Miseducation – Diane Reay

Diane is a working-class turned Cambridge professor who offers an incisive and damning account of the class based inequalities inherent in our education system. Diane’s book is a great read and highly recommended – here are a few excerpts to whet your appetite:

From ‘scum’ to ‘chavs’: different words, same judgement (p.22) …for Joe Bennett such words represent ‘the flagrant triumphalism of the rich, who no longer challenged by those below them, instead point and laugh at them’ (p.22).


This lack of valuing, contempt and class blaming found in the wider economy and society is evident in attitudes and ‘beliefs’ about the working classes in education p.23


But almost always when policy makers and politicians recognise that what happens outside the schools has an even bigger impact on working class achievement than what happens inside, they are citing deficit qualities of working class parents – they lack aspiration, don’t support their children enough, let them watch too much TV. So it is never about the wider economy, rarely about poverty and the lack of resources, and almost always about the working classes having the wrong attitudes and doing the wrong things. The lack of valuing and respect for the working classes in wider society translates into class condescension and scorn in the classroom. P24


The return of setting and streaming in primary schools can result in very overt forms of class labelling. It is difficult to handle emotionally when you are confronted with class groupings in which the lowest set of working-class ethnic minority children are labelled the monkeys, while the predominantly white, middle-class top group are called cheetahs. P.25


The English educational system in enlisted in the manufacture of consent for the elitist, deeply unequal status quo prevailing in english society…..we cannot divorce education from wider inequalities. P.26


[education] operates as an enormous academic sieve, sorting our the educational winners from the losers in a crude but often brutal process that prioritises and rewards upper-and middle-class qualities and resources p.26


John Smyth argues that ‘it seems we have lost our way and headed down policy cul-de-sacs that have, if anything, manifestly worsened the problems exacerbating educational and social inequality p.27


When the English state schooling system was set up in the late 19thC the intention of the dominant classes was still to police and control the working classes rather than to educate them p.31


What emerged from the [1970 Education] Act were three parallel educational universes: elementary schooling for the working classes; secondary education for the middle classes; and private schools for the upper classes. P.32


1944 Education Act and 11+ assessment – The rhetoric was that grammar schools were to take the 25% most academically able children, regardless of class background, and to substantially increase educational opportunities. The reality was very different…. P.33


Current research analysing the governments proposals have found that for a child to have even a 50-50 chance of getting into one of the May’s new selective grammar schools they wound need to be in one of the wealthiest 10% of families in the country pp.34-35


Secondary moderns were secondary in more than one way. They were seen as second-rate provision for the less-intelligent children and, as such, were subject to poor funding and a narrow curriculum. In 1950s it was estimated that the average grammar school pupils received 170% more per annum, in terms of resources, than the average secondary modern school child. P.38


Labelling thousands of children in this way and putting them in a school together was clearly a recipe for failure, maintaining that to be written off as a ‘failure’ at age 10 or 11 was a travesty p.39


All ability comprehensives developed in the 1970s from the ‘growing anger and outrage of disenfranchised middle-class parents whose children had failed to get into grammar schools p.40


Selection through the 11+ was replaced by selection through streaming p.41


Gewitz, Ball and Browe – “working class children are on the whole likely to be ghettoized in under-subscribed, understaffed, low status schools. At the same time middle-class parents are most likely to apply and have their children selected for oversubscribed, favourably resourced, favourably staffed, high status schools.” Cited p.42


We have never had a fair educational system. But now, in the 21st C 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 guide of providing necessary diversity and choice. The features of this model are evident in the implementation of intensive testing, the widening range of selective and specialist schools, the focus on meeting the needs of gifted and talented children, and the policy obsession with aspiration and opportunity. P.43


Currently at least 18% of English school education spending goes on the 7% of pupils who are privately educated.p.44


One consequence of the continuing high tolerance of elitism and unfairness in the educational system is that, under contemporary neoliberalism, divisive and unfair perspectives have become enshrined in educational policy rather than being challenged and changed. P.47


Current research by the NUT and Child Poverty Action Group using Department for Education data shows that, under current government school funding policy, the 1000 schools with the highest number of free school meal pupils are facing much deeper cuts than schools generally p.55


