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The ‘Levelling Down’ of Working Class Students

Earlier this month the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s process reduced the pass rate of less well-off Higher students by more than twice that of the richest. It was moderating down the grades predicted by teachers, predictions which a leading education charity had already warned were much more likely to be underestimated for working-class students than for their middle-class peers. Over the last year, we have been bombarded with the rhetoric around levelling up but the Scottish process would have resulted in a levelling down for working-class students not once but twice. The Scottish government has since made a U-turn over exam results and students will now be given the grades predicted by their teachers. However, it remains to be seen how the English government will react. The compounding of working-class educational disadvantage is set to be even greater in the English context where a net 39% of teachers’ grade assessments are likely to be adjusted down before students get their exam results (Weale 2020).

While the recent scandal has revealed a Scottish Qualification Authority unfit for purpose, perhaps what is most surprising is the outcry about the resulting unfairness because our educational system is grossly unfair and has been since its inception 150 years ago (Reay Miseducation). Behind the story of a few working-class students doing relatively well, despite continuing under-estimation of their potential, lurks another more troubling narrative – the failure of our educational system to realise the potential of working-class students, a majority of whom don’t take A levels. In relation to social class, our entire educational system has not been fit for purpose well before the outbreak of Covid-19. It has been levelling down opportunities for working-class students for over a century not just in 2020. But the prospects for working-class students are set to worsen. Austerity has laid waste to the public sector, including schools. The Tory and Coalition governments’ austerity policies depleted resources, demoralised staff and, particularly in areas of disadvantage, simultaneously broadened what is expected of teachers far beyond a teaching role whilst narrowing the range and reducing the quality of education offered to working-class children. Growing research shows that working-class children are experiencing ‘a pedagogy of poverty’ (Hempel-Jorgensen et al 2018) characterised by a narrow didactic focus on teaching to the test, discipline and low academic engagement, as they are increasingly segregated in working-class schools, or lower sets and streams in more socially mixed schools.  

This pedagogy of poverty is set to become even more entrenched if the government have their way. DfE guidelines for September school re-openings advised that some subjects for some or all pupils may have to be suspended for two terms to allow catch-up on core subjects such as English and maths (Gibbons 2020). This sacrifices any semblance of a balanced curriculum for those who are seen to have fallen behind academically, primarily those from working-class groups in society. The difficult, stressful exigencies of working-class lives were part of the reason a far lower percentage of working-class children returned to school after the lockdown, but so too was the narrow, target-driven, hyper-competitive curriculum they routinely experience.  

(EPI Analysis: School funding allocations 2021-22)

The cuts to school funding over the past decade have been brutal, but it was those schools that serve the poorest communities that have been hardest hit. Stories of working-class schools with buckets collecting rainwater under unmended roofs abound. The current government’s manifesto promise of an additional £14 billion over three years was much lauded but it will do little to patch over the gaps in educational funding. The most recent funding announcement signals yet another process of levelling down rather than levelling up.

Comparing per-pupil funding in 2020-21 to that in 2017-18, the Education Policy Institute found that FSM pupils will have received increases of around two-thirds of the rate of non-FSM pupils. This is a very perverse form of levelling up – one that talks the talk but walks off in a different direction.

Among all the babble around levelling up what is rarely admitted by our political elites is that private schools exist to entrench the power of the elite while state education is primarily about further advantaging the middle classes. Education, as it exists in all parts of the UK, is not about realising the potential the working classes and never has been. As is evident in the recent grades debacle, the working classes are still primarily positioned as collateral damage enabling middle and upper-class educational success. 

By Prof Diane Reay, sociologist and academic, who is Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge.