Book review: Diane Reay’s “Miseducation – Inequality, Education and the Working Classes”

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I had been seeing a friend and was on my way out when she picked up a book and said – you must read this. I found it a shocking revelation.

Diane Reay published Miseducation Inequality, and the working classes in 2017. The eldest of eight children, her father a miner, she is now an Emeritus Professor at Cambridge and visitor professor at the London School of Economics.

Diane writes that her book is intended to provide an understanding of the working class experience of education together with her sadness and need to make sense of the resulting damage. There is fascinating research, the facts with full details. The book finally comes to a survey by Andy Green on the rise of education systems in England, France and the US, and singles out England as “the most blatant example of the use of schooling by a dominant class to secure control over subordinate group”.

There was that idea from the beginning. The state Education Act of 1870 was due and in 1867 Robert Lowe wrote:

If the lower classes must now be educated they must be educated that they may appreciate and defer to a higher civilisation when they meet it.

And, 150 years on, we now have a decision to pass some of schooling on to family. This is fine, perhaps, for middle classes with better educated parents, able to pay for extra tuition, possibly to give more time to help their children, but not fine for the poor who are now getting poorer, often working extra hours.

Diane writes that with the 1870 Act there emerged three parallel educations: elementary for the working classes, secondary for the middle classes, private for the upper classes. State supported schools became working class schools with very narrow curriculums. Diane quotes Margaret McMillan, writing at the beginning of the 20th century:

…concealed behind legislation…there is…higher nutrition of the favoured few…the balked of the majority. Nothing evens up this gross injustice

During World War II ,the government was a coalition of different parties fighting the war and also preparing for a better country post-war. Carolyn Steedman wrote about her own working class childhood:

…being a child when the state was practically engaged in making children healthy and literate was a support against my own circumstances

Diane writes that after the war the world changed; working classes started to have access to community resources, social housing, National Health, comprehensive schooling, the welfare state. It does not have this atmosphere now. One aims of the tripart education act of 1944 was to deal with working class underachievement. There was to be the 11-plus exam to select the brightest 25% for grammar schools, the rest went into non-selective secondary moderns. There were also to be technical colleges, but not much came of those. However, Diane points out that the application did not follow this ideal. Mary Evans, middle class, in her autobiography wrote:

unless a middle class child could not do the most simple mathematics I suspect the 11-plus was impossible to fail – or to put it another way the 11-plus was almost impossible for working-class children to pass.

The majority of children, therefore went to the secondary schools which felt like being failures amongst failures. And the rare working class child at a grammar school was not supported there in its very different world. Many even left early. In an interview Melvyn Bragg, a grammar school pupil, said:

I think its left me with scars of nervousness that I have still.

The all-ability comprehensives were the next attempt. Tony Blair’s manifesto was “schools will be more socially mixed…..routes to universities and every type of education …very slowly Britain will cease to be the most class ridden country in the world.” But some comprehensives stayed with the grammar school ideas of selection, streaming and setting – plus a habit of putting middle class at the top and working class at the bottom, regardless of equal ability. One of the effects of all this is to make working class children feel that they are failures and that there is an elusiveness in success. England is unique in using testing to control what is taught in schools, to monitor teaching and encourage parents to choose schools by test
results. Academies, as trusts (who are the trustees?) have considerable freedom and are seen to be the solution. But in 2016 the House of Commons Education committee was looking at academy trusts. When Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, was answering, he said:

…we were doing a survey on good well-performing multi-academy trusts – and we were struggling to find them, quite honestly. We have established half a dozen good ones, but there are some very mediocre trusts.

In UNICEF’s report of 2007 on Wellbeing measured by national educational systems, the UK languished near the bottomof the table. In relation to self-harming and risk behaviour, the UK is at the very bottom of rankings by a considerable distance. Only slightly more than 40% found their peers kind and helpful – unlike in most European countries where it was 70%. In 2011, Ipsos MORI research concluded that UK children are less happy and satisfied in their lives because of the “far higher levels of materialism, accompanied by intensive competitiveness and individualism, to be found in UK society.”

Perhaps we should study those other countries. In one study, four out of five of high performing countries taught children in mixed ability classes until they were 15 or 16.

Diane Reay’s book: “Miseducation Inequality, Education and the Working Classes – 21st Century Standpoints” is published by Policy Press.

* Katerina Porter is a member in Chelsea, London. She is a former Vice-Chair of the Chelsea local party.

