Youth Identity in Australia

This week Marnee Shay, Annette Woods and Grace Sarra visited the University of Cumbria from sunny old Queensland Australia.

In a ‘deadly’ (means good in Australia) presentation they talked of their extensive research with Indigenous Youth. 3% of the Australian population is Indigenous, and 80% of that 3% are in ‘flexi schools’ having been pushed out of the mainstream education system.

Marnee, Annette and Grace spent time in a range of flexi schools across Australia speaking to these youth about their identity.

This was not a quick dip in, ask a few questions, and dip out exercise. The academics employed local staff as co-researchers to ensure that local knowledge was privileged in the process and local capacity and employment boosted. Marnee and her team spent two weeks in each school working in a relational and participatory way with young people.

The activities were built slowly, young people’s preferences respected, sessions tailored to be culturally sensitive, research tools were creative, and the youth given a budget of $5000 to make an artefact or product of their choice that reflected their identities.

The process was respectful, empowering and profound. Many youth who would not normally show up for school did for this project showing the potential of educational processes that are meaningful and respectful.

The research was socially just, ensuring that the participants gained as much from the process as the researchers, and that the knowledge was co-created, respectful, equitable. There are many lessons here about slow relational respectful research.

The end products are breathtaking – highly professional printed clothing, videos, artwork, poetry, all expressing something of what it is to be Indigenous youth in Australia. Impressive as artefacts, profound when the layers of meaning and considered – what the totems mean, what the young people rapped. We should take heed at the wisdom of youth on who they are and what they want.

Thank you to Marnee, Annette and Grace for sharing this important work with us in the UK, we who had a hand in dispossessing these youth of their lands in the first place. I applaud your work and admit my cultural shame.



Want to do something about equality?

I’m convening an Equality Cumbria and Lancashire group for people who care about equality of all kinds in these regions as a local group for the Equality Trust.

If the issues raised in this blog, your personal experience, or watching the news makes you uncomfortable, anxious or angry then come along!


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We will decide what we want to do as a group when we first meet, so the first one will be an exploration of who is in the room, what the issues are that bother us and what we want to do about – chat, research, prod, petition, publish, protest – its all possible.

If you are interested then book here:

Join the new Equality group based in Cumbria and Lancashire. The UK is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world in terms of its gap between rich and poor a situation that has been shown to have negative impacts evident for everyone (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009; 2018). * Are you concerned about inequality in Cumbria and Lancashire? * Do you want to join like-minded people to discuss these issues? * Do you want to challenge the gaps in education, employment, wealth, health and wellbeing? Then join us for the first meeting of this group to explore the local issues, who we are as a group, and how we might want to work together.

Join the new Equality group in Cumbria and Lancashire. The UK is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world in terms of its gap between rich and poor a situation that has been shown to have negative impacts evident for everyone (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009; 2018). * Are you concerned about inequality in Cumbria and Lancashire? * Do you want to join like-minded people to discuss these issues? * Do you want to challenge the gaps in education, employment, wealth, health and wellbeing? Then join us for the first meeting of this group to explore the local issues, who we are as a group, and how we might want to work together.

The Sell Out of the UK

This week’s read has been George Monbiot’s Captive State. This shocking book shows how corporations in the UK and overseas have become so powerful in the UK. The  Private Finance Initiative is documented to have enabled a range of private investors to buy into and then profit from the Skye Bridge, hospitals, schools, land use, shops, the food chain, many key areas of our economic life are controlled by private companies rather than the government.

Monbiot’s solution? “Engaging in democratic politics, using exposure, enfranchisement and dissent to prise representatives out of the arms of the powers they have embraced”  (2000,p.358).

“Only one thing can reverse the corporate take over of Britain. It’s you.” (2000, p.360).

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The Impact of Inequality and Need for Economic Democracy

This weeks read has been Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s latest (2018) book – The Inner Level. This text maps the social and psychological processes that mean that income inequality diminishes wellbeing – a fact they evidenced in their first book, The Spirit Level (2007).

The collate huge evidence bases for the worsening of all of the following issues in countries where income inequality is widest (pp268-272):

  • Life expectancy
  • Infant mortality
  • Adult mortality
  • Obesity
  • HIV infection
  • Mental illness (all)
  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia
  • Psychotic symptoms
  • Status anxiety
  • Narcissism
  • Substance use or deaths
  • Problem gambling
  • Trust / social capital
  • Solidarity
  • Agreeableness
  • Civic participation
  • Cultural participation
  • Ambiguous stereotyping (bastards but contribute to economy)
  • Social comparisons
  • Imprisonment
  • Women’s status
  • Child wellbeing
  • Bullying
  • Child mistreatment
  • Educational attainment
  • Dropping out of school
  • Social mobility
  • Teenage pregnancy
  • Biodiversity
  • Water /meat / petrol consumption
  • Air pollution
  • Status consumption
  • Compliance with international environmental agreement

How can we look on whilst these blight our lives?

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They identify some key reasons for these issues escalating:

Inequality makes problems with social gradients worse – it increases the prevalence of almost all socially graded problems such as health etc as shown above P232-33

Inequality affects social mixing – it reduces social mobility and increases segregation. P233-34

Inequality affects social cohesion – as cohesion drops so status anxiety increases with inequality – people are more judgemental, more anxious of comparison and put down, and this increases the prevalence of coping mechanisms – eating, not going out, drink, drugs et. P234

Inequality increases anxieties about status – low self esteem and low confidence result from the social anxiety. This increases depression and other diagnosable psychological disorders. This includes self-aggrandisement and narcissism, and disdain for anyone of a lower rank P234-35

Inequality heightens consumerism and consumption – people use money to show that they are worth and so endlessly buy status symbols. Increased working hours and debt to accrue those goods p235-36.

So what do we do about it? Wilkinson and Pickett recommend moving to a Democratic Economy. This would include tax reforms, end to tax evasion, co-operatives, employee representation on boards, employees as stakeholders, (these have been proved to boost productivity and to be more innovative), with countries striving to increase GDP through business models that benefit all rather than solely benefitting the rich. Such models would even income inequality and enable countries to afford increased welfare p244-251.

The current massive differentials in pay, lack of employee voice and lack of control in organisational life makes employees feel disaffected and stressed as they generate wealth for their ‘owners’ p250-51.

They suggest an easy step would be to create a ‘Democratic Company’ movement like ‘Fairtrade’ p256.

These are interesting ideas. I have certainly noted and believe the negative impact of income inequality such as they mapped in The Spirit Level. It has been interesting to read the links between inequality and the phenomenon’s it produces in this book. What this text has really achieved, in my opinion however, is to start to generate clear and simple actions every organisation globally can put in place to create more equality. It is not just a political issue that only governments can address, it is within many more people’s gift. That said, campaigning and taking action politically is still important so that some of these changes can be legislated for.

To that end, i am proposing to establish an Inequality Group in line withe the Inequality Trust, to meet twice a year at the University of Cumbria Lancaster and Carlisle campus. I envisage creating a democratic space for like minded people to meet, discuss issues and solutions, and who knows what else from there. If anyone is interested in joining, please let me know and I will set up dates.

Hiding behind stereotypes

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I’m just reading Blackman and Rogers (2017) text on youth marginality. As ever, several statements jump off the page at me. Here is one to consider:

“For MacDonald (1997, p.6), negative labels that describe youth marginality are ‘an ideological red herring which divert attention from the real causes of poverty and the real problems faced by the poor’…. Marginal, underclass, precariate, yobs, hooligans, disconnected, disposed, socially excluded, feckless, rabble, scum, zonards, outsiders, lumpen proletariat, disadvantaged, vulnerable. The proliferation of these labels, according to Wacquant (2008, p.245), ‘speaks volumes on the state of symbolic derangement afflicting the fringes and fissures of the recomposed social and urban structure’” P.7

What is the answer to this, what can we individually and collectively do to change these stereotypes so that the true issues are revealed and young people are treated like human beings?

