Paula Stone lectures in Initial Teacher Education. Her research interest focuses on how class and education influence each other and the impact this has on social identity.
I can remember being sneered at by my English teacher at the beginning of secondary school because I shared the fact that I liked to read Enid Blyton. A flippant but public gesture, I suspect, but what did it say about what I valued as a child; as a learner? She did not seem to value that I was enjoying reading …..but that I was reading the wrong kind of books! This has stayed with me, and has impacted on how I see myself within the education system, despite social mobility.
A recent report issued by the Department for Work and Pensions (March 2017) on household income suggests that about 100,000 children fell into relative poverty in 2015-16. Furthermore, the percentage of children in absolute low income before housing costs remains at the historic low observed in 2014/15; compared to the overall population, children remain more likely to be in low income households. The data showed that nearly half of single-parent children are poor, with a noticeable surge in poverty over the past year among children of lone parents who work full-time. About 67% of the UK’s poor children are from working families.
It is a sad fact that even in 21st century Britain, there is still a great deal of path dependence in the evolution of inequalities; people’s life chances are still strongly affected by the accident of their natal class and the inequalities that follow this (Sayer, 2005). Overall, poor children – even the brightest – do less well than their wealthier peers and the gap widens throughout school (State of the Nation Report, 2015). So what does this mean for us as educators?
Diane Reay (2001) suggests that contemporary educational systems in the UK retains remnants of these past elite prejudices in which the system was designed to control the lower classes and as consequence all authority remains vested in a middle-class educational system which ascribes to middle-class rather than working-class cultural capital (the skills, knowledge, norms and values which can be used to get ahead in education and life more generally).
Of course, we as teachers and practitioners need to have high expectations for children from disadvantaged backgrounds; (despite middle-class rhetoric) these children are not less intelligent; but they do have less access to opportunities that can supplement and enrich their learning. It is important to remember that education is not just about qualifications; through education we initiate young people in traditions and ways of being and doing, for example, cultural, professional, political, religious traditions; in this way education has a socialising effect. Because lack of economic capital can limit the life experiences working-class children can have, I would like to argue that, as educational practitioners, we all need to be sensitive to, and recognise the assumptions and values that working-class children bring, rather than attempting to deny or pathologise them. What we say and promote in school can make one set of values seem more important, or more valued than another. If we want truly inclusive practice within Early Years and school settings; we cannot deny the impact of class.
This drew me to think about some the experiences that middle-class children may take for granted, or importantly be denied to the working class. In an interesting paradox I turned to the National Trust Website ‘50 things to do before you are 11 ¾ ’ As a practitioner try to think about the experiences in the list that may be denied for the working-class children in your setting. Then think about what you can do to augment their home experiences with small things you can do in school.