Education Cannot Compensate for Society

‘Those who govern are prisoners of a reassuring young entourage of young, white, middle-class technocrats who often know almost nothing about the everyday lives of their fellow citizens and have no occasion to be reminded of their ignorance’. (Bourdieu 1993:627).

I will be addressing this contention in terms of the white working class and arguing that, in contrast to Tony Blair’s opinion that ‘we are all middle class now’ and this has been achieved through ‘education, education, education’, the white working class population is far from dormant, and, thanks to New Labour, it is their children that are now the lowest achievers academically.

The concept of class is highly ambiguous and often fluid in today’s society. Although touched upon, there is little room for detailed discussion on class stratification in this paper. However, the persistence of class structures in the UK have led to a wealth of literature on the subject (see Goldthorpe 1987; Crompton 1998, Roberts 2001). For purpose of this paper, I will be defining class as a social fact:
‘consisting of millions of people constituted by divisions of labour and knowledge with corresponding class cultures that people in the same class positions use as basis for their actions’ (P. Brown 1997).

It should be noted that, before further discussion, the educational life chances of individuals, are interwoven with gender and ethnicity as well as social class (K. Roberts 2001) however, for the purpose of the set word count, the focus of this paper will be on the influence of social class on the educational life chances of individuals.
Education is presented as a means of reducing inequalities in society through upwards social mobility. Yet despite the Government’s commitment to ‘opportunity for all’ and continuing investment in compulsory education over the last fifty years, ‘social class is a crucial factor in determining whether a child does well or badly at school’. (Dean 1998:3). For many working class children today, education has not compensated for their position in society. The employment opportunities available to this demographic are still largely defined by their parent’s socio-economic position – more so than they were during the last Labour Government.

‘The social class of a person’s parents actually has a greater impact on their educational attainment now than previously… Thus it is not the most able who have benefited from the expansion of the UK education system but rather the most privileged’. (Galindo-Rueda & Vignoles 2003).

This paper will seek to explore some of the factors that contribute to these findings, and look at how, despite the evolution of the Education system and the benefits it can offer, this demographic are still ‘underachieving’. It is worth noting that the term ‘underachievement’ itself has been hotly critiqued (Gilborn & Mirza 2000, Halsey et al 1980).

It will be suggested that widening participation in Higher Education, (sold to us as a means of professionalising the proletariat working class and as a commodity essential for realising future aspiration), has actually been more of a success for middle class children than those from working class backgrounds. Attempts to understand and reverse this pattern will also be looked at.

It is argued here that schooling in England still contains remnants of its elitist past. Historically used by the ruling middle classes to ensure hegemony (Gramsci) over the proletariat, the focus of schooling the masses has been on maintaining social control rather than education (Green 1990). This paper supports evidence that the educational system in the UK still serves to favour middle class ideologies as the dominant cultural capital (Bourdieu 1984, Halsey et al 1997), positioning working class attitudes as undesirable and inferior:
‘If the lower classes must now be educated … they must be educated that they may appreciate and defer to a higher civilisation when they meet it’ (Lowe, R. cited in Tomlinson, L. 1986).

The main body of theory that underpins this argument is that of Pierre Bourdieu. The cultural determinist view of Bourdieu views the system as it is as hopeless; merely a means of producing and reproducing society and unequal distributions of power by imposing an undiversified and immutable school curriculum upon a multicultural society. Bourdieu’s concept has been criticised for being over deterministic as it suggests the individual simply reflects the conditions they are born into, and deprived of any power to shape their own future (Jenkins 1992:79). In his defence however, Bourdieu (1990:116) argues that this criticism ignores the influence of circumstance which is central to his idea of habitus. One of the main circumstances is the competition between the classes (which he sees as an influence on social behaviour – itself a process). Like Bourdieu, the interest here is in how society evaluates cultural capital through visible systems of reward and punishment.
Thatcher’s focus on business and enterprise in the 1970’s saw the structure of the Education system change into a more business focused model, encouraging schools and Universities to become more like private businesses and enter into competition with each other, and turning parents and students into consumers. Here we can mark the beginning of the commodification of Education. This era also highlighted a contradiction between policies aimed at social equality and those aimed at economic growth, ‘placing the needs of the industry and the economy (rather than the child, see Plowden Report 1967) at the heart of the education process’ (Weiner, G1998:190).

