Class War in the Classroom?

A recent, magnificent article by Sarah Moore in the Guardian got me thinking about the issue of class in the UK. As a teacher from a very lower class background, I find myself in the minority. Okay, I get all the sociological arguments about access to education and all the fluff about working class culture, but the fact remains that most teachers in the UK are from backgrounds that carry with it some level of privilege. Here is where I hold my hands up and scream out my disclaimer- I know I’m generalising (I know lots of working class teachers), I know it might appear that I am suggesting that class has any impact on the excellence of a teacher (it really doesn’t). But one worrying pattern that I cannot help to notice is the fact that the education profession is generally led by people who are quite far removed from many they are paid to teach. This permeates throughout British society from the highest level right down to the types of teachers certain schools can recruit and keep hold of. If Britain indeed is locked into some kind of class-war, as has been suggested by many social critics, maybe that war starts in the classroom; in schools which end up creating ideas about class, privilege and rights within our young people which has led to the vast ideological chasm about what it expects from people in society today.

Recent studies have suggested that despite the rhetoric of inclusion and the famous “every child matters” agenda which has been a cornerstone throughout education recently, under the current government we are moving nearer to a divided system which favours the agenda of the ruling class. A paper published only days ago by the Social Market Foundations Commission on Inequalities in Education has pinpointed several problematic issues with teacher recruitment in secondary schools. In short, schools which have a higher percentage of Free School Meals (FSM) employ more staff who are either underqualified or newly qualified. In addition, many of the NQTs in these types of schools end up leaving after only a short time. This is further exasperated by the fact that these schools pay teachers less on average, which could be one reason for their short lifespan. However, from my own experience, I would suggest that it is not just the issue of money which drives many of these NQTs away – sometimes it is social class. In many cases, these NQTs came from “nice” grammar schools, then onto a university education, followed by placements in schools which were performing well, and it may be a simple fact that many NQTs from more privileged backgrounds simply struggle to connect with lower class kids from schools in deprived areas. If we follow this paper trail further, we find that less lower class people are going to university because the funding structure and the astronomical fees just don’t support their enrollment. Furthermore, often university culture is alien to most young, lower class people, especially if their parents can offer no help or advice whatsoever. The whole system needs a shake up and more working class kids need to be going to university.

The structure of education itself is also changing. Education is supposed to be about expanding minds and building vehicles for creative and independent thinking. Instead, teachers are now trying to work within a system which is obsessed with measuring and tracking numbers in order to prove to an overbearing organisation that everything works. The outcome of this is deeply ironic because this crazy obsession with measuring progress to a detail means that less education is actually taking place. Those with power in education are increasingly trying to adopt a business model to it, which only further reinforces the capitalist system which favours those with privilege and power. Examples are abundant. Performance related pay in the UK – where teachers are now expected to meet targets like sales assistants in a department store. The academisation of schools – allowing businesses to dictate terms and conditions. There is even talk of businesses running education curricula. We are already in that dangerous zone where capitalism overrides education when we consider the cost of textbooks for underfunded departments in schools. There is a reason why Pearson Education are a multi-billion pound a year publisher. In a wonderful article published by the education blogger @Teacher Toolkit, we should consider a quote which sums this up eloquently from the book Flip the System by Evers and Kneyber, “Education is threatened on a global scale by forces of neoliberalism, through high stakes accountability, privatization and a destructive language of learning.”

Finally, there has to be some recognition of the existence of a class culture within Britain without the Thatcheresque denigration of working class people. Most working class people are not stupid but many don’t get access to the pathways that allow them to become teachers. So, for now, maybe a start would be to redress the system by teaching compassion and understanding rather than a business model of productivity. Maybe if education leaders change their attitudes towards working class students, more of these young people will want to support the system, but until that happens most working class people will see the system as exclusive and oppressive, which will simply reinforce the cycle we are in currently in. Sadly, it appears again that this model is something that favours those with privilege, which I believe is why we find ourselves in this social situation right now and those with the power have very little incentive to change things.

In the long run, getting more teachers who can tap into the cultural needs of working class students is the key. I have worked in a school where this was superb! Teacher retention at this school was fantastic and the number of young, dynamic teachers who moved onto middle leadership was also impressive. In short, few teachers left. (I emigrated!) What was the formula? Simple, teachers were employed on their ability to connect with the types of students they would be teaching. Many of these were teachers from lower class backgrounds; some were from more privileged backgrounds that were prepared to listen and learn. A special culture had been generated. The most important outcome here was the success rates of the students. The school punched above its weight in these terms.

To finish with, I cannot help but cast my mind back to an online argument I had with a student whom I won’t embarrass from a University that should be embarrassed to have him. When I challenged his political thinking he referred to me as “you people”. To me – it spoke volumes. Because I had defended a working class point of view, he made certain assumptions about me and in those two words he assumed that I was uneducated, bitter and somehow jealous of his privileged position as a university undergraduate. Maybe one day he’ll move on to become a teacher. I hope not because he would simply reinforce everything that is wrong with the social system in which we live today. The words “you people” did suggest a difference; a struggle.

For me, this struggle starts in our classrooms.