Miseducation Inequality, education and the working classes by Diane Reay brings together threads from a wealth of Reay’s research on working-class experiences of education, as well as her own personal journey from working-classness to Professor at an elite institution. Reading Miseducation was enlightening for me on many levels, as well as being a bit of a sense-making process, both professionally and personally. I’ll admit right from the start that I’ve largely avoided talking about class in my academic work, largely because it has been too personal. So, (much like Miseducation itself) what follows is a reflection of Reay’s Miseducation that combines the academic and the personal.
Reay takes as her starting point Jackson and Marsden’s seminal 1966 book Education and the Working Class. A key difference between when Jackson and Marsden wrote their famous work and now is that back in the 1960s 60% of the population identified as working-class. Now this is only 40%. But Reay finds that a shocking level of class inequality still persists in the English education system. In particular, she highlights the significant increase in testing and the narrowing of the curriculum in schools (aspects of which I am only too aware now as a parent). Secondly, she points to the policy shift towards academies and free schools, which have increased selectivity, largely leaving working-class kids behind. A 2013 OECD report that Reay cites early in the book (p.50) concluded that schools in England are the most socially segregated in the developed world, especially for poor and migrant families.
In secondary school I was one of the working-class kids Reay talks about, who was ‘relegated’ to the bottom set (p.77). My local primary school (incidentally where my father had also gone to school) was what we would probably now call a ‘sink school’. My mother fought successfully to get me into a ‘better’ school in the ‘posher’ part of town. But when I got to high school I was put in the bottom set with not a single kid from my primary school, but with kids from our (poorer) part of town. This isn’t just about me having an overinflated sense of my own capabilities. Years after I left high school, my final year primary teacher told me that she’d tried to get me into a higher set, but didn’t win the argument with the school. At the time, my parents complained to the headteacher that I was finding the school work in the bottom set unchallenging. They were told that nothing could be done until after the end of the first year exams when, if I proved myself, I would be moved up. At the end of the year I was indeed moved up. But by then friendship groups had been established and I had effectively lost a year of secondary schooling.
Another rather strange and revealing example of how class impacts on working-class kids became apparent to me only a few years ago when I got hold of my medical notes. In these, I discovered (from Pre-Data Protection Act) that a clinician who I saw aged 15 had put in my notes that I had ‘aspirations that were likely beyond my academic abilities’. This was a clinician, not even a teacher! The importance of including this is to say that these are the kinds of assumptions and judgements made about working-class kids that Reay talks about, who start off life with the odds firmly stacked against them by many in positions of power.
Another key driver of inequalities for working class kids that Reay highlights are the class divisions in university education. In particular, she points to the exacerbation of a two-tier system of ‘elite’ and ‘inferior’ institutions largely as a result of recent funding changes. She argues that ‘Elitist processes masquerading as meritocracy are just as evident in the English education system as they were 50 years ago in the 1960s; but the primary engines of this pseudo meritocracy are no longer the grammar schools but the elite universities’ (p.178). Another, more pernicious, factor that Reay identifies is that failure is now seen as the fault of the working-class individual, rather than anything more systemic (p.180).
In relation to universities, Reay also powerfully talks about the cultural and social capital that you lack as an individual when you’re working-class and trying to gain entry to a university. No one in my family was familiar with the university environment. But I was lucky: I was helped by a few professionals for whom my mum cleaned. I was also awarded an assisted government place to attend an independent 6th Form. Without these, I don’t think I would have felt confident enough to apply to a Russell group university. Back in high school my mother paid for extra maths tutoring for me outside of school. But when (on the tutor’s advice) I told my head of maths that I’d like to do the higher paper to try to get an A grade (rather than the maximum C I could get by doing the lower paper) she told me that I could, but qualified it with: ‘you can always resit next year’. This stands out for me as a good example of the lowered expectations and constrained ambition that I felt during my compulsory education.
One of the most powerful aspects of the book for me was where Reay talks about how the working-classes find themselves having left one class (working) and yet not feeling like a true member of another (the ‘bolting on of middle classness’) (p.104). Reay suggests that social mobility for the working classes represents ‘a fragile balance between realising potential and maintaining a sense of authenticity’, resulting in individuals being uncomfortably ‘caught between two worlds’ (p.108). Lynsey Hanley also talks powerfully about this from her own experience in Respectable. This process of social mobility can be wounding, resulting in a ‘disconnect’ for individuals and a feeling of being ‘adrift’ from social and family ties. The political discourse of social mobility as an unquestionable good, Reay argues, doesn’t really get to grips with this aspect.
My own personal experience of social mobility is of a huge gulf between myself and my wider family and community that came about because I went to university and that will likely never be resolved. ‘Why would you want to go to University?’ they asked. The fact that I went to University and moved away underscored another aspect of this fracture highlighted by Reay: what social mobility says about those who are left behind. Reay rightly asks what the point is in striving for equality with more-privileged others if the process creates inequalities between you and the people you love’? (pp 114-5). In the epilogue she cites the powerful words of Bourdieu: ‘to be able to live in a world that is not mine I must try to understand both things: what it means to have an academic mind…and at the same time what was lost in acquiring it’ (pp 197-8).
Finally, a further critical aspect for me that Reay talks about is how as academics we can become ensnared in ‘dominant representations’ of the working classes and that it is important not to ‘romanticise’ the experience of working-classness (p.198). Instead, she highlights the diversity of ‘working-classness’. This helped me to make sense of my own class background. My experience of growing up working class was largely about being fearful and ashamed. Constant stress about having enough money to live on, of having utilities cut off and having to lie about this to friends to save face. My mum was shocked when I asked to have free school meals as she didn’t want me to look ‘outwardly poor’ to others. My parents didn’t claim Family Credit for largely the same reason (although this left us even poorer). My parents were not part of the politically enlightened, ‘radical’ working class that was Reay’s background, but were more the ‘aspirant’ working-class talked about in Jackson and Marsden’s classic work. However, their aspirations were really for me, rather than for themselves. For them, education was the gateway to a much better life for me than the one they experienced. My dad was a time-served joiner, but could only find work on building sites throughout his life. He wasn’t a member of a union (except when there was a closed shop) and, in common with his family and peers, he voted Conservative. My mum largely worked in shops and as a cleaner and waitress. Both struggled from one low-paying insecure job to another (my mum regularly had at least two jobs), with poor health as a result.
The ‘classedness’ of my education was largely a part of my life that, for good or ill, I didn’t really notice at the time: what Reay refers to as ‘the living out of class on both conscious and unconscious levels’ (p.155). Reay says she’s still upset that, for the majority of people that both she and Jackson and Marsden interviewed, their working-class backgrounds were something they wanted to forget (p.8). This resonated deeply with me. But it is critical not to forget. In Miseducation Reay strikes exactly the right chord, successfully managing to achieve her aim of ‘cutting across the grain’ of what she has become professionally (p.198) to be reflexive about her own experiences. Reay’s Miseducation is a timely exposė of how current government policies, the education ‘system’ but, critically, social values and attitudes to ‘inequality, welfare and difference’ (p.174) are still failing, and as a result limiting the potential of so many.
Miseducation by Diane Reay is published by Policy Press’ 21st Century Standpoints series, in association with the British Sociological Association