Building on this, The Educational Reform Act of 1988 saw the introduction of the National Curriculum, aimed at solving the problems of compensatory education by encouraging tolerance and respect for religious and cultural diversity; economic enterprise; parliamentary democracy and the rule of law; and education for sustainable development, social inclusion and formal notions of citizenship (Qualifications & Curriculum Authority 1999: 290). However, it’s very academic structure has had the opposite effect. Learning has been reduced to the completion of predetermined and measurable activities. This authoritarian style of schooling that we still follow today is limited by an unprecedented testing format. Teachers and pupils are under immense pressure to pass these tests, whilst having their methods of teaching limited by Government intervention. This system encourages students to fail, for ‘teaching to the test’ does nothing to encourage independent thinking or promote different types of intelligence (Bruner).

A wealth of research in the 1990’s focused on the reproduction of class inequalities in educational achievement. For example, Demack et al (1998) noted that between 1988 and 1993, although more pupils were achieving higher grades at GCSE level, there was an increased inequality in achievement amongst the manual and non manual demographics. P. Brown’s research (1997) highlighted the efforts and strategies middle class parents, especially mothers, to manipulate the system. Educated in good schools and Universities and fiercely aware of the benefits of access to knowledge, these parents are determined that their children will have the same access to a privileged education that they did. If they couldn’t afford to send their children to private schools these ‘privileged parents had the required cultural capital and educational knowledge for them to emerge as winners in local school markets’ (Tomlinson, S 2001:137). Anxious that state education might fail them, they use these skills to avoid disadvantaged and poorer schools (see Reay 1998 also). It is not that working class parent’s do not care about their children’s education as much, rather that in their homes ‘formal learning and caring tend not to be synonymous and often the expectation is that formal learning is what happens at school’ (Evans 2007:9). Through her phenomenology approach, Evans work highlighted these different attitudes between working ands middle class mums, suggesting that,
‘The relationship between social classes in England hinges on a segregation that is emotionally structured through mutual disdain …not just occupationally defined (2007:28)… ‘At school and in life, middle class people behave as if they are doing working class people a favour. Thus, the school … represents … posh people’s values’ (2007:32)
Many theories have attempted to explain the ‘underachievement’ of working class children. From dubious inheritance assumptions that middle class children are innately/genetically superior (Swift 1977) to the learned belief that that educational institutions, as currently organized, favour middle class ideology and are therefore inadequate in providing for working class children. This is the focus of our discussion. Mackinnon (1978) is one such scholar that demonstrates such a correlation between class and educational attainment. It should be noted here that the ways in which social class affect educational life chances are complex and dependent on many other factors, both at school and at home.

One other sociological attempt to explain such variation in educational life chances is the acknowledgement of the influence of social class culture; the differences between the attitudes, values, language and skills favoured at home and at school.

Basil Bernstein’s study ‘Education Cannot Compensate for Society’ was one such study. Published in 1972, it addressed the notion of class speech codes and controls that had the potential to limit the education of the working class. He discovered that working class children had a more limited and ‘context dependent’ (dominated) vocabulary than their middle class peer’s (dominating) vocabulary. ‘This put the working class child at a significant disadvantage in the school where the dominating code is used and expected by the teacher’ (Meighan & Harber 2007:396). Bernstein’s draws on the effects of labelling theory, in that it often results in a self fulfilling prophecy. According to Bernstein’s theory, children with elaborate codes of language, i.e. the middle classes, are more suited to the requisitions of formal education than those with restricted codes.

