Efforts should be made to enhance good local academic and vocational education options

Schools must do more to celebrate working class culture to remove barriers in the classroom, a leading social mobility expert has said.

Teachers should reflect on their unconscious cultural biases and think of pupils as ‘facing extra barriers’ rather than as ‘disadvantaged’.

Speaking at the Festival of Education at Wellington College, Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter, called for schools to use an equity-based approach to education. This involves working to remove the extra cultural and material barriers to learning experienced by many children inside and outside schools.

Professor Elliot Major said: “National directives encouraging teachers to promote cultural capital tend to prioritise middle-class pursuits – visits to museums and theatres. But we should also celebrate the countless examples of working-class achievements in society. This could include working-class artists, writers and actors from Ken Loach to Michael Cain to David Hockney and Tracey Emin.

‘Education’s power to catapult a lucky few into a different social class is a recurring theme in British literature – from Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure to Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. More recent critiques of society’s divides have been offered by working-class musicians from the Sex Pistols in the 1970’s, to the 1980’s Ska band the Specials, to more modern-day artists such as Stormzy. The Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford, meanwhile, has become one of the country’s most powerful campaigners.’

Professor Elliot Major also argues that young people do not want to be defined as ‘disadvantaged’ as this labels them as inferior. Instead, we should refer to pupils as ‘underserved’ or having faced extra barriers to their learning’.

Professor Elliot Major is speaking about his forthcoming book Equity in the Classroom, due to be published by John Catt Educational in the autumn.

The book, written with teacher Emily Briant, argues that we need a new equity-based approach where underserved pupils get additional not equal attention.

Reviewing a range of education studies, the authors say that teachers on average tend to judge working class pupils as lower academic achievers than their actual test grades would suggest while giving more generous judgements to more privileged pupils despite their inferior test scores. This is due to unconscious class biases in the classroom.

Professor Elliot Major said: “The evidence is clear that teachers cannot single-handedly counter widening societal inequalities. But as one of the last remaining trusted anchor institutions in their local communities, they are ideally placed to provide targeted help to enable children to be ready for learning when they come to school.
“National education policies are currently based on the flawed assumption that general school improvement drives will automatically reduce divides between the education haves and have-nots. Instead, we require long term national policies that prioritise first and foremost an equitable approach.”