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…