What class are you?

Teachers love to raise aspirations of their students, to make them feel like they can achieve anything, and to show them all the opportunities that exist in the world.

A key aspect of this work is to combat stereotype threat. We encourage girls to engage in science and encourage boys to engage in dance. We take children whose parents didn’t go to university and send them on summer courses on campus, and we bring in high-achieving people with disabilities to our schools to talk to the students. In fact we carefully select role-models of all races, religions, cultures and backgrounds who have rejected stereotypes and achieved amazing things.

The one label that seems to resist such treatment though is ‘class’, a curiously British obsession. It’s a slippery one; academics may define it as position within the labour market, while others claim it depends on where you were born, who your parents were or perhaps how educated you are. It seems to me that many people define themselves in a fairly ad-hoc fashion. Highly educated professionals may state that they are ‘working class and proud’ by dint of their parents’ circumstances, while a self-made millionaire may be labelled an ‘upper class twit’ despite his or her background. It all appears very tribal.

Even though ‘class’ defies an agreed definition we know that your parents’ wealth, education, employment are highly correlated with your likely educational success. We also know that the ‘deprivation’ of the postcode where you live is another highly-correlated predictor. However, for some reason many teachers feel that no only should we not bother combating stereotype threat from ‘class’, but that it is perfectly acceptable to propagate these stereotypes further and reinforce the labels.

Every time we call banking a ‘middle class job’ and a car mechanic a ‘working class job’ we are causing some kids to think “Ah, people like me are more likely to do job X”. If we state that our school “is full of working class kids” as a short-hand for “we have a lot of problems” then our kids receive those messages and it affects their self-image. Kids arrive at our schools bearing the label ‘working class’ because people around them force it upon them. For teachers to then reinforce this labelling while expressly associating it with problem characteristics seems to be a bizarre thing to do.

We work hard in schools to stop people associating any specific ethnicity with likelihood of achievement, any one religion with intolerance, sexuality with sporting prowess, or gender with enthusiasm for science and maths. We avoid generalising and labelling as much as we can, because every child is unique. I strongly feel that we have to do the same with this nebulous notion of ‘class’ that so many people cling to so dearly.

We have a choice. We can either let kids freely assign themselves in to one ‘class’ or other and then work hard to demonstrate how meaningless these labels are and foster a sense of equality, or we expressly use ‘class’ as a merely statistical measure of socioeconomic characteristics and then discourage students from labelling themselves or from adopting fixed, entrenched positions from which they will be unable to move/improve. By attempting to use class both as a badge of honour and as a short-hand for societal ills then we are doing no favours to anybody.

Edit: brilliant response to this by Laura McInerney here after our discussions on this issue filled up several people’s Twitter feeds…

2 Replies to “What class are you?”

  1. No -really?! You actually know people who still talk about ‘class’?!?! I mean real live people not muesli-eating Guardian-readers (lol).

    Sigh it all smacks of naval gazing to me personally and I really believe having honestly never referred to ”class” that I’m not likely to start now and it’s not a problem. I do have a problem with generalisations referring to single-parent families etc. but isnt this all just common sense?

    Nice blog though :0)

  2. I agree that ‘badge of honour’ or ‘against the odds’ stories leave our social hierarchy and the power of class labels intact. At the same time, I think it’s very difficult, and perhaps even dangerous, to challenge people’s sense of identity. You have to allow the child to label her or himself as they need to in that context, while drawing comfort from the belief that their future identity may be more flexible than current context permits.

    Overall I feel we need informed and searching classroom debate designed to let young people understand their lives in context while freeing them of the power some labels might have. Perhaps we can tap into our very human capacity to maintain overlapping yet complimentary, and even sometimes contradictory, identities. In different environments we all tend to play up those components of self that fit, on class and all other lines also. I also think that how we are ‘defined’ by others, is similarly plastic, as the slice they (choose to) see changes as the context changes too.

    I guess what I’m saying is there is more room in the system than we sometimes appreciate. Perhaps this hidden flexibility can be more actively teased out to give young people the opportunity to define themselves on their own terms. This premise underpins my work, as I see comparisons between life stories as giving young people the space in which to create their own personal models, provided there is the insight available to support the process.

    Ps – I’m glad to see the last commentator can already swing between muesli and granola without pausing for breath – you are the future…

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