Equality Literacy

We’re all bugged, to varying degrees, about how ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’ our lot in life is. And yet this is a highly sensitive issue to discuss with other people. It’s not very British to talk about how much money we have, what privileges we experience, what opportunities we have been gifted. Our musings and comparisons are often therefore private, and conclusions of relative worth kept inside – or are they? I wonder to what extent these colour the way we interact with one another and if we can actually detect some of the judgements other people make about our privileges from how they behave towards us.

In an attempt to understand privilege and disadvantage in an educational context, I devised an equality literacy framework. I believe that these two cannot exist in isolation, they only operate together. The more privilege there is in the world, the more disadvantage there will also be, and all of experience some privileges and some disadvantages. I really should have called the model the equity literacy framework – but it was more difficult to say!

Imagine you’ve just met someone at a social-do [that would be me by the way], they are articulate, they seem well educated, they even work at a university, you assume that they must have had an easy ride through school. ‘Oh it’s alright for them’, you might think, ‘good education, lots of privilege, landed a good job, constantly on about social justice…. what do they know about education… bet they never went to a school like mine!’ Or something to that effect.

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[No that is not me – just in case you were wondering!]

The equality literacy framework helps us understand our own, and perhaps more importantly, other people’s privilege and disadvantages – I’ll walk you through it here.


  1. Pre-existing Context

People are born into situations that are not of their choosing (Archer, 1995). We are not able therefore to deploy an entirely free will as some of the conditions into which we are born will enable and constrain our actions. That is not to say that our lives are pre-determined, but shaped by contexts that pre-exist us and that are of significance (Archer, 1995). People are born into unequal circumstances; wealth and poverty, good or ill health, inclusion or exclusion are examples of the almost infinite number of differentials people are born into (Dorling, 2010).

Some of the situations that people are born into are socially and culturally produced and reproduced (Thompson, 1997; Bronfenbrenner, 1979). These include the norms and customs and invisible rules of families, communities, areas, nations, and of the world. These are technically known as habitus (Bourdieu, 1999) and as hegemonic discourses (Gramsci, 1971). These are not fixed but ever changing as illustrated by recent changes in smoking behaviours and attitudes to gay marriage in various places in the world.

I was born into a working class family (dad fixed railway trains, mum was a housewife), in Pontefract, a deprived Yorkshire mining town in the 1960’s. Gender stereotypes were alive and well, the nuclear family was still the norm. We were poor. I wore second hand clothes from jumble sales and home made clothes and got bullied at school. The house was cold – ice on the inside of the windows in the winter, and food basic. But my parents cared and put a lot of time into us kids. I went to a really rough comprehensive school. I was not ready to learn and ended up in the bottom sets where kids were not expected to do well – mining or the sewing factory mostly. 


2. Personal Lived Experience

The contexts described above set the scene, literally, for the lived experiences of individuals and groups across a range of domains of wellbeing (Maynard and Stuart, 2018). These domains are theoretically defined as: wealth, health, education and employment (Dorling, 2015), social capital and social mobility (Bourdieu, 1999; Putnam, 2000), security, precarity and fear (Furedi, 2005; Butler, 2006; Lorey, 2015). Lived experiences are open to change rather than being confined to the pre-existing context, however, the more disadvantaged that context is, the harder it maybe to change it. This is why the context is not deterministic of future outcomes although it may be highly constraining.

I felt rubbish, I felt worthless. Going to school was an ordeal, I was humiliated by bullies and teachers, I did badly in all my subjects despite trying hard. I felt a complete failure. I ran away from school a few times, but was always taken back by my parents who thought that was the best place for me, never really knowing what a terrible time I was having. I was also ill quite a lot of the time and needed hospital appointments – this seemed annoying for my parents and I felt a nuisance and missed yet more school. 

