How to make the classroom work better for working class students: Part 1 – Equity in education

Society is unfair and, as microcosms of society, so too are schools.

Success is all too often determined, not by merit, but by birth. The richer you are, the more successful you will be in school and in later life.

What’s more, this unfairness exists, not by accident, but by design: those who make society’s rules want to preserve their unfair advantage and thus have no desire to promote social justice, whatever they may claim about ‘levelling up’.

These are bold statements, and you may strongly contest my argument. So, here are some facts…

Working-class students (particularly boys) are amongst the lowest performers in our schools and the link between household income and attainment is multi-racial. If you’re a high ability student from a low social class, you’re not going to do as well in school and in later life as a low ability student from a high social class. In other words, it is social class and wealth – not ability – that define a student’s educational outcomes and their future life chances.

For proof of this, read the Deaton Review of Inequalities published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in 2022.

Deaton concludes that disadvantaged students start school behind their better-off peers, and the education system fails to close these gaps. Educational inequalities, says the report, result in substantial differences in life chances, leaving millions disadvantaged throughout their lifetime. The report finds that those who have not been successful at school are left behind by an education system which does not offer the right opportunities for further education.

The IFS research also argues that inequalities, such as the disadvantage gap at GCSE, have barely changed over the last 20 years and are likely to increase following the COVID-19 pandemic, which looks to have hit the attainment of poorer school children twice as hard as their peers.

Key findings from the report show that today’s education inequalities are tomorrow’s income inequalities:

• Inequalities by family background emerge well before school starts. Just 57% of English pupils eligible for free school meals reached a good level of development at the end of Reception in 2019, compared with 74% of their better-off peers. These inequalities persist throughout primary school. Whether or not you regard eligibility for free school meals as a suitable proxy for being economically disadvantaged or not, these children are all from working class households.
• Children from disadvantaged backgrounds also make slower progress through secondary school. Fewer than half of disadvantaged children reach expected levels of attainment at the end of primary school, versus nearly 70% of their better-off peers. And of those who do achieve at the expected level, just 40% of disadvantaged pupils go on to earn good GCSEs in English and maths versus 60% of the better-off students.
• The relationship between family background and attainment is not limited to the poorest pupils: at every step up the family income distribution, educational performance improves. For example, while just over 10% of young people in middle-earning families (and fewer than 5% of those in the poorest families) earned at least one A or A* grade at GCSE, over a third of pupils from the richest tenth of families earned at least one top grade.
• Ten years after GCSEs, over 70% of those who went to private school have graduated from university compared with just under half of those from the richest fifth of families at state schools and fewer than 20% of those from the poorest fifth of families.

Deaton claims educational inequalities translate into large future earnings differences. By the age of 40, the average UK employee with a degree earns twice as much as someone qualified to GCSE level or below. In part, this reflects very slow earnings growth for the low-educated: the most common annual salary for 45- to 50-year-olds whose highest level of qualifications are GCSEs, is between £15,000 and £20,000, which is exactly the same as for 25- to 30-year-olds with these qualifications.

According to a report entitled Elitist Britain published by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission in 2019 , despite private schools representing just 7% of the student population, their alumni are over-represented in many professions.

The report maps the educational backgrounds of leading figures across nine broad areas – politics, business, the media, Whitehall, public bodies, public servants, local government, the creative industries, and sport – and concludes that power rests with a narrow section of the population – the 7% who attend private schools and 1% who graduate from Oxford and Cambridge.

The report reveals a ‘pipeline’ from fee-paying schools through to Oxbridge and into top jobs. For example, private school alumni make up:

• 65% senior judges
• 59% of Civil Service permanent secretaries
• 57% of those currently sitting in the House of Lords and 29% of those currently sitting in the House of Commons
• 44% of newspaper columnists
• 43% of the 100 most influential news editors and broadcasters
• 43% of England’s cricket team and 37% of international rugby players
• 38% of those working in the media

According to the Office for National Statistics (2019), only 10% of those from working-class backgrounds reach Britain’s higher managerial, professional, or cultural occupations. You are 17 times more likely to go into law if your parents are lawyers, while the children of those in film and television are 12 times more likely to enter these fields.