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  • The education system remains very elitist in Britain.

  • A breath of fresh air from Katerina Porter about something far removed from the modern Liberal Democrats usual obsessions. (Robert Lowe, of course, was a member of Gladstone’s Cabinet and remembered by my friend John Marriott as an Adullamite).

    There was a fascinating interview with Professor Reay in the Guardian back in 2017. Here’s a link :

    ‘Working-class children get less of everything in education … › education › nov › english-class… 21 Nov 2017 – Interview Diane Reay

    If Liberal Democrats were serious about tackling inequality at a practical political level, they would take note of a particular point made in the interview by Professor Reay :

    ‘She believes the government’s support for academies and free schools is powerfully ideological. “It’s about opening up education to the markets. I found it particularly shocking – and I had to read some quite boring parliamentary reports to get the information – that masses of money has gone into the academy and free school programme, and it’s been taken out of the comprehensive school system.”

    Reay found that free schools receive 60% more funding per pupil than local authority primaries and secondaries, and that £96m originally intended for improving under performing schools was redistributed to academies”.

    Time to speak out and be heard on the nonsense of (the public school educated) Tony Blair’s Academies Layla Moran.

  • John Marriott 7th Jul '20 - 3:08pm

    I have contributed to several threads over the past few years in LDV dealing with the mistakes made with so called educational reform. I am rather confused by Katerina Porter’s latest version.

    I was fascinated first of all with the choice of photo to illustrate the article. It would appear to be a reference to three students at a British primary school winning prizes in a national handwriting competition. And? Obviously taken some time ago – who uses blackboards any more? – was it a random choice or an attempt to show us what the bad old days were like? They looked pretty idyllic to me!

    Ms Porter, while not incorrect about the early attempts to educate the working class, has rather let the Victorians off the hook. There were some amongst the ruling classes, whose reaction to the 1870 Forster Act was on a par with the defence of slavery a generation or so before. One worthy at least was on record as being totally opposed to offering anything more than rudimentary education (of the kind offered back then by ‘Sunday Schools’), using words like “narcotisation’ to describe the effect on people, who should have known their place in the pecking order.

    She is also being less than fair to the 1944 Butler Act, which originally envisaged the Technical Grammar School (not College) being in a par at least with the traditional Grammar School. Had the incoming Attlee government not been busy with trying to breathe life into a shattered post war economy and offered the necessary funds, the so called Tripartite system might just have worked and the introduction of all ability comprehensives have proved unnecessary. By the way, her reference to Blair having started it all off is about thirty years wide of the mark.

    Finally the hot chestnut of ‘mixed ability teaching’ rears its head. I’ve done it and it’s fine if you have the time to prepare your lessons. If not, you are forced to ‘teach to the middle’ and often leave the brighter students to their own devices. As for the slow learners, it was often a case of ‘sink or swim’. Believe me, there weren’t many mixed ability classes in Germany when I taught there.

  • John Marriott 7th Jul '20 - 4:12pm

    This is a final ‘final’ couple of paragraphs to go with my last post (I’m at last learning not to make my original contributions too long!).

    As I have written several times, the big mistake that politicians of all parties made back in the 1960s was to entrust the reform of secondary education to the Educational Establishment, which threw the baby out with the bath water as far as grammar schools and standards were concerned. One might also add that the concept of child centred progressive education, while attractive in many ways, led to an educational ‘free for all’ where the first casualty would appear to have been intellectual rigour in many state secondary schools.

    That’s largely why we have ended up with a semi privatised state system (emasculated LEAs and their privatised rivals – aka ‘Academy Chains’) with a proscriptive national curriculum, criterion referenced GCSEs and A levels, the virtual elimination of vocational education and the reliance on league tables. Having said that, there is, in my opinion, little we could profitably generally learn from education systems in the western world, save possibly for starting formal education a little later. Knowing what needs to be done, isn’t it time we did it? The big difference as far as British Education is concerned is the concept of ‘in loco parentis’, which didn’t exist when I taught in a German grammar school. If a colleague was absent through illness and a substitute could not be found, the Head did not hesitate to send the class home. Is that the sort of thing we want over here?

