Getting education right for working class children remains a challenge in many schools. As a working class professor, it’s something I think about a lot.
Theresa May has already admitted that the education system is failing to serve the needs of every child and that the odds are stacked against working-class pupils. The team behind the BBC’s new Generation Gifted series, which follows the lives of six disadvantaged 13-year-olds, say they were inundated with headteachers keen to highlight the uneven playing field that bright, disadvantaged pupils face compared to wealthier children.
The gap in literacy, writing and maths between students receiving free school meals and their peers is significant, even at primary school. By the end of secondary school, the most disadvantaged students are on average two years of learning behind their better-off classmates. Among girls, the difference is even more stark – a 2017 analysis by the OECD’s programme for international student assessment found that girls in the top 10% for attainment but bottom 10% by income – classed as “bright but poor” – in England trailed their bright and well-off female peers by three school years in science and reading.
How do schools begin to close this gap between rich and poor? I believe it starts by addressing the idea that being working class itself is a failure. Instead, we must acknowledge the curriculum’s inbuilt middle class prejudices, understand that not every child will go to university, and emphasise that success comes in all shapes and sizes.
Unfortunately the national curriculum in England has been developed based on the knowledge and learning experienced by middle-class people, rather than a world that all young children can identify with. Many of the social and cultural references in exams, for example, relate to middle-class experiences. As a sector, we need to do better to increase the understanding of how working class, disadvantaged and special educational needs children – groups particularly at risk of underachievement – learn.
Despite the push to increase the number of young people who go to university, a recent Ipsos Mori poll found the proportion of pupils from “low affluence” households who believe they will go on to university has fallen to an all-time low, thanks in part to higher tuition fees.
In other countries, vocational routes are seen as providing good opportunities. But UK children are pushed to pass the required exams, go to university, get a degree or two, buy their own house and contribute in a pre-specified way to society. More should be done to prepare children for the world of work, whether that is through a vocational or academic route.
Schools play a key role in breaking down barriers to learning by providing opportunities for all children – regardless of what their parents earn – to participate in social and cultural activities, sport, the arts, debating, volunteering, wider community-based provision, museums and other trips. But funding cuts have meant schools offer a declining number of extracurricular activities, which disproportionately impacts those from working class backgrounds. Richer students are more likely to have access to these at home and the subsequent opportunities to develop teamwork, creativity and problem-solving skills.
Learning about the workplace doesn’t have to start at secondary school. Offering career advice and suggestions at an early stage helps ambition develop naturally and is particularly helpful for students whose parents are not in work.
Working-class children aren’t born to fail. But we need an approach that will build self belief in every child. Schools can help by instilling aspiration, access, attainment , and achievement at the earliest stages of their development.
Increasing access to learning for all children should be the benchmark of any successful school. I have seen schools where building self-belief and a sense of belonging has improved academic outcomes, behaviour and attendance. But our approach should change because of more than that. As a society we must strive to create opportunities that build character, resilience, drive and grit for all children, wherever they come from.