Social Class

Social class is a complicated term to understand and varies across national contexts. In contemporary education, as Mike Savage describes, social class is understood as part of the “taken for granted understandings that individuals bring to their relationships with others” and that relate to their sense of place in the world. Rather the being understood as a fixed, static property, class is increasingly viewed as always in process, lived and subject to change as individuals move between different fields (such as schooling, work or public life).

It is usually understood to include: economic (money, property and other financial assets), cultural (tastes in and knowledge about clothing, music, food etc) and social (networks and contacts) aspects. This idea comes from the work on Pierre Bourdieu who speaks about these aspects as ‘capitals’ or resources, and extends this framework to include linguistic capital (accent, vocabulary, languages spoken etc), symbolic capital (qualifications etc) and points to the role of power in determining the value of different capitals.

Social class has historically had a significant role to play in education, and is integral to understanding the complexity of how gender is lived in educational spaces.

The Education system and social class: 

Working class people, male and female, adult and child, have historically had less access to educational opportunities than their middle class counterparts and have often been given only a restricted curriculum. Indeed debates around whether to introduce compulsory education in the UK often centred around whether or not is was possible to educate the working classes, who were seen as having inferior brain capacity to the middle classes, and deemed more suitable for manual work. Access to education for those from poorer backgrounds was historically limited, though in the post-war era, education became  a right and access to schooling up to the age of 16 was dramatically increased for all young people. However, divisions remained. The tripartite system of education in England introduced different types of schooling for children dependent on their perceived abilities and strengths, based on an IQ test at the age of 11 through which children were judged to be suitable for grammar schools, secondary modern and secondary technical schools, providing more academic to more vocational learning.

Although described as meritocratic, this system was seen to privilege the few and increase social inequality rather than challenge it with concerns that the education system was producing a well-educated middle class elite and a working class trapped in the Modern schools, or “eggheads and serfs”. Sociologist Paul Willis‘ account of working class boys in schools illuminates how  schooling at that time contributed to the maintenance and reproduction of a class-based society, preparing working class kids for working class jobs.

The replacement of the tripartite system with the comprehensive ideal of schooling sought to reduce social class inequalities in state schooling, however grammar schools remain in some areas of England, and more recent research (such as that by Stephen Ball, Diane ReayGill Crozier, and Sumi Hollingworth and Ayo Mansaray) shows how the diversification of state education in recent years (through academies, Free Schools etc) has increased segregation and enabled the middle-class to maintain their privileged position in society.

Many governments continue to proclaim their educational systems are ‘meritocracies’ (decided upon merit rather than inherited privilege). Yet, the social class achievement gap remains large and, despite widening participation agendas, far fewer working-class than middle-class young people progress to higher education. Recent cuts to further education, the removal of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), and changes to higher education funding in England – introduced by the Coalition government – have led to growing concerns that social class inequalities in education will grow significantly over the coming years.

Gender and Social class: A feminist problematic

Second wave feminism was seen by some critics as being too dominated by white, middle class, heterosexual women and was therefore largely ignorant of the issues affecting working class women. As a result of this debate social class has become a concern of many feminists and gender theorists and researchers and the way in which one’s social class impacts upon gender identity and the polarisation of middle and working class women in terms of educational expectations and outcomes dominates much research on social class and gender.

Key debates in gender, class and education

Many contemporary theorists of gender look at the intersections between gender and other identity categories. So the way in which we understand a person’s gender is dependent upon other markers of identity such as ethnicity, sexuality or social class.In addition Yvette Taylor recently published a book entitled Working-Class Lesbian Life which focuses upon the continuing socio-economic and educational disadvantage of lesbian women.

All of these factors and identity categories are understood to intersect within educational settings and (re)produce certain expectations and outcomes.

Theorists of social class and gender have demonstrated how a lack of material resources affect social and intellectual growth and that these conditions often carry over into adulthood thus reproducing the social status quo. Working class students finish school earlier and with fewer qualifications than their middle class counterparts and the middle class dominate higher educational institutions. When working class people ‘make it’ to university they are often acutely aware of their ‘otherness’ within this social institution. This is largely because of the way in which cultural capital plays out within higher education. Pat Mahony and Christine Zmroczek argue that awareness of “the differences in cultural capital … persists long after we have acquired many of the trappings of a middle class lifestyle. The part that language and accent play in signifying our histories is particularly complex”.  As Kim Allen has argued, these barriers, risks and costs of entry to higher education for working class young people is often ignored by government policy which blames working class kids for their perceived lack of educational ‘succes’s and ‘aspiration’.

As with all identity categories then, certain markers have come to signify one’s class position. In this case the levels of access one has to middle class forms of cultural capital can be rendered invisible by working class speech patterns that can mark one out as ‘other’ within certain educational spaces. Assumptions about accent and language also intersect with race and ethnicity with many women of African or African Caribbean origin presumed to be working class. Zmroczek & Mahoney go on to argue that many working class women within higher educational settings use accent as a political form of resistance to “expose the pompous, to undermine the snobbish and to challenge the stereotypes about us”.

One of the key issues within the contemporary study of gender, class and education is boys’ underachievement and access to higher education, particularly white working class boys.  This issue is internationally relevant with similar debates happening in Australia and the USA but within Britain, it is often posited by political and media sources as being the issue affecting British schools.  There are several interesting points to raise regarding this issue. First, it is assumed that male teachers are needed in schools to ‘relate to’ disaffected working class boys. The need for male teachers is perceived by policy makers and social commentators as being reflected by the ‘unruly’ nature of some boys in some schools. ‘Strong male role models’ are seen as necessary in order to provide disaffected working class (black) boys with both discipline and a model for educational success. In a study of an Australian policy document that echoes many of the sentiments raised in the UK, Martin Mills, Bob Lingard and Wayne Martino (2004) argue that schools are encouraged to be more ‘male friendly’, especially primary schools. It is argued that the feminisation of schools has made them unwelcoming places for men. Women teachers are also prone to being blamed for this, in a backlash against feminism that implies a ‘feminist conspiracy’ against boys and men in schools. This debate implies that ‘all girls’ are higher achievers than ‘all boys’ and this ignores many of the raced, classed and sexed dimensions that can affect a child’s learning and encompasses a re-interpretation of statistics charting the rise in educational achievement of middle class girls.

Second, there is the notion that it is working class or socially and economically disadvantaged boys that underachieve educationally ignores girls from the same social group. The focus upon the seemingly inherent bad behaviour and poor achievement of working class boys is therefore concerning to many scholars who see this as damaging to working class girls. Gillian Plummer for example states that: “In ignoring the educational failure of working class girls we ignore the many problems that underlie their failure and which manifest themselves in harmful behaviour patterns: self-exclusion, withdrawal, depression, anorexia, and early pregnancies”. In ignoring working class girls and positioning middle class girls as unproblematic over-achievers, it is only working class boys who are seen to struggle within educational settings and this is deeply troubling. Yet there is rich literature which exposes the lived experiences of working-class girls as they seek educational success against the odds, including seeing access to elite spaces of education not traditionally reserved for them.

More recent scholars of gender, class and education (Such as Claire Maxwell and Alexandra Allen )  have looked at the pressures placed upon middle class girls to ‘have it all’. Within this paradigm middle class girls are expected to be academic high achievers as well as beautiful, popular and successful. This places middle class girls under social and psychological pressure and can result in some of the issues described by Plummer in the above quote. Valerie Walkderine, Helen Lucey and June Melody’s seminal text ‘Growing Up Girl’ provides a vivid account of the costs of educational success for middle and working class girls.

Media representations of class and gender

The ways in which the classed subjectivities of girls are represented by media texts have also provided recent food for thought. Two polarised examples of girls’ classed subjectivities are Vicky Pollard and J’amie King.

Vicky Pollard is a figure of fun; she represents a vilified kind of working-class femininity that is intellectually limited, feckless and sexually irresponsible, in other words the undeserving poor. She is a ‘chav mum’, a figure unproblematically referred to within the British media as responsible for a generation of equally feckless fatherless young men – the very ones who under-achieve academically and need ‘strong male role models’. Imogen Tyler argues that the ‘chav mum’: “Is produced through disgust reactions as an intensely affective figure that embodies historically familiar and contemporary anxieties about sexuality, reproduction and fertility and ‘racial mixing’ … the level of disgust directed at the chav is suggestive of a heightened class antagonism that marks a new episode in the dirty ontology of class struggle”. Vicky Pollard then encourages us to relish in our disgust of the ‘chav mum’ and to laugh at social and economic disadvantage and academic under-achievement.

As Yvette Taylor and Kim Allen and Heather Mendick have argued separately, in these figures of the chav mum, WAG or glamour girl, working-class femininity become a site for public displays of disapproval, marked as illegitimate and lacking aspiration and value.

J’amie King, from the Australian mockumentary Summer Heights High, acts as a polar opposite to Vicky Pollard and is the embodiment of the ‘have it all’ girl, she is bright, popular and beautiful (particularly in her own eyes). She can be read as an exaggerated version of the ‘girl power’ moment of the 1990’s.

Both of these versions of contemporary girlhood are played by men, Pollard by the British comedian Matt Lucas and King by Australian comic Chris Liley, make of this what you will but it seems interesting that young women’s voices are absent from some of their popular representations.


Case study: The Riots in England, August 2011

The intersections between gender, education and class were very apparent during the media coverage of the recent riots in the UK. GEA Chair Gaby Weiner posted a piece at the time lamenting the ways in which single mothers and feckless young women were positioned, along with women teachers, as being responsible for raising a directionless and aggressive generation of angry young men.

During the riots, David Lammy, the MP for the London borough of Tottenham, stated that: “In areas like mine, we know that 59% of black Caribbean children are looked after by a lone parent … the parents are not married and the child has come, frankly, out of casual sex; the father isn’t present, and isn’t expected to be. There aren’t the networks of extended families to make up for it. We are seeing huge consequences of the lack of male role models in young men’s lives [and] there are virtually no male teachers in primary schools”. This echoes the work on the ‘underclass’ done by the sociologist Charles Murray (1999) in which Murray blamed the mothers if fatherless young black men for all of the social ills in the USA. Lammy’s statement also illustrates the ways in which gender, race and education come together, or intersect within social and political debate and the importance placed upon men in primary education. We must ask ourselves whether or not it is realistic or possible to expect men in Primary education to fulfil this role as ‘father’ and whether this line of argument diminishes the work done by women in the primary sector.

Elsewhere, Yvette Taylor and Kim Allen wrote about the reporting of the riots, drawing attention to not only the negative portrayal of working class women and girls in the figure of the ‘rioting mother’ but also ‘riot girls’ like Olympic ambassador Chealsea Healey who was portrayed as ‘council estate scum’ and represented the failed femininities of the neo-liberal ‘can do’ girl.

Classroom activities

Here are some activities that could be adapted for use in secondary or higher education classrooms.

Activity 1: Compare the clips of Vicky Pollard:

and J’aime King:

Ask students to discuss and formulate a list of all the signifiers of class and gender that are evident in these representations of girlhood.

Activity 2: Ask students to look at this link to newspaper headlines about the England riots of August 2011. Students could discuss the gendered and classed assumptions present within the headlines and to investigate printed media articles that discuss the riots and unpack the classed and gendered assumptions that underpin them.

Useful Links

Shaun’s Story: Diane Reay’s account of a white working-class boy’s schooling in England. This could be read alongside Paul Willis’ seminal text on working class lads in the 1970s.