Over 3 years – 2011-12 to 2013-14 disadvantaged (FSM, Pupil premium and working class) pupils were 27% less likely to achieve 5 GCSE grades A*-C including english and maths p.57


Working class bodies are marked as degenerate or deficient, or in many cases, both. There were also shades of paranoia: a fear of contamination in which mixing with ‘rough’ children is seen to pollute ‘nice’ sons and daughters. P.61


Out of school activities – increasingly accessible to the rich p.65


The failure within education to respect and value working-class knowledge has resulted in the invidious divide between vocational and academic knowledge…attempts to upgrade vocational education have failed because British middle-classes have never countenanced it for their own children p.65


Parents now expected to be home based tutors – yet only middle and upper class parents have the time, nor do they have the time to pay for it privately – a double disadvantage (paraphrased) p.67… also may not know how if had poor education themselves


The very different levels of resources – material, social, but also psychological in terms of confidence and a sense of entitlement – add up to a substantial and unfair class difference p.73


This differential valuing of upper, middle and working classes not only infuses the education system, but has shaped its structure, influenced its practices and dictated the very different relationships that different social classes have to the system. P76


For working class children, classrooms are often places of routine everyday humiliations and slights. And those working-class children who become disaffected with school develop strong resentments about mistreatment and what they saw as unfairness p.77


Psychological research sows overwhelmingly that performance and behaviour in an educational context can be profoundly influenced y the way we feel that we are seen and judged by others. When we expect to be viewed as inferior our abilities seem to be diminished , and this sense of inferiority is particularly strong in the bottom sets p.77


NUT research showed that 97% of teachers agreed that SATS had had a negative impact on children’s access to a broad and balanced curriculum. They also wrote of demoralisation, demotivation and physical and mental distress. P.87


Recent governments, Labour, Conservative and Coalition, have viewed creating aspiring students as more effective, and clearly cheaper, than putting money into education. …this constitutes a policy approach that makes the working classes responsible for their own educational success without providing them with the resources to be able to make that success possible. P.102


So many of us from working-class backgrounds invest heavily in the fantasy that our relentless efforts will bring us love, care, intimacy, success, security, and well-being even when they are highly unlikely to do so because, in doing so, we are forming optimistic attachments to the very power structures that have oppressed us, and our families before us. Social mobility is one such optimistic fantasy that ensnares and works on both the individual psyche and collective consciousness. It has become the preferred cure for social problems and educational inequalities, promoted by politicians on both the Right and the Left. But in deeply unequal societies like England it has come to feel much more like a social ill, one that harms both the socially mobile individual and the communities they grew up in p.103


Self-betrayal / betrayal of community – Almost by definition working class aspiration is pretentious, a hankering after ‘the other’ rather than acceptance of the self p.108


This feminist work stresses the need to understand upwardly mobility as having a deeply defensive aspect. The discourses through which to read upward mobility present it as a freeing, a success. But striving for success for a working-class young person is about wanting something different, something more than your parents had, and that not only implies that there is something wrong with your parents life, but that there is something intrinsically wrong with them. And there is an emptiness to becoming somebody if your parents remain nobodies. What is the point of striving for equality with more-privileged others if the process creates inequalities between you and the people you love, and the communities you were born into? Pp114-115


Berlant – shame is the darker side of aspirations optimism.p115


We want to rise with our class, not out of it p.116


Universities with the most success at widening participation to working-class students are predominantly those that are perceived to be low status p.118


As Bourdieu and Champagne assert, ‘after an extended school career, which often entails considerable sacrifice, the most culturally disadvantaged run the risk of ending up with a devalued degree p.121


The troubling paradox of widening access and democratisation of higher education is that, despite democratic intentions, widening access has brought an intensification of class and racial inequalities between different levels of higher education…. Instead a segregated and increasingly polarised system p.121-22


A meritocratic system is a competition in which there are clear winners and losers, but in which the resulting inequalities are justified on the basis that participatns have an equal opportunity to prove themselves… in the 21st century the reality is that [meritocracy] has become a powerful means to legitimising both social exclusion and elitism p.122


The conclusion argues that although the upper and middle classes benefit from an educational system that has been set up to serve their interests, they are also, to an extent, damaged by the invidious workings of an inequitable system that emphasises divisions and hierarchy at the expense of commonalities and what different groups in society share. P.131