Unpaid internships can be a gateway to many careers. A study by the TUC shows that 1 in 10 (10.9%) British citizens have taken an unpaid internship. In the media, 83% of internships are unpaid, meaning they can only be afforded by those whose inherited personal wealth – or that of their parents – can fund this. Most internships are not advertised so awareness of them is dependent on connections and insider knowledge, too.

What’s the solution?

As I say, the education system is rigged in favour of the privileged. Working-class students are disadvantaged from day one: their birth is, all too often, their destiny; they start at a disadvantage and end at a disadvantage.

The only way to truly fix inequality is, of course, by reducing inequality. As Imran Tahir, a research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, says: “Education should be an engine for social mobility, but instead the UK’s education system bakes in many of the inequalities that exist between children before they have begun school. Young people from better-off families do better at all levels of the education system: they start out ahead and they make faster progress.”

So, whilst I acknowledge that, because inequality is systemic, to truly tackle it, society at large must change, in this 5-part series for SecEd I will focus on actions which school leaders and teachers can take to help working-class students compete more equitably at school and then in later life.

What, then, can we do to make our schools fairer places and to provide working-class students with a greater chance of succeeding now, at university, in employment, and for the rest of their lives? It’s a question I’ve been contemplating an awful lot recently because I’ve been writing a book on the subject.

In that book, The Working Classroom, my co-author Andy Griffith and I focus on three strands of support that schools can offer to help counter the classism that’s inherent in the education system – we call them the 3Es:

  1. Equality through the core curriculum
  2. Equity through curriculum adaptations and interventions
  3. Extension through curriculum extras and enhancements

Let’s explore each E in turn…

1 Equality through the core curriculum

The core curriculum are the programmes of study that all students are taught, usually in subject disciplines via timetabled lessons.

The core curriculum is the first strand of support we can use to counter classism in education because research tells us that, if we design an ambitious, broad and balanced, planned and sequenced curriculum to which all students have access, and then deliver it through quality first teaching, there will be less need of additional interventions and support later.

As they (whoever ‘they’ may be) are wont to say: a rising tide lifts all ships.

Therefore, this strand is about achieving equality in the way we design the core curriculum and in the way we give all students access to the same ambitious curriculum, irrespective of their backgrounds, starting points and different needs.

2 Equity through curriculum adaptations and interventions

Curriculum adaptations and interventions are inclusive teaching approaches and additional support strategies, including though not limited to one-to-one and small group tuition, which are designed to help disadvantaged students access the same ambitious curriculum as their peers by converting the causes of disadvantage into tangible classroom consequences so that these barriers may be overcome. Adaptations may be visual, verbal or written, and are short-term. The most effective interventions, meanwhile, are short-term, intensive, tailored, and focused.

Curriculum adaptations and interventions are the second strand of support because, whilst a rising tide may indeed lift all ships, some students’ survival at sea is rigged because they sail boats full of holes. Interventions, when thoughtfully and strategically designed, can plug the gaps in these students’ hulls.

As such, this strand is about achieving equity through adaptive teaching approaches and additional support strategies designed to help disadvantaged students access the same ambitious curriculum as their peers.

3 Extension through curriculum extras and enhancements

Curriculum extras and enhancements are carefully designed enrichment activities targeted specifically at working-class students which provide long-term opportunities for students to acquire the secret knowledge and skills otherwise denied them because of their position in society, as well as to develop behaviours, attitudes, and values that allow them to compete with their more advantaged peers.

This is the third strand of support because, whilst a rising tide lifts all ships, and adaptations and interventions can plug holes in the hulls of some students’ vessels, other students are left frantically swimming against the tide because they didn’t inherit a boat at birth. Curriculum extras and enhancements provide the life-raft needed to survive the storm.

Strand 3 is about extending the curriculum experience for working-class students through extra-curricular activities and carefully designed enrichment activities.

I’ll explore these strands over the next four articles in this series.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mj_bromley for more teaching tips like these.

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