I spent a muggy if enjoyable day at the third annual ResearchED two Saturdays back. With my usual lack of forward planning I’d delayed the decision over which sessions to attend to the minutes waiting for the opening speakers – the Head of Capital City Academy (no servants were mentioned) and the elegantly be-vested co-organiser Tom Bennett. I had a few ideas in mind; Dr Allen from Datalab, incoming Ofsted head Amanda Spielman were definites, but broadly I went for talks that were broadly speaking sociology rather than pedagogy.
Without ever feeling my teaching to have been particularly influenced by class considerations (certainly not in an overt political sense. I’ve no intention of joining an anarcho-synicalistic commune any time soon), I’ve recently found I’m considering it more carefully in regards to education. Perhaps it’s one of those times when an idea arrives uninvited and unannounced and proceeds to spend the next few weeks lounging around your brain, picking through your fridge and using up all your toilet roll until you finally get round to having that difficult conversation. Teaching in a school that draws from a traditional working class area with a widespread underachieving boys problem also helped bring me around to thinking into the subtle influences of class.
The day’s first session one discussed an upcoming paper on Ethnicity, gender and social mobility from Bart Shaw and Eleanor Bernardes of LKMco. With the current storm brewing over the grammar school question (Nick Gibb was at this time facing the lion’s den in the sports hall with a speech that managed to somehow avoid the issue at all), the idea of social mobility is back up the agenda, even if the term itself is vague. Presumably in this case social mobility was talking about moving between the socioeconomic groups, ABC1 and so on. There are a whole wobbly raft of arguments about whether this is a worthwhile aim for education that I won’t be stepping foot on. The important thing for me that I took from the session was the idea of the unconscious biases and, well, prejudices that we bring as teachers and human beings to the classroom. Doubtless for most teachers the idea that we have some kind of bias is distasteful, but I think it is more important to confront the idea that they are there and try to minimise them. I don’t think I discourage girls from doing science jobs for example, but it’s worth the time to actually analyse it (I think I probably over-egg the situation, like an amateur sport referee who steps up and is so keen to not be biased to their own side they end up awarding seven opposition penalties to show how straight down the line they are).
Is there an unconscious class bias in operation too? I would consider my background working class, but it would be hard to argue that as a teacher I am now anything other than middle class. Again, I am aware that there are ways to interpret both categories (yes, I put people in categories for the purpose of the argument, what are you going to do?) but how much residual positive or negative biases am I bringing with me into the classroom? And what biases are the students bringing?
Bart mentioned that at all levels of employment there is discrimination against minority ethnic groups. The tendency for people to select from people of similar backgrounds, tastes or cultures is well-known, but should we then as teachers make an overt effort to ensure our students are as prepped up on this as possible, in other words train our students up to know the Shibboleths of the working world beyond their social class? A recent news story highlighted how business (specifically banking) rejected students for places on such apparently arbitrary reasons as shoe colour. There’s a parallel in uniform policies, and I’m sure some people would argue that a strict adherence to uniform does address some of these problems. However, even if we could teach these things, something tells me that the rules would shift, a treacherous swamp path leaving readable only to the sly guide. The situation is much better now of course, with Universities and jobs being more transparent about the processes. Some cues we can definitely deal with, such as giving specific career advice and qualification pathways. The ‘soft’ skills and attitudes, hidden in plain sight I find more difficult to bring out in lessons.
A straightforward answer is to teach all of these ‘middle class attitudes’, aspirations and cultural capital that comes as a ready-made, accessible and understood package for some students. This overlooks however what students from a working class background may be resistant or out-right antagonistic to some of these attitudes. The teenage struggle for definition often begins by deciding what they are not, a rejection of a set of values, dress codes or ways of talking. Richard Hoggart’s book ‘The uses of literacy’ mentions
“…since the working-class people involved are aware of almost nothing but the vast apparatus of authority which has somehow got hold of them, and which they cannot understand.”
There is a resistance in some places to following or even attempting a set of ideals that are viewed with suspicion or antipathy from the offset, regardless of their quality, worth or future benefit. I doubt there are straightforward answers. The idea that cultural attitudes can be wholesale shifted is interesting but undoubtedly difficult to implement, ignoring the question of whether it even should be done. American KIPP schools spring to mind as an immediate example of a live experiment to test this, though early data on retention once students leave the schools and enter college do not look promising. None of this is to say that the aims of changing a culture are not noble or necessary. It just won’t be easy, and that goes for some schools more than others.