Inequality and education

MFL activist Tom McDonough reports on our most recent public meeting. Professor Diane Reay spoke to My Fair London on 10th May 2018.

Mission impossible: educating our way out of inequality

Professor Diane Reay explains how England’s education system merely reflects rather than remedies inequality and how it has always failed the working-class.

It’s the rule that matters, not the exception

It would have been easy for someone with Professor Diane Reay’s life-trajectory to hold herself up as a shining example of what can be achieved in an unequal, meritocratic society provided one is bright, aspirational and hard-working. Had Diane adopted such a stance, her tale could have been added to the many clichéd rags-to-riches stories told and re-told by advocates of the American dream and its international equivalents.

Instead, Diane attributes her rise from free-school-meals child to Cambridge professor to family circumstances rather than individual brilliance or aspiration. What makes her story all the more refreshing is her assertion that her parents nurtured her abilities and confidence not by aping middle-class attitudes or behaviours but by fostering within her a pride and belief in working-class values and political perspectives. Shored up by familial support and her strong sense of class identity, Diane passed her grammar school entrance exam and went on to become a successful academic. That her success was achieved within an educational system that has failed most of her class brethren since its inception is a sad fact that has inspired Diane to commit her energies to pressing for educational reform. In her presentation to an audience of My Fair London (MFL) members at the UCLH Education Centre on May 10th, Diane highlighted some of the key points outlined in her book ‘Miseducation – Inequality, education and the working classes.’ Drawing on 500 interviews, the book explains how the education system in England not only fails our working-class children but also makes many of them feel worthless and distressed.

“Education policy is nominally about raising working-class achievement, but its practices achieve the opposite, ensuring that educational failure remains firmly located within the working-classes. Regardless of what individual working-class boys and girls achieve, the collective patterns of working-class trajectories remain sharply different from those of the upper and middle classes, despite 150 years of universal state schooling,” she said.

From flying squirrel to marmots

Our status-conscious and competitive society, argued Diane, is now mirrored in our schools, including the earliest years of our nursery and primary schools. Pupils as young as two are placed in sets or ability-groups, writing themselves off as losers if they are placed at the bottom. In some cases, the sense of hierarchy is heightened by the names used to describe the sets. One researcher told Diane about a primary school that named its sets, from top to bottom, as flying squirrels, tree squirrels, ground squirrels and marmots, the latter living under the ground.

A child named Jason explained to Diane’s research team how the setting system impacts on children like himself, saying: “Some kids they just can’t do it, like they find the work too hard or they can’t concentrate because there is too much going on for them. Then they are put like as rubbish learners and put in the bottom set, and no one cares about them even though they are the ones who need the most help. They should be getting the most help.”

Setting also serves to reinforce class divisions as children end up in sets with other children from their social class. Consequently, rather than remedying the inequalities that exist in English society, our schools merely reflect them, says Diane.

The sharp elbowed middle class

The segregation is worsened further both by the attitudes of sharp elbowed middle-class parents and the measures they take to ensure their children have a competitive edge in exams. The most obvious strategy involves using their financial muscle. Diane’s research found that middle class parents sometimes spend more in a week on private tuition for their children than working class parents have to live on. Meanwhile, children whose parents send them to private primary schools have more than twice as much spent on their early schooling than children whose parents send them to state primary schools. The discrepancy at secondary school level is even greater.

Other strategies include demanding that primary schools prepare their children for exams, campaigning for setting to be introduced, buying properties in areas with high-achieving schools and, if this doesn’t work, lying about their address.

But financial investment is only one and not necessarily the most important advantage enjoyed by better off children. Their parents’ belief in the cultural superiority of their social class and the innate brightness of their children serve to instil confidence in middle class pupils. One study cited by Diane found that 250 sets of white middle-class parents made 254 references to their children being ‘bright’ during their interviews with researchers.


It’s a finding that chimes well with the research carried out by author and clinical child psychologist Oliver James. In his ground-breaking book ‘Not in Your Genes’, Oliver reveals that privileged children have had 5.5 times more positive feedback than working-class children by the time they have reached their 5th birthday (James, 2016). Such parents may like to think that little their off spring were endowed with naturally superior brains, but Oliver explains that this is never the case, stating: “There is no inborn talent or stupidity, no hard-wired quick-wittedness, exceptional capacity for abstraction, inborn drive to succeed. The DNA of exceptional achievers has never been shown to differ from that of the average person in any significant respect. Locating the issue in the genes and brain of the child displaces the focus away from the family that created it and the society which created that family” (James, 2016, p165).

Tests pile on the misery

From their very different starting places in life, working and middle-class pupils are then asked to take the same exams, with the inevitable result being that their relative statuses are affirmed. A system of heavy testing undoubtedly places all children under pressure, but the evidence shows that it is working-class children that are left the most demoralised by it.

“The main costs of testing are borne by working class pupils. They are disproportionately found to have the lowest grades and be in the bottom sets,” said Diane.

One working-class girl named Hannah told Diane’s researchers how she felt about her upcoming exams. “I’m frightened I’ll do the SATS and I’ll be nothing,” she said. Other low-income children described how testing made them feel ‘rubbish’ and ‘no good’.

Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, was quoted by Diane as saying: “It’s absolute disgrace that the pressure on schools to ensure pupils pass tests means children as young as three consider themselves ‘low ability’ right at the start of their academic life, a belief which could impact on their self-esteem, carry on throughout their schooling and determine the direction of their adult lives.”

Bottom of the league

Schools with high concentrations of poor children have narrowed down the focus of their curriculums to the three Rs in a desperate bid to combat low league table positions, forcing their pupils to endure repetitive lessons in a narrow and uninspiring range of topics. Their more privileged compatriots, meanwhile, are treated to a richly diverse curriculum.

This austere approach is not, however, helping working-class children to achieve social mobility. One league table cited by Diane places us at the bottom when it comes to the academic achievements of English working-class children, showing that they are less likely to succeed academically than their counterparts in Korea, Japan, Australia or even the US. We top the league table, however, for bullying and exclusions from school, performing worse than Colombia and South Africa, countries with longstanding histories of violent conflict and extreme inequality.

Meanwhile, OECD league tables indicate we are the best at rote learning but the worst at deep learning, intrinsic motivation, critical thinking and creativity. It seems that the practice of repetitively drilling information into English children to help them score higher marks in competitive exams may be putting them off learning and diminishing their capacity for creative thinking and more profound mental development.

This notion is supported by Danny Dorling in his book ‘The Equality Effect’, which argues that the maths ability of children from the UK and US is limited by their greatly excessive focus on doing well in maths tests. This neurotic focus on competing in maths exams, argues Danny, is the direct result of the fact that the UK and US are unequal societies in which people live in fear of being relegated for the duration of their lives to low-status, low-paid jobs if they achieve low scores in tests.

Danny presents PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) data from 2012 which shows the maths ability of 16 to 24-year olds from around the world. The US and UK, the two most unequal countries in the graph presented, come bottom and third from bottom, respectively (Dorling, 2017, p156). It seems that the repetitive, dumbed down studying of maths that takes place in the US and UK is not providing children with numeracy skills that serve them over the long term.

Our education system is therefore not only both failing and harming our working-class children but also failing more generally to equip children with life-long critical and creative thinking skills.

Causes and solutions

While Diane says that the causes of the failure to educate our working-class are inequality and poverty rather than the schools themselves, she also suggests that our ruling elite has deliberately allowed schools to fail low-income children. From its outset, she says, universal education was set up to calm festering working class grievances and churn out generations of young people who knew enough to take on low paid jobs but not enough to question to the system they were working in.

Kenneth Saltman, Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Pennsylvania State University, was quoted by Diane as saying that the failing is the consequence of a deliberate right-wing policy aimed at producing an uncritical, politically illiterate and acquiescent working class.

The argument then is that while it is impossible for any education system to remedy the injuries of class and inequality, no serious attempt has ever been made to achieve this aim in the UK anyway. Indeed the continued existence of our private school system makes a mockery of any claim to have tacked educational inequality in Britain.

It follows logically from this that Diane’s proposed solutions are aimed both at tackling inequality and poverty on the one hand and at improving the education system on the other. Changing the education system, by itself, will not solve the problem.

Among the proposed policies are the abolition of private schools, the end of selective schooling, the abolition of testing at primary school and the introduction of progressive tax system that would aim to half the gap between the rich and poor in a decade. If they were implemented, these policies would bring profound change to England’s schools and our society, perhaps even helping us begin to resemble a more densely populated version of that bastion of educational success and societal happiness - Finland.

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