3. Positioning by Others

The real life experiences detailed above create a ‘position’ that is relative to other people. Theory documents the ways in which these relative positions are inscribed by labels and stereotypes. These labels are created by the state, media and society (Jones, 2015; Bourdieu, 1999) and produce, reproduce and protect a status quo (Dorling, 2010; Fox, Piven and Cloward, 2015). The resulting discourses are hegemonic (Gramsci, 1971; Ledwith, 2016; Wearing, 1998) in that they protect the interests of the ‘haves’ against the ‘have not’s’, or distance a subgroup from the norm (Tyler, 2013; Dorling, 2010, Blackman and Rogers, 2017; Piven and Cloward, 1993).

An example of these discourses in British culture was the phenomenon of ‘Vikki Pollard’ a female underclass acted by Matt Lucas, and ‘Lauren Cooper’ a school failure acted by Catherine Tate. Both of these characters were comedy successes epitomising unsuccessful youth. Their creation was galvanised by societal distaste for young people and enabled members of society; to position people as different to themselves, to protect themselves from becoming like ‘the other’, and to protect themselves from their responsibility to support them.

I was aware that I was a ‘have not’ and a ‘cannot’ at school. I was at the fringes of everything with the other ‘saddos’. Bullying and social exclusion kept me in my place for a long time.

4. Technologies of Oppression or Liberation

Theory helps illuminate how positions are imposed on people through a set of technologies or tools. These technologies ensure prescribed positions have impact and endure. They are called technologies of liberation or oppression depending on the extent to which they align with the individual’s or group’s self image and the extent to which they constrain or enable access to resources. As such they are key to in/equality and thus central to the Equalities Literacy framework.

The most commonly used and understood technology is perhaps stereotyping and labeling (Dorling, 2010) which most people experience at school in one form or another. These can be for small things at an individual level such as dress sense or huge stereotypes at a global level such as racism. The labels we accrue early in our school lives such as ‘failure’ or ‘high achiever’ may be carried with us throughout our lives.

When we stereotype we make people ‘other’ to ourselves, we draw an invisible line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (either as better or worse) and create a set of characteristics that separate us. This process of ‘othering’ psychologically protects us from the possibility of becoming like the other, or of the other having any similarities to ourselves (Foucault, 1978; 1982, Lacan, 1988; Lévi-Strauss, 1955; Said, 1994).

Another technology, ‘social abjection’ (Tyler, 2013) is an extension of ‘othering’ whereby the ‘other’ is made vile and disgusting and not worthy of consideration. It preserves ‘us’ from becoming ‘them’ (Tyler, 2013; Dorling, 2010, Blackman and Rogers, 2017). This is the mechanism that has been applied with the Vikki Pollard and Lauren Cooper characters in British comedy. They have the potential to erode all empathy and enable the rest of society to look down on or indeed straight through people who need support.

Once people are objectified (Bourdieu, 2003) and socially abject, it paves the way for us to treat them as inhumane or shameful (Nussbaum, 2004, Brown, 2010) and to adopt a willful blindness (Heffernan, 2011) where we refuse to acknowledge their human rights or even existence. Shaming and willful are therefore two further technologies of oppression.

The ‘other’ is however always in our psyche and we remain insecure and fearful (Furedi, 2005) of the risk that they pose us, and feel the division between us as precarious (Lorey, 2015; Butler, 2006). This fuels the willingness of society to adopt negative discourses about them, to accept forms of ‘legislation’ (Bauman, 1989) and ‘surveillance’ (Foucault, 1978, 1982) that keep the ‘other’ in their places. The UK has seen a prevalence of reality television that presents vulnerable people as ‘benefit scroungers’. This positioning erodes public empathy for people who need benefit support and could be argued to enable the government to reduce investment in the welfare service. The presence of these technologies serves to oppress and marginalize, defining who people are and how they are treated by the rest of society. When people are not subjected to these technologies they have more opportunity for liberty. The absence of shaming, ‘othering’, social abjection and other such technologies are therefore conditions of liberation.

I was called nick names, ignored, silenced, ridiculed at school. All of these tools of oppression kept me in my place and continued to assure me that I would amount to nothing and deserved to amount to nothing.

