could produce any worker the state might require.  The explanation then for the success of the children attending private schools in Britain and the failure of the working class is not a question of intelligence but of the school environment.

The Labour Party of the 1950s and 1960s seized on the idea of comprehensive education as a reform to produce  equal opportunity for all children and to produce social mobility, i.e. more skilled workers for capitalism. However, they did not include in their reform package the obvious equaliser, which was to abolish private schools! The problem was that when comprehensive education was eventually introduced it did not improve the educational attainment of the working class or increase social mobility.

How to explain that? In a 1971 article Bernstein argued that the object of the education system in a society was to reproduce the class system, not to change it.  A number of “Marxists” took up Bernstein’s critique – for example Bowles and Gintis. They give a neat explanation as to why the working class do badly.  Teachers are “cultural cops” establishing conformity, not enlightened reformers – apart from the odd “hero” here and there. To re-inforce this view Brian Simon describes a discussion he had with some mandarins in the Department of Education under Thatcher. They stated that the authorities could deal with a few working class youth riots like the 1981 riots in Handsworth and Toxteth but the last thing they wanted was an educated working class.  Recent commentators on riots and looting, take note!

The problem with this “Marxist” approach, like the ‘Nature’ explanation, is its mechanical determinism. Each person’s life is determined by the limits of their IQ which is fixed or by their position in the class system which is also fixed. There is no possibility of dialectical change from below either by the individual or by groups.  We have to wait for a new elite “the party” to seize the state and change the rules for them.

Using cognitive or humanist approaches to psychology, it is possible to understand how dialectical processes of change can be brought about.  Both Piaget and Vygotsky show how consciousness develops and can be stimulated in children not by rote learning but by reflection on experience. As Freire argues, real life experience and culture must be respected and theory used to critically develop a plan and process of change. Another concept linked to critical thinking is that of sites of struggle. This refers to workplaces or communities where people’s consciousness develops as they demand certain rights and improvements against authority. There is a learning process in which  theory has to play a role together with life experience.

But from my own experience of teaching working class women who had failed at secondary school, I know that these women are as capable as anybody of passing the necessary exams to progress to University and to responsible jobs. The problem was that the women themselves didn’t think they were capable because of their school experience and neither did the authorities.  I went to see a professor at Coventry University to discuss setting up an Access course for some of them to study to become social workers. He looked at me in shock and horror. “We have to maintain academic standards!” he said. I pointed out that the women were just as able as the younger students and probably had had the advantage of experiencing social workers in their own lives.  What better start to becoming a social worker than being a single parent in a council estate? He was not convinced.

In the present economic crisis, if it was announced that only women and blacks will have to pay for the failure of the bankers there would quite rightly be outrage.  We understand sexism and racism.  But apparently it is alright for the working class to pay.  Elitism is alive and kicking. As W H Auden said in his ‘Letters to Lord Byron’: “We’re so much better educated now. There are no lies our children cannot read.”


3 thoughts on “why is there class in the classroom?

  1. ““We have to maintain academic standards!” he said. I pointed out that the women were just as able as the younger students and probably had had the advantage of experiencing social workers in their own lives. What better start to becoming a social worker than being a single parent in a council estate? He was not convinced.”

    It’s not “academic standards” he’s upholding, he’s preserving class standards, he’s acting as a barrier to class mobility. It’s not uncommon to talk with “traveller kids”, i.e. kids who ride the rails in the US, who are *far* better educated than their college age counterparts, and the traveller kids are usually high school dropouts or kickouts. The difference between the college kids and the traveller kids is that there’s not much to do while riding in a freight car or wherever, so the travellers read, a *lot*, whereas college kids read their assignments and little else… Guess who gets the better education…


  2. Hi Dave, This is Jim Schofield.
    Contact me on jimofbi@compuserve.com.
    Have a look at my philosophical stuff on SHAPE Journal, where I also have the Theory of Emergences, and on the shapejournal channel on YOUtube there are two animation/videos My son Mick, who is 28 found you. I now have five kids all grown up, and ended up as a professor in London University. But I’ve never stopped being a Marxist.
    Be glad to hear from my best mate from long ago, Jim


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