‘To be working class is something unfortunate and undesirable from which any pupil with sense will seek to escape. The pupil absorbs this message – which is transmitted daily through teacher’s exhortions to work hard in school for the benefit it will bring – yet the vast majority of pupils from the working class do not escape their working class fate.’ (Hargreaves 1978).

The influential message that being working class is something undesirable is consistent. This labelling does not provide the pupil a basis for a fair and objective accumulation of knowledge, as not every sector of society has instilled in them the ideals of the white, male, middle class. The existing and hierarchical assumption of what education should be only reflects the views of the ruling class.

‘Since the mid 1970’s, education has moved from being a key pillar of the welfare state to being a prop for a global market economy’. (Tomlinson 2001:166). With 30 years of full employment after the Second World War, education did allow limited social mobility, for girls and those from the working class and ethnic minorities. However, after the oil crisis of the 1970’s, the gap between the rich and poor started to widen and the country entered a period of economic and moral decline, with unemployment figures at unprecedented proportions. For many working class students, the appeal of earning money was greater than the opportunity for ‘lifelong learning’. However the occupational structure was changing. Increasing divisions of labour combined with the collapse of apprenticeships and heavy industry, left many of them unskilled and unemployable in the new global market place. This was illustrated by a report by the OECD ‘The Department of Employment Statistics 1990 showed that the gap between the highest and lowest paid employees was the lowest since records began in 1886. ‘(Meighan & Harber 2007:391). Part of this rise in income inequality has reflected itself in a sharp increase in child poverty with the numbers of childless workless households in poverty reaching record levels in 2002-03 (J Hills and K Stewart 2004).

‘As income gaps have widened, any positive link between education and income will disproportionately benefit children from richer families and disadvantage children from poorer families … even as recently as ‘1997 to 1999, a strong income related gap remained, with 85% of the highest quintile children staying on (in post sixteen education) compared with 61% of the lowest quintile children.’ (Machin, S 2003: 6)

In response to these statistics, the Government produced an ‘Evidence Paper’ aimed finding new opportunities for the twenty five percent of sixteen to eighteen year olds (DCSF 2006) who are not in education, employment or training. For this demographic, education has not compensated for their position in society, they leave school without being equipped with the skills or qualifications necessary to compete in the global market. This drastically reduces the lifelong options available to them and, in turn their aspirations for the future, reinforcing future inequalities in society. In response to this,
‘Government … has a basket of measures aimed at improving education and training, including the contentious issue of making it compulsory to stay at school until 18. The aim is to reduce inequalities and raise standards for all, introduce more routes to success and focus more on skills to produce a better-educated, trained and prepared workforce for the future.’ (O’Bryne, P. cited in Eyre, E. 2008).

In the absence of modern apprenticeships, such schemes aspire to:
1) Reduce the proportion of 16–18 year olds who are NEET by 2 percentage points by 2010, and in doing so;
2) Put in place the learning and support arrangements that will be necessary to enable all 16 and 17 year olds to participate in learning when the participation age is raised to 17 in 2013 and 18 in 2015. (Subject to legislation)
(DCSF 2008: Toolkit)

Although it is positive that progress is being made, some critics view the program as a catching up exercise and warn that the problem should be tackled at a much earlier age that 16, so to avoid individuals falling into the NEET bracket altogether. Raising the school leaving age can also be seen as another measure of social control over social justice.
It is widely acknowledged that everyone must have qualifications in order to land a ‘decent’ job but, as one teenager states “you have to work harder and harder to get worse and worse jobs” (Ainley & Allen 2007). Widening participation has led to social mobility for those dedicated individuals that persevered with ‘lifelong learning’, (especially through the welfare state education and the expansion of higher education), but is New Labour’s ‘Education, Education, Education’ mantra all a con? There is no guarantee of a decent job upon leaving University; a recent study found that twenty two percent of all graduates were employed in non-graduate jobs (Dolton and Silles 2001). In fact a certain amount of propaganda could be attributed to the Government’s ‘Aim higher’ initiative. Set up with the goal of getting fifty per cent of the population under thirty into higher education by 2010, the program ‘aims to widen participation in higher education by raising the aspirations and developing the abilities of young people from under-represented groups’. It has been argued that the fifty percent target is ‘a social and economic necessity’, a statement which supports this discussion. It is interesting to note that the need to do more was first acknowledged back in 1963 in the Robbins Report, yet it took forty years for the problem to be fully addressed.