5. Positioning of Self

The power of the technologies of oppression and liberation provokes reactions from the people who are targeted. Individuals and groups might respond to the positioning in a range of ways. Some might comply and accept messages imposed on them, others may adopt positions of victimhood, and others again move to rebel or be deviant. This is an inter-personal process as it is in response to the positions bestowed, it is also intra-personal as individuals reconcile the messaging with their sense of self. The resulting self-position is in response to these contexts, the relative experiences of others, the positions imposed by others, the technologies of oppression and liberation experienced, and personal response. Theory shows the self-position adopted may have a major impact on the identity, agency and social mobility then experienced (Cote and Levine, 2002; Lawler, 2008). This further accounts for why there can be no fixed or determined trajectories of any individual or group. One person may respond to deprivation with resignation and victim mentality, whilst another may fight for a better outcome.

For a long time I complied with these messages and this positioning. Then, like many other young people, I decided to find power in the margins and became a gothic and then punk. I revelled in being different rather than cowering in my difference. I found a way to express myself, and in finding an identity, somehow affirmed to myself that I could be something and would be something. I redoubled my efforts at school, took extra classes, did nothing but study – a rebellious conformity!

6. Impact and trajectory

The culmination of the contexts people are born into, lived experiences, positioning by others and self, mediated by technologies of oppression all lead to an impact and future trajectory. This is only fixed moment by moment as the societal responses to individual’s and groups and are not a deterministic end point. People re-author their lives moment by moment (Clandinin, Steeves, Caine, 2013).

Whilst the impact of privilege and deprivation are not fixed, theory shows that groups of people experiencing deprivation on the whole experience a higher prevalence of negative trajectories of inequitable outcomes than the privileged (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010; Sen, 1999). Whilst these negative outcomes are not fixed, they are increasingly likely for young people who are disadvantaged and may be reproduced in on-going generations and attitudes, expectations and behaviours are reproduced.

My family was in upwardly socially mobile – my dad had sought promotions and was working in management, my mum taught herself shorthand and typing and became a PA, we moved to Rainham in Kent and I went to a grammar school. This opportunity and my new voice radically changed my trajectory – which had, until then, been poor. I now started to think about studying at college or university rather than getting a job in a factory. Fast forward through A-levels, teacher training college, and a wide range of jobs, and here I am, an Associate Professor. No one would have predicted that outcome back in 1980.

The full Equalities Literacy Model can be accessed with this link: figure i

So what?

Well I have used this model in a classroom with a group of students. We all mapped our educational experiences and the results were powerful. Lots of realisations about our own lives, about our own behaviours and what was in and out of our control. We also had rich discussion about the range of experiences that we had across the room – who had experienced which kinds of privileges and disadvantages. This brought the equality conversation out into the public domain and changed the dynamics in a powerfully positive way.

Leading on from this, I think there are four reasons why practitioners who support the wellbeing of young people (such as teachers, nurses, social workers and youth workers) need to have high levels of Equalities Literacy.

Firstly practitioners need to understand the unique contexts and lives of the people they support. This is similar to cultural competence (Rathje, 2007; Like, 2011) and includes having an inequalities imagination (Hart, Hall, Henwood, 2002).

Secondly, practitioners need to understand the ways in which their life experiences and professional enculturation impacts on their language, choices and actions in practice (Bourdieu, 1999) in order for the to avoid unconsciously using technologies of oppression themselves. Once Equality Literate practitioners are able to make choices and take action that support social justice. These approaches are often referred to as ‘empowering’ (Illich, 1971; Friere, 1970; Maynard and Stuart, 2018) or ‘critically pedagogical’ (Giroux, 2011; Smyth, 2011). These collective actions enable societies to deliberatively work towards a more socially just world.

Thirdly, practitioners need to ensure they do not inadvertently create further marginalisation by treating people as the locus of the problem (Illich, 1971).

Finally, practitioners, particularly teachers and youth workers, have opportunities to support the Equalities Literacy of the people they support – a process akin to ‘conscientization’ (Freire, 1974, Andrade and Morrell, 2008). If children and young people became Equalities Literate they would hopefully then avoid unconsciously perpetuating inequality and instead treat one another with respect creating a more socially just world.

From a research perspective the Equalities Literacy framework highlights the need for researchers to reflexively acknowledge their privileged position and to understand how that interplays with the position of their participants. Methods such as the Indirect Approach (Moshuus and Bunting, 2012), and Participatory Action Research should be used to address the inequity of such power relationships. Further, we need to do more with our research findings. Collating stories of in/equality on our living room floors is not enough as Michelle Fine has challenged and shown (2017). Researchers have a moral obligation to lift their work to the macro level to support social justice at a systemic level.

As a human being – think before you judge. You probably don’t know your own story well enough, let alone other people’s. Talk, ask, explore, share. Get the unspeakables into the open, it builds trust, integrity and empathy. And quit the comparing – as I said in yesterday’s blog. Be who you are, be the best you that you can be, and be compassionate rather than competitive with others.

I’d welcome any thoughts or responses to this big old theoretical and practical ramble!



Keeping up with the Jones?

Does it ever seem like the world is stacked against you and that nothing you do is successful? Everything seems impossible, life is unfair. Our minds can easily get hooked into a roller coaster of concerns large and small – I’m stuck in traffic, my car is nearly out of fuel, I’m late for work, I haven’t planner for dinner tonight, what should I say at that meeting tomorrow? How is my mum doing, when must I call her? Am I going to be warm enough today? I can get really caught up in this stream of thought, each concern stressing me out a little bit more than the last. But to be honest, aren’t these all middle class issues? I have a car, I can cook a range of things for dinner because my fridge is full. I have a job and earn money, I have parents I care for, I have plenty of clothes to wear.

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I am painfully aware that this is not the case for everyone. Many people in the world do not have enough food, clothing, housing, work or love. How can I possibly worry and be concerned when this is the case.

We seem to get lost in our own worlds and forget how relative they are. On a bad day I can look up to the people in luxury cars zooming past me on the motorway, envy the people who have no jobs or hobby jobs, gaze at the mansions and wish for high quality designer clothing. I can feel hard done to when compared to them, despite being incredibly well off compared to people with less than me. And there is the trick of it. The human race seems destined to compare ourselves to others, and to always want what more privileged people have – we seemed doomed to try to keep up with the Jones’.

I wondered if this scenario also played out if we consider the case of disadvantage as it does with privilege? So there I am in my middling life, neither rich nor poor. What disadvantages do I face and how do they compare to those either side of me?

I have very little free time, I work, drive, ‘wife’, keep a home and sleep. Fitting in exercise and ‘fun’ is a battle. I could afford them, but don’t have time for them. I have parents who are ageing and I struggle to find the time to see them and support them adequately but cannot afford to move them closer to me or to pay for carers to look after them. I work in an academic world where publishing and claims to knowledge are key to success, I feel oppressed by the regimes of truth and competitive environment I work in, driving me to work long hours and do a long commute.

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I am not living in fear of eviction, I am not in an abusive relationship, I am not trafficked. I do not go hungry to feed my family. I am not treated like an outcast by other people. So relative to others, these ‘issues’ seem like trifles. Looking in the other direction, the more privileged in society might fear the stock exchange, worry about who they are seen with and what press they get, what to do with their spare time, what cosmetic surgery to buy, whether they can afford that extra yacht. To me these seem ridiculous, far fetched, surreal even. Yet we know that money only brings us better health up to a certain point, and then all that extra money starts to cause ill health – through heart disease rather than starvation. So perhaps oppressive stress is biologically bad for us, no matter what its source is or where we are in the pecking order. I think we easily assume that life will be easier if we only had that better – house, job, relationship, car, whatever. But maybe it is just different rather than better?

