How to make the classroom work better for working class students: Part 2 – The hidden curriculum

This is part two of a four-part series. Catch up with part one before reading on.

Life is unfair. Success at school – as in work – is determined, not by merit, but by birth. The richer you are, the more successful you will be. And, what’s more, this unfairness exists, not by accident, but by design: those who make society’s rules want to preserve their advantage and thus have no desire to promote social justice.

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds 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. 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. By the age of 40, the average UK employee with a degree earns twice as much as someone qualified to GCSE level or below.

The only way to truly fix inequality is, of course, by reducing inequality. But education can be an engine for social mobility rather than ‘bake in’ many of the inequalities that exist between children before they start school.

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’m focusing on actions which school leaders and teachers can take to help working-class students compete equitably at school and in later life.

In our book, The Working Classroom, 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:

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

Before I explore these solutions further, I’d like to set out the problems we’re trying to fix. I feel it’s important to do this because many of these problems are hidden, albeit in plain sight. The first step towards countering classism, I would argue, is to acknowledge that it exists both in society and in schools, and then to unpack the causes and consequences of classism in order to identify the solutions.

Schools don’t work

For far too many working-class students the secondary school classroom simply isn’t working.

Firstly, working-class students must work much harder than their peers. Michael Young , writing as long ago as 1958, argued that students from poorer areas had to work harder than upper class youngsters to get to university and, over sixty years later, this is still the case. Sadly, improvements in access to HE for working-class children made during the 70s, 80s and 90s have not been sustained. Slowly and steadily, we’ve seen the removal of free education, maintenance grants, and free travel passes.

Secondly, so much of what schools do is classist, including the way the curriculum is designed, the way the assessment system works, and the impact the hidden curriculum has on students… let’s look at each of these in turn…

Curriculum design

The stated aim of the national curriculum is to ensure that all students nationally encounter the same content and material. The curriculum should provide students with “an introduction to the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens”. There are, I think, two problems with this:

Firstly, curriculum coverage – one size does not fit all. In other words, providing all students with the same curriculum further disadvantages those who are already disadvantaged.

I hope you agree that we should not reduce the curriculum for disadvantaged students. To do so is to deepen their existing disadvantage, denying them the opportunities afforded to their more affluent peers. We must indeed offer the same ambitious curriculum to every student, irrespective of their background, additional and different needs, and starting points. But we should offer more – not less, but crucially, not the same – to our disadvantaged students. We must broaden the curriculum for working-class students to ensure equity as opposed to equality…

According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission , equality is “ensuring that every individual has an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents” whereas equity is about “giving more to those who need it”. Equity is not the same as equality nor – crucially – is it the same as inequality; it’s simply giving more to those who need it proportionate to their own circumstances to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities.

Thus, we need to provide the same ambitious curriculum to all and then complement it with additional opportunities for those whose starting points are lower or for whom opportunities are more limited.

The aim of equity in education should not be ‘social mobility’. Social mobility implies lifting students out of the working-classes, leaving behind all that they identify with and are. Rather, the aim of equity in education is to celebrate and embrace students’ working-class roots, whilst simultaneously ensuring those roots do not take stranglehold of their life chances. We want to widen horizons and remove barriers to success; we do not want the sun to set on working-class students’ rich and proud ancestry. As such, the aim of equity in education is social justice.

So, the first problem to counter with the core curriculum is the belief that we feed every student the same diet, that we offer equality of opportunity rather than equity.

The way to counter classism in the core curriculum is to provide equality then equity; to offer the same ambitious curriculum to all then do more for those who start with less.

Secondly, curriculum content – definitions of ‘core knowledge’ are classist. In other words, definitions are based on the notion that wealth and social status confer taste and discernment, and the selection of knowledge is made by those of a higher social standing rather than by a representative group of people from across the social strata.

Since 2019, Ofsted have inspected the way schools develop students’ cultural capital. Controversially perhaps, they describe cultural capital as “the best that has been thought and said” but who decides what constitutes the ‘best’? Notions of ‘best’ are, by definition, always subjective, value choices. Sadly, all too often, these choices are made by politicians from middle-class backgrounds. Every school’s curriculum should celebrate working-class culture alongside culture from the dominant classes.

Working-class students tend to be denied the experiences their middle-class peers are afforded such as reading books at home, visiting museums and art galleries, taking part in educational trips, enjoying foreign holidays, and so on.

I am not arguing against the teaching of knowledge, just suggesting that we need to think more carefully – nationally and locally – about who decides what knowledge is taught, when, and why. And we should think more carefully about how representative that knowledge is of our school communities, how effectively it talks to students’ lived experiences and to their family traditions and cultures. And once we’ve selected knowledge that does reflect our school community, we need to select knowledge that celebrates diversity beyond our community so that we can broaden our students’ horizons and educate them to become more caring, inclusive, empathetic people .