Elements of Bourdieu on YouTube

‘The role of celebrity in young people’s classed and gendered aspirations’ – This new ESRC-funded research project examines the relationship between celebrity culture, young people’s aspirations and inequalities of social class and gender. The project team regularly blog about issues of social class, gender, education and aspiration.

The RSA’s report on social class and education: This report by Prof. Becky Francis and Emma Perry provides a comprehensive overview of literature and research on social class inequalities and educational achievement.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation:  This social policy research organisation and charity campaigns for reducing poverty and disadvantage in the UK. They regularly commission and publish research on social class inequality and educational disadvantage.

Diane Reay on a socially just education system: This think piece by class scholar Diane Reay outlines the key issues related to class and education in Britain.

Runnymede Trust : ‘Who care about the white working class?‘ This report provides a number of provocative essays by key class scholars including Bev Skeggs, Anoop Nayak and Danny Dorling on the white working class in the UK.

Further Reading

Allan, A. J. (2009). The importance of being a ‘lady’: hyper-femininity & heterosexuality in the private, single-sex primary schoolGender & Education. 21(2): 145-158: Drawing on research in a single-sex, private primary school, Sandy Allan explores what it meant for the girls in this setting to embody the idea of the ‘lady’.

Archer, L. , Hollingworth, S. & Mendick, H. (2010) Urban Youth and Schooling: the aspirations and identities of educationally ‘at risk’ young people. , Buckinghamshire: Open University Press. This book critically engages with contemporary notions of ‘at risk’ and marginalised youth. It explores the complexity of urban working-class young people’s relationships with education and schooling and discusses strategies for addressing these issues.

Carrington, B. & Skelton, C. (2003). Re-thinking ‘role models’: equal opportunities in teacher recruitment in England & WalesJournal of Education Policy. 18(3): 253-265: This paper looks critically at the UK policies to increase levels of male recruitment to primary teaching and attract more ethnic minority entrants to the profession.

Charles, C. E. (2010). Supergirl Scorned: Lessons about youmng femininity in an Australian television satireCritical Studies in Education. 51(3): 265-276: In this paper, Claire Charles analyses the character of Ja’mie King (see above).

Rezai-Rashti, G. M. & Martino, W. J. (2010). Black Male Teachers as Role Models: Resisting the Homogenizing Impulse of Gender & Racial AffiliationAmerican Educational Research Journal. 47(1): 37-64: This article reports on research with one Black male elementary school teacher in Toronto and draws on feminist, queer, and antiracist analytic perspectives to raise important questions about the idea of teachers as role models.

Skeggs, B. (1997) Formations of class and gender. London, Sage: In this classic book, Bev Skeggs explores the identities of a group of working class women studying care work in England.

Taylor Y, (2010). (ed.) Classed intersections: Spaces, Selves, Knowledges.Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate. This edited collection provides a range of essays on the intersections of social class with gender, ethnicity and sexuality, many of which focus on educational identities and spaces.

Taylor, Y. (2012) (ed.) Educational Diversity: the subject of difference and different subjects.  Palgrave Macmillan. Considering diversity in education, this collection explores continued societal inequalities of class, gender, race and sexuality as they are negotiated and differently inhabited in and through policies, institutional practices and everyday encounters.

Walkerdine, V., Lucey, H. & Melody, J. (2001) Growing up girl: Psychosocial explorations of gender and class. Basingstoke, Palgrave: In this book, Valerie Walkerdine, Helen Lucey and June Melody take on the challenge to understand the role that class plays in relation to gender today, when almost everything that traditionally defined class has broken down. They do this by looking in detail at the experiences of a small group of middle and working class young women.

Willis, P. (1977) Learning to labour: How working class kids get working class jobs. London, Gower Publishing: In this classic book, Paul Willis explores the school experiences of a group of working class ‘lads’ in Northern England. He shows how they resist schooling but how this resistance ironically leads them into traditional manual labour.


Page author: Emily Gray and Kim Allen

Updated: 15th January 2013

Leave a Reply