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.

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3 responses to “Class War in the Classroom?

  1. I couldn’t disagree with your analysis of current government policy more if I tried although I see you are into flip the system. But the whole point of blogs/twitter is so that we can all have our say and I would certainly agree there are few and far between teachers from working class backgrounds.

    I wonder if you have read Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse? It certainly opened my eyes to some of the criticisms you state but from a different perspective. Right now I have not come across anyone who disputes his evidence – especially that of declining reading standards across the country which led to government intervention in the first place (I have yet to hear of any example of a government waiting until it’s third term – which it may not ever get – to carry out a policy it wanted all along.). Furthermore I would suggest James Callaghan’s Ruskin speech critiquing the model you are proposing. This has already been endorsed by middle progressive class teachers!!

    It seems like teachers are still being fed the idea that the system is traditional (it’s not) and that they need to change it (already happened).

    All the connecting with pupils (down with the kids) is responsible for the culture of low expectations of behaviour and learning in many inner-city schools (including those that I have worked in) compared to middle class schools. I think without meaning to you are reinforcng the very ideas that have halted the social mobility of working class pupils in the first place.

    I agree whole-hearterdly that we should expand the horizons of the children we teach but I doubt that is going to happen by narrowing everything down to their class. The current agenda maybe unashamedly academic but without qualifications working class children do not have access to university. Without cultural capital they won’t be able to make the inroads in different fields that they need to. A head full of grievances instead of Shakespeare is not going to change the world, but being the person who comes from a working class background and becoming a politician, social worker, scientists does. This can’t happen if there is a tailored curriculum to the poor so they will ‘engage’.

    I want the same things as you but I simply don’t believe doing the same things as have happened over the previous four decades in ignorance is going to get us anywhere.

    Like

    • Thanks for the comment and I will read the material you have suggested. I agree with a huge amount of what you have said. Furthermore I feel that a few points need clarifying. It’s probably my fault for not giving those points the treatment they deserve. First, I am not suggesting moving away from an academic curriculum. As a teacher of an academic subject, I too see this idea as deeply flawed and I agree that for a working class kid to be in a position to make a difference in this world, an academic education is a must. My issue is often the lack of understanding some teachers and schools have in getting working class kids to engage in this academic curriculum. I want my kids to know Shakespeare… I want my kids to know the economic conditions that led to Nazism… I just think by tapping into their thinking processes and showing them a world through their own eyes helps that process. That doesn’t mean, as you say, getting down with the kids. I’m way too old for that! It does, however, mean you have to create a relationship where they want to know what you have to say. I think some teachers and certainly t h e government are quite flawed in understanding this.

      As for government policy, there is little doubt that much of what they do is designed to feather their own nests and the denigration of working class people is all part of that. At the moment there are very few messages of respect and understanding coming from the higher echelons of our society and I do believe this business-like approach to education is part of that wider narrative.

      Thanks again for your thoughts. I value your opinions.

      Liked by 1 person

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