Curriculum assessment

Our current assessment system could also be regarded as classist. Here’s why…

Firstly, there’s the ‘home’ advantage…. more and more students are expected to complete schoolwork at home, whether that be homework, coursework, or revision. Those who don’t have a homelife that’s conducive to independent study are therefore placed at a distinct disadvantage, which is compounded for those who don’t have parents or carers with the capacity to support them – whether that be in terms of time, ability, or money (e.g. buying learning resources such as a computer, books, pens and paper).

And then there’s private tuition… Sir Peter Lampl, chair of the Sutton Trust, told The Guardian in 2016 that “private tuition is widespread and increasingly so… But with costs of at least £25 per session, many cannot afford to benefit from this extra support, which exacerbates education inequalities.”

According to the same newspaper article, “Predictably, children from wealthier backgrounds are the main beneficiaries of private tuition with independent [private] school students twice as likely to have received private tuition as their state school peers, despite their parents having already paid school fees.”

However much a working-class student may want to learn and grow, the lack of a suitable place to study puts them at a serious disadvantage. Spending cuts have led to a steep decline in the number of libraries in the UK and to cuts to the opening hours of those libraries that remain standing. Spending on libraries in 2009 was at £1 billion, but by 2019 it had fallen by a quarter. The same decade saw 773 libraries close – that’s one fifth of libraries in the UK. Libraries can be warm, quiet spaces for students to study. Their demise has hit working-class people especially hard.

Secondly, there’s the content of exams… there tends to be a middle-class bias in exam questions. For example, in the summer of 2022, an AQA GCSE English Language question privileged those with first-hand knowledge of foreign travel. And this wasn’t an isolated example…

In a 2017 Edexcel GCSE maths paper, candidates were asked about a theatre where “each person had a seat in the circle or had a seat in the stalls”. The question asked students to calculate how many of the 2,600 theatre seats were occupied but students would have needed to understand that the circle and stalls are different areas of the theatre to answer correctly.

A 2019 German GCSE examiners’ report from exam board AQA said “some students struggled to state advantages and/or disadvantages of a skiing holiday”.

I could go on!

Thirdly, there’s the outcome of exams… the assessment system is designed to fail a third of students every year – and it’s the working classes who suffer most.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) launched an independent Commission of Inquiry in October 2018 exploring how to improve the prospects of what they called ‘the forgotten third’ – the students who do not achieve at least a grade 4 ‘standard pass’ in GCSE English and maths at the end of 12 years of schooling.

ASCL argued that the fact this represents roughly a third of 16-year-olds every year is not an accident but the product of the system of comparable outcomes whereby the spread of GCSE grades is pegged to what cohorts of similar ability achieved in the past. Young people who fall below this bar pay a high price in terms of reduced prospects in progression to further and higher education and to careers.

Writing on the University of Buckingham’s website , Barnaby Lenon, Professor and Dean of Education and a member of the Standards Advisory Committee for the exam regulator Ofqual, said that we should “move away from an undue focus on exams [and] should begin a national programme to ensure every pupil aged 11 and above has access to a computer, keyboard and internet access at home. If we had that, we would be able to contemplate exams done online and using a keyboard rather than a pen.

The hidden curriculum

All schools have a hidden curriculum. It exists in a school’s rules and routines, its behaviour policies, and rewards and sanctions systems, in its physical environment, social environment and learning environment, and in the way all the adults who work in that school interact with each other and with students.

Students in private schools have an extra hidden curriculum – albeit hidden in plain sight. Private school students are taught they are the elite and their place in society is to rule over others. It’s their destiny and their birth-right because that’s the way we do things in this country. And it works.

Working-class students in state schools might be told that we live in a meritocracy – that with hard work and the right mindset, anyone can achieve anything. But they soon realise that merit is all smoke and mirrors. It’s harder to have a growth mindset if you live in an overcrowded, cold, damp, rented flat. It’s harder to attend an after-school drama club if you are expected to collect a younger sibling from primary school. And it’s harder to do well in exams if you’ve got nowhere to study and no access to the internet or a computer.

The very idea of ‘meritocracy’ – that, no matter your social background, you compete on the same level playing field, is deeply flawed.

In his ground-breaking book, The Tyranny of Merit, Michael Sandel argues that: “The meritocratic conviction that people deserve whatever riches the market bestows on their talents makes solidarity an almost impossible project. For why do the successful owe anything to the less-advantaged members of society? The answer to this question depends on recognizing that, for all our striving, we are not self-made and self-sufficient; finding ourselves in a society that prizes our talents is good fortune, not our due.”

It’s much harder for working-class people to get in and get on in various professions. Alongside the costs of entry to those professions and the advantages that accrue from having connections and work experience in that field, a person’s intelligence and ability are often conflated with their cultural tastes, mannerisms, and confidence. These are all signals of social class, but not necessarily aptitude. Describing someone as the ‘right fit’ for a job is a statement laden with class assumptions and prejudices.

So, those are the main issues as I see them. In the next article in this series, I’ll offer some solutions to these problems.

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

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