Class matters

Estelle Morris on increasing opportunities for working class children and young people

Our society has many people from working-class backgrounds who excel at what they do – in the professions and business, as leaders and campaigners, contributing to all areas of the economy as well as being centres of their communities. 

Many of these people are the first in their family to be able to take advantage of the opportunities available in a modern economy. But look at the statistics and it is clear they are too often the exception. For all the progress and improvements in the UK education system, children from working-class backgrounds still under achieve at every stage and are almost 80% less likely to end up in a professional job than those from more affluent backgrounds. 

Of course, it is important not to create a climate in which working-class children think that it is impossible for them to do well. However, we cannot ignore the evidence that your family’s income remains a strong predictor of education achievement and future employment. 

By the time children go to school, the social-class gap is already evident. At the age of five, most from affluent backgrounds have reached a good level of development. Contrast that with areas of social disadvantage, where around half have delayed language development. 

While statistics vary depending on the measurement used, the attainment gap clearly widens as children go through school: almost 18% by the age of seven, over 22% by eleven, 28% by 16. Fewer poorer kids go to university and then into well paid jobs. 

None of this is inevitable. We stand out amongst developed nations as failing to break the link between low income and education attainment. It is a blight on our society and an increasingly urgent challenge. 

Ministers can cite long lists of initiatives designed to address the problem. Initiatives that are too often piecemeal, short-term, and lacking the necessary ambition and determination. Common sense tells us that more of the same is not the way forward, especially when we still have ingrained structural problems. 

Progress of sorts has been made, with evidence that some policies have been more successful than others. The last Labour government’s literacy and numeracy strategies, London Challenge and SureStart are all strong examples of what can work; and the Coalition’s pupil premium policy bought good results – in its early years, at least. However, evidence also tells us that once a child falls behind it is very difficult for them to catch up.

Making sure that those gaps never open up must be a priority. A lesson that the current government does not seem to have learned, making the wrong choices in key areas. Abolishing SureStart and closing Children’s Centres was an act of political vandalism. Cutting school budgets has made teacher’s tasks more difficult, and the narrowing of the curriculum has had its own impact. Attempts meanwhile, to convert all schools to academies has had no measurable impact for working-class children while acting as a drain on huge amounts of money, resources and time. 

Society asks schools to solve this problem and education is powerful enough to help working-class children develop their potential. But to be successful, they need to be able to work with families, other groups and professions. Government cuts to social services and other forms of local support has seen many teachers having to fill the gaps that have been created rather than focus on the day job. 

It must also be the case that if poor children do less well in school, making more children poor is going to make things worse. Yet this is what has happened, with now well over four million kids in the UK living in poverty. Improving opportunities for working-class children is not only essential for our economy and communities, it is the mark of a decent society. We should judge schools – and politicians – not only by how much standards rise but by how much the attainment gap narrows. 

I don’t doubt that Ministers wish to find a solution but there is little evidence at present that their actions will help reverse the decline which they have created. Class continues to matter in our society – especially in class.

Baroness Estelle Morris is a former Education Secretary and Labour Peer

Published 5th March 2020

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