  • Rab Butlers 1944 education was an achievement on par with Beveridge’s Social security reforms. The legislation did not recommend the 11-plus test as a means of selecting children for the grammar schools; it said that children should be “classified” according to school records and parental aspirations, only “supplemented” by intelligence tests such as the 11-plus.
    However, the 11-plus did come to determine whether a child went to grammar school. That in turn had a huge influence over lifetime opportunity, since grammar schools were effectively the only route to a university education for those who could not afford private education
    Few technical schools opened, so around 80% of children ended up attending secondary modern schools. The lesson of the 30 years or so that followed is that legislation alone is not enough; unless governments really prioritise education, it inevitably gets neglected. David Blunkett in Labours first term was perhaps the last Education secretary to make any headway with significant changes backed with investment.
    At University level we get to see first-hand the product of primary and secondary education for those pursuing higher education. It is a very mixed bag with widely varying levels of preparedness, but I would not associate it with class or income level and there is little evidence to suggest that overseas students are that much better prepared, although as a group they are noticeably more motivated to learn and progress. Perhaps this goes back tp the point made by Diane Reay that UK children are less happy and satisfied in their lives because of the “far higher levels of materialism, accompanied by intensive competitiveness and individualism, to be found in UK society.”

  • John Marriott 7th Jul '20 - 6:04pm

    @Joseph Bourke
    With reference to Technical Grammar Schools the question you need to ask is why so few came about. Historian, Dominc Sandbrook, has a nice answer. It was easy to set up a grammar school, he maintained. What you basically needed was books. To set up a Tech Grammar you needed lots of equipment and materials that cost a lot more money, which was something the post war Labour government lacked.

  • If you want to reduce inequality in education , you need to take the parents out of the picture as much as possible.

  • As far as attainment by children the highest correlation is with parental income. Poor children have the worst outcomes. The reasons are not hard to see.
    The most disadvantaged group educationally are children looked after by local authorities, that is children Usually in foster care. It really is time that we dealt with this.
    The elimination of poverty should be a priority for the party. In particular availability of affordable housing, an income that ensures people can be properly fed and clothed. A means of getting to work.

  • David Langshaw 8th Jul '20 - 10:22am

    Before we consider *how* to educate, or even what *education* might mean, perhaps we should consider who is to be educated. Once upon a time, an education was seen as something aspirational, whereas now it is considered to be a basic right. (Curiously, it is a right which the benevolent state can insist must be forced upon recipients.) Why is education no longer highly regarded by so many in our society? Why do so many people not value it, for themselves or their children? The ability to obtain a reasonably good education in Britain is not difficult, but many people seem to exclude themselves from using the facilities available. Why?

    (Incidentally, the point about Trusts and Trustees can only be understood in connection with the hollowing out of local government – their responsibilities have been placed on volunteers who soon become overwhelmed with the workload. Originally, Trusts were supposed to be for one school, but the economies of scale soon demanded multi-school trusts, which are little more than under-resourced LEAs.)

  • Peter Martin 8th Jul '20 - 11:34am

    “unless a middle class child could not do the most simple mathematics I suspect the 11-plus was impossible to fail – or to put it another way the 11-plus was almost impossible for working-class children to pass”

    I don’t know about that. There were lots of middle class children who failed the 11 plus. There were independent boarding schools which were set up to cater for them. I have no direct experience but I’m told by those who attended them that they weren’t very good and they’d have been better off going to the local secondary modern.

    I was from a working class background, passed the 11 plus and went to a grammar school. I did, though, feel out of it to a large extent. I couldn’t afford to go off on school trips abroad, my school uniform was often threadbare and I would sometimes get into trouble because my mother hadn’t bought in from the approved school outfitter. But I dealt with it by making sure I always did better academically that the more socially snobby teachers would expect! One teacher, for reasons best known to herself, and despite my protests, considered I was unsuitable to do O level English Literature. My response to her was to deliberately do very badly in all the set assignments which only confirmed her low opinion of me, and then let her know in no uncertain terms what I thought of her after I picked up a Grade1 in the Eng Language paper, which she hadn’t stopped me from taking.

    So it’s often possible to make negativity towards your social origins, or whatever, work in your favour. It was never a problem afterwards at university. Northern working class accents were then becoming very fashionable. In any case the ethos at most Universities was quite different from a snobby Grammar school. Tatty jeans were perfectly acceptable providing you were smart enough.

  • Peter Chambers 8th Jul '20 - 7:15pm

    The comments to this article have been very informative. They have provided context and correction to the original.

  • Laurence Cox 9th Jul '20 - 10:50am

    I was a ‘Butler boy’ and went to a Grammar school in the late 1950s and the first half of the 1960s. That created the social mobility for me to become the first person in my family to go to University (again paid for by the LEA as my Grammar school fees were; before 1944 my Grammar school had been an independent school and is again now). My father, in contrast, at school in the 1930s passed the entrance exam for Warwick School but was denied a place because he was the son of a railwayman. Those like Tony Crosland and Shirley Williams, who were themselves privately educated, had no compunction about destroying the Grammar schools in the name of equality, perhaps not realising that enforcing comprehensive schools would only increase inequality because there would be no counterbalance to the unequal experiences provided by the childrens’ families. It is hardly surprising that social mobility has ground to a halt.

  • Peter Martin 9th Jul '20 - 11:12am

    @ Laurence Cox,

    Lib Dems are supposed to be guided by evidence based thinking. So what’s the evidence on social mobility?

    The countries with the highest score are Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden. So why don’t we take a look at what they are doing and do the same?

  • John Marriott 9th Jul '20 - 1:01pm

    @Laurence Cox
    I was also what you call a ‘Butler boy’, not to be confused with a ‘Bevin boy’, and the ‘face’ that I worked at after university, was chalk, not coal!

    You shouldn’t just blame Crosland and Williams for the socialist egalitarian zeal with which they forced through the comprehensive revolution. Tories Sir Edward Boyle pre Wilson and Margaret Thatcher post Wilson were equally enthusiastic. Why? Because, as I said earlier in this thread, it was generally agreed that what morphed from a tri- into a bipartite system was short changing many, many youngsters and had to go. The problem was how it was done and who was given control of it.

    That said, we are where we are and we need urgently to reappraise what we have done. My answer has always been to get back to a democratically accountable body with light touch local council oversight. Selection at 11 should be abolished finally in England where it still survives, the charitable status of private schools removed and, as far as secondary schools in England are concerned, vocational education and training should be awarded parity of esteem with so called academic education – we already have the 2004 Tomlinson Report as our blueprint. As for higher and further education, we need to encourage youngsters to consider courses with an employment surrender value and to offer bursaries if these are undertaken. Otherwise, if students want to indulge themselves I see no reason why they should not be prepared to make some financial contribution to enjoy that privilege, as most loans are never fully repaid in any case. A bit harsh? Yes, possibly; but we live in tough times.

  • Peter Watson 9th Jul '20 - 1:51pm

    Peter Martin “Lib Dems are supposed to be guided by evidence based thinking. So what’s the evidence on social mobility?”
    I was surprised by the apparent level of support for grammar schools in Lib Dem circles which probably accounts for the party’s equivocal “having its cake and eating it” position of liking grammar schools where they are and disliking them where they are not!

    With regards to social mobility, there is probably something more recent, but back in 2016 I posted (

    The conclusion of a piece of EU-wide research (2005 includes the point:
    “The results suggest that early tracking increases educational inequality. While less clear, there is also a tendency for early tracking to reduce mean performance.”

    and in terms of social mobility:
    “We find descriptive evidence that institutional parameters that foster freedom in education, such as an early selection with numerous tracks of study, a great significance of public selective schools, as well as of private schools with fees, jointly amplify socioeconomic inequalities in performances between students essentially by magnifying the effect of schools’ social composition on students’ competences.”

    i.e. something like a grammar school worsens social mobility rather than improves it, since “in early differentiated systems rather than comprehensive ones, primary effects of social origin express less within schools and more between schools”

  • Peter Watson 9th Jul '20 - 2:06pm

    @Peter Watson (!)
    Looking further down that old thread, I corrected myself later: the reference and the quote about social mobility were from a 2014 study (the first quote about educational inequality was from a 2005 study).

  • Peter Martin 9th Jul '20 - 2:29pm

    @ Peter Martin,

    Yes I’d go along with Tim Farron’s OP and your comment. All of my own three children have been educated in the non selective State sector and all did well. So I don’t have much sympathy with politicians who preach one thing for others but do something else themselves. I’m thinking Shami Chakrabarti, Dianne Abbot and Nick Clegg but I’m sure there are others.

    Just going back to my own experience, I have to say that the school I attended prioritised not only the 25% or so who attended and had therefore passed the 11 plus but it carried on streaming even after that. So we were further split 3 ways in approx 8 percentile groups. The top stream were considered to be what the school was all about! So even passing the 11 plus wasn’t considered a sign of total acceptability.

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