Educational success comes easily to this [middle] class group: they have the money, confidence, social connections and resources to make it happen without a great deal of effort. P.134


These classes position the working class as ‘subhuman’, ‘uneducated’, ‘chavs’, toothless’, ‘undisciplined’, ‘morons’, ‘thuggish’ (paraphrased) Despite a powerful rhetoric of equal opportunities and a flirtation with more inclusive democratic ideals, what the middle classes have always been extremely good at is drawing boundaries and metaphorically pulling up the drawbridge in the face of those whom they view as educationally beneath them p.136


Many middle class parents had democratic and communitarian ideals until it came to ensuring that their children did well at school… hence they end up torn   (paraphrased) p137


The natural taken for granted brightness of the middle classes also needs to eb challenged, and particularly the assumption that it is natural and intrinsic rather than carefully constructed and intensively nurtured from birth, something that Annette Lareau calls the ‘concerted cultivation’ of the middle class. P.141


65% of middle class parents pay £100 a week for private tutoring – more than many working-class families had to live on (paraphrased) p.143


Working-class students inhabit a psychic economy of class defined by fear, and unease where failure looms large and success is elusive, a space where they are positioned and see themselves as losers in the intense competition that education has become. P.147


Economic inequalities take shape psychically for all individuals through binaries of middle and working-class, rich and poor……But a desire to be outside the class system and a denial that class as any importance in contemporary society, does not equate the inequalities that underpin it. Rather, by claiming to be in the middle people can talk about inequalities without feeling personally implicated either as those who, in lacking resources, are seen to be intrinsically lacking or as those with resources who can be seen as selfish and greedy. P166.


2015 PISA data shows that the gap between the top 10% of working class and middle class students was a 33 month lag in science and a 32 month lag in reading (paraphrased) Even ‘highly able’ working-class students in England are falling far behind middle-class students, despite a wide range of recent policies focussed specifically on them. P177


Our new austerity world of Brexit and Donald Trump may feel unsettling and unfamiliar, but austerity education is a return to the past. Just as was the case in the 19th century, we are educating the working-class to be subservient and compliant, cramming them with facts, and then continually testing their recall. Such teaching to the test means that political awareness, critical thinking, and problem solving have all been neglected. One of the major forms of the miseducation of the working classes is that we are still educating them for the 19th century in the 21st. p179


[educational failure] is viewed as the fault of the working-class individual. This raises serious concerns around independence and dependence, autonomy and insufficiency in which working classness is viewed as a matter of internal traits rather than economic position, and class inequalities become just the natural order of things because working-class individuals who fail to be socially mobile are seen to lack the right qualities rather than the right resources. P.180


Jessica Gerrard (2013p.198) has argued: The collective naming of shared experiences of inequality and oppression is central to developing grounds for challenging social inequality, whether this be on the basis of class, race, gender, or something else. P.184


In educational failure we need to consider:

The importance of history

The relational nature of class

The importance of wider social and economic conditions

The shifting of educational responsibilities onto families


The EEF concludes that cooperation is considerably more effective than interpersonal competition and individualistic efforts, and has the added bonus of enhancing attitudes to learning as well as achievement…the key question is why English education has never embraced approaches that work and adopts those that don’t p.188-189


What is needed is an ‘engaged pedagogy’ that focuses on the self-actualisation, empowerment and well-being of students p.192


Annette Kuhn (1995, p.103) “Perhaps for those of us who learned silence through shame, the hardest thing of all is to find a voice, not the voice of the monstrous singular ego, but one that, summoning the resources of the place we come from, can speak with eloquence of, and for, that place” p.199


2 thoughts on “Miseducation – Diane Reay

  1. “But striving for success for a working-class young person is about wanting something different, something more than your parents had, and that not only implies that there is something wrong with your parents life, but that there is something intrinsically wrong with them”. Really? What is the evidence for this? I think you will find many parents want their children to have a better life than them, especially if they are migrants. But neither the children or parents think it is ‘wrong’ but rather just an aspiration, a burden these parents are happy to take on. If the children do better than them, the parents (and children) I’m sure would be happy, not depressed!


    1. Hi Ted, I agree that hopefully all parents want something better for their children, but Reay is suggesting that the children may feel some guilt at this step up. I think it’s a possibility but not an absolute link. Provoking stuff isn’t it!


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