Diane Reay’s book Miseducation sets out to chart the working-class experience of education in Britain, making a forceful argument for reform and highlighting both historical and contemporary barriers to genuinely comprehensive education. All criticisms aside, it is an important book which can e/quip education workers and campaigners with ideas and knowledge that will be necessary to take on the governments’ failed education reforms and policies. It is a sharp critique of the way the British education system has consistently failed working class children.
Reay discusses the education system within the wider social context, establishing early on that ‘it is a system that both mirrors and reproduces the hierarchical class relationships of wider society.’ She notes the increasing prevalence of zero-hours contracts and falling wages as part of a context in which workers are under attack, recognising that ‘the statistics are a brutal reminder of the low level of regard in which the working classes are held by those with the power to affect their lives economically’.
Reay builds her argument on facts like the 47% attainment gap in GCSE outcomes between students in receipt of free school meals and those from families with incomes above £78000 a year. From an honest appraisal of reality, she charts the continuing undervaluing of working class children in education in the form of segregation that creates good and bad schools and segregation within the classroom through setting, building a convincing argument about the symptoms and causes of inequality in education.
Reay argues that the class system, which has shaped society’s structures and influenced its practices, has acted to alienate a high percentage of the working class. She explains that this is due to ‘strong remnants of historically rooted attitudes to education’ which recognise that the ‘educational system does not belong to them, does not work in their interests and considers them and their cultural knowledge as inferior’. This is brought about by phenomena such as standardised assessment and setting which act to marginalise the working class, and is reflected by a curriculum which is not relevant to the lives and experience of working class pupils.
Reay notes that England is the most tested nation in the world, creating competition and segregation between schools and within classrooms. She claims that the advent of testing, most noticeably in primary school as a result of the SATs, has shifted learner identity with children now seeing themselves entirely in terms of their results. Her research shows that working class pupils are most affected by this with knocks to their confidence and rising anxiety.
This results-driven culture across all levels of schooling culminates in practices such as setting, which Reay importantly notifies, is not only prominent in Secondary but has become commonplace in Primary too. She reports that bottom sets are overwhelmingly populated by working class pupils. Illuminating these pupils’ sense of educational worthlessness, she quotes them as labelling themselves as ‘stupid’, ‘rubbish’ and ‘no good’ for being placed in bottom sets. Citing psychological research which demonstrates that when people expect to be viewed as inferior their abilities in turn seem to be diminished, Reay alludes to similar conclusions as Paulo Freire, who she draws on in this book, with regard to his theory of ‘self-depreciation’. Freire explains that this mindset can hugely damage confidence and hinder the potential self-advocacy and collective agency of oppressed people that is needed to affect change. So not only is the education system failing working class children by limiting their chances of academic success, it is also wearing down their sense of self-worth, imbuing them with feelings of inferiority and decreasing the likelihood that they will take a stand against the system as adults.
Reay posits that the curriculum is not meeting the needs of working class pupils. Many of her working class research participants shared that the subjects and activities-they enjoyed, and often excelled at, had little status within the current education system. As those interviewed were alluding to practical tasks such as sports and woodcraft, Reay concludes that education must include practical knowledge tasks -vocational education. Problematically, she seems to suggest that if vocational education could be elevated to the level of academic education, class difference in schooling could be eradicated. This is a misunderstanding of how class is created through the exploitative economic structure of society.
Furthermore, her conclusion that working class children would be better engaged in learning if there was an emphasis on vocational education is somewhat short sighted. This analysis seems to insinuate that working class children won’t, or aren’t able to, succeed in or enjoy academic subjects. She doesn’t take time to question whether it’s possible that academic education could ever be made relevant and appealing to these pupils. For example, it would be more than possible to take part in the academic study of literature but with texts that centre around working class characters and themes as well as with those from the canon, allowing students to examine their world and wider society with a critical lens, etc.
Finally, Diane Reay bases her whole analysis on a sociological understanding of class which is based on ‘not just economic relationships but...a much broader web of social relationships, including those of lifestyle, educational experiences and patterns of resistance.’ This counterposition of economic relationships with other relationships is the biggest weakness in Miseducation. It would be nonsense to argue that social relationships, lifestyle, educational experiences and patterns of resistance are not meaningful to understanding class, but to imply that the alternative to a critique accounting for these and other factors is one based on ‘just economic relationships’ is wrong. Social and cultural aspects of class are magnified through economic relationships. It is often, first and foremost, an economic barrier that blocks workers off from middle-class and ruling-class social relationships and environments. Culture reinforces this separation but does not create it.
Reay’s sociological understanding of class leads to problems both when attempting to define what she means by middle-class parents and students, who she can only define by broad cultural attitudes. It also precludes some of the most powerful solutions to class oppression. It is our position in the capitalist economy as workers that gives us better opportunities to organise and struggle collectively to change society, not social and cultural signifiers of class.
By Jenny Fairfield and Ralph Higgins