Despite the initiative to widen participation to focus on those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, a Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) report found that between 1997 and 2000 ‘most of the new places in higher education have gone to those from already advantaged areas:
’Young people living in the most advantaged twenty percent of areas are five to six times more likely to enter higher education than those living in the least advantaged twenty percent of areas’(MacLeod 2005).
It has been suggested that during the expansion of Higher Education from the 1970 – 1990’s, which coincided with large socio-economic divides in society, parental income was a common deciding factor in whether an individual continued on to University (Blanden & Machin 2003). This, combined with the introduction of university fees in 1998 and the abolishment of student maintenance grants have not helped address these inequalities.

Education has compensated for many people since the Education Act of 1944, with educational attainment increasing across all social classes in England over the past half century. The expansion of professional jobs and the contraction of manual jobs, combined with educational expansion and comprehensive reform, have enabled a large number of working class children to enter professional and managerial occupations. This has not however reduced class differences in educational attainment at Higher Education level. Despite Government access schemes, the middle classes continue to obtain higher educational credentials, (even if they have to go to University to do so - where before they could rely on high attainment at school). These educational institutions and their admission, selection and certification processes play a significant role in either reducing or maintaining social inequalities. To date they have been maintaining them, but it is with these institutions that the power lies to reduce such inequalities. Although some cynicism has been raised in regards to the Government ‘aimhigher’ initiative, it does offer institutions of Higher Education incentives to widen their participation and selection methods to incorporate those from under represented groups, include those from working class backgrounds.

‘Scholarships – such as higher education maintenance allowances – are vital. So are financial incentives for universities to widen participation.’ (Barr 2002).
It is initiatives like this that, although not ideal, are an unfortunate necessity in today’s global market place of education.

‘Virtually all policy makers and many sociologists continue to act as if modest interventions in education and training will bring about significant redistribution of life chances’ (Roberts 2001).

This paper has sought to expose these failures and suggest that we have now entered a state of post-modernity, and that, like Small argues in 2005, ‘we need a new set of ideas to deal with social life and with education’. There is no definite answer as to how to go about this but the current reforms that offer more choice and diversity to those from lower socio economic backgrounds are a step in the right direction. However more radical reforms are needed. For example, the role of the state in the regulation of education should be questioned altogether (GE West 1994) to ensure it’s position is justified in that it really does cater for all to a high and consistent level.

Working class parents should also be provided the skills to help than navigate, (and to a lesser extent manipulate!) the social institutions of schools to their advantage, as their middle class peers have done so for years. By instilling these values in them, they are more likely to pass them onto their children.

Flexible and adaptable ways of learning should take precedence in our fluid and multicultural society. The introduction of new technologies and changing economies and cultures, mean that an immutable education system for all is futile and outdated. (Handy 1989). The move away from the authoritarian approach to schooling towards a more flexi-schooling should be encouraged (Meighan 1988)This notion, combined with that of a catalogue curriculum, was introduced by John Holt and Roland Meighan in 1984 to tackle the belief that ‘rigid systems produce rigid people, flexible systems produce flexible people’ cited in (Meighan & Harber 2007: 471). In this envisioned future of Education, parents would play a more active role, different learning styles could be incorporated and the individual strengths of the pupil would be encouraged – regardless of their socio economic background.
‘the Henry Ford theory of ‘choice’: you can have your car in any colour as long as it’s black. It is pseudo-choice. Flexi schooling, in contrast, allows real educational choice.’ (Meighan & Harber 2007: 454).

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