What if the Jones’ have got it all wrong, would we still want to keep up with them then? What would it be like to keep up with ourselves rather than anyone else, to be content, just as we are, rather than looking ahead of ourselves and behind ourselves and counting the rungs of the ladder? I’m beginning to think that the pursuit of happiness is flawed and contentedness is the way to go – a way of life explained to me by a young man living in a Foyer (accommodation for young people who would otherwise be homeless). He has less than many of us in society, but was determinedly content. He is my inspiration for 2019, a year in which I will pursue feeling content and living without comparison.

Happy New Year.

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Social Research for Social Justice

I attended the Social Research Association annual conference today to better understand how innovations in social research can support social justice. I wanted to share some highlights for people who were not able to attend.

Screenshot 2018-12-13 15.06.32It was an interesting event with 120 delegates from a wide range of sectors, methods, and interests.

The conference started with Professor John Curtice explaining how social research data trends showed that the leave vote was inevitable – and yet that intel was not used then or now. For example people over 65 without a degree were the most likely group to vote leave – so what does that mean we should do as a society? Knowing such trends, for me, is just not enough – we need to get to meaningful action too.

I attended a workshop on Big Data by Tom Smith from the Office of National Statistics who outlined  its promising potential to transform the research landscape. This was well countered by Gerry Nicolaas from the NatCen for Social Research however with profound questions about the quality of such data sets (Flikr photos – really?), the ethics of accessing this data, its production of ‘what’ results rather than ‘why’ results, and abandonment of theory as an underpinning. Whilst I can see the cost and time benefits of this type of research, it seems to be a tool only open to large corporates or governmental organisations who can buy or coerce organisations into sharing it, rather than being accessible to small scale front line researchers like me. There are inherent issues in who can access it, but potentials in how it could perhaps be used to great advantage if focussed on questions of social justice. For me, the jury is out on Big Data.

Prof Jennifer Rubin CEO of the Economic and Social Research Council portrayed the complexity of the context for contemporary research, a sentiment echoed by Prof Trish Greenhalgh from Oxford University. The world in incontrovertibly complex and the speakers proposed that social research is the only method capable of responding to these complexities. This does resonate well to social justice where all issues are nested and interconnected and where human impact needs to be considered against public attitudes and objective data. I fully believe that democratic knowledge production through co-produced, participatory action research can bring about change for the people who most need it.

The final workshop I attended was a practical session on why and how to communicate research findings in infographics – this for me was the most potent session. These visual formats have the potential to make research findings immediately accessible by a range of stakeholders. This is exciting and potentially transformative!

I am left feeling that social research continues to be an important form of research that will increasingly be needed to address the increasingly complex needs of society. Some new tools, some new debates, but many of the old issues remain – status, standing, scope, knowledge democracy and funding.


I’d love to hear what you think…..

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

Injustice and Education

I am currently working in an Erasmus+ funded project across the UK, Norway and Denmark exploring educational inequality. In fact I am in Norway right now having spent the day with staff and students all passionate about this issue training to be researchers.

The situation is stark in the UK as these brief statistics show:

  • 11.2% of all 16-24 years olds are NEET (House of Commons Library, 2018)
  • 18% of pupils drop out from Key Stage 4 education (EU, 2018)
  • 4.5% of children have absences from school and 10% of those miss a total of 10% of their schooling (DfE, 2017)
  • 54% of school pupils report being bullied (UK Annual Bullying Survey, 2017) which perhaps accounts for why some young people do not want to be in school
  • 10% of children under 16 experience a mental health issue and only 30% of them receive treatment (NHS England, 2018), which could be either a reason for, or effect of educational inequality.

In a new UNICEF report (An Unfair Start) the UK ranks 23rd / 41 in inequalities during the primary school years 16th /41 in terms of educational inequality during the secondary school years. Is this really good enough?

Years of growing income inequality is affecting the education of our pupils as is the increasing trend of elitist, selective, unequally funded schools in the country.

The 40 academic and student co-researchers in the MaCE project ( are interviewing numerous young people to understand their experiences and to create new solutions for schools, colleges and universities to undertake.

Have your say, send in your experiences of education, your opinions about inequality and your ideas for change. Make the world a better place.