Why (and when) Class Matters

Written as a response to a blog on Informed Education, itself a response to a Twitter debate about whether or not it is acceptable to refer to students as ‘working class’

Facts about class matter. One particular fact motivated my curiosity all the way through A-Levels, through my UCAS application to study politics and was the thing I got most fired up about in an Oxford admissions interview.

The fact was:  If you are born into a family with a father working as an unskilled manual labourer you are seven times more likely to die by the age of 2 than if you are born to a father in a ‘professional managerial’ position.

Think about that: Before you are capable of dressing or feeding yourself properly, you are seven times more likely to die because at the end of your birth-tunnel there was a different pair of hands waiting for you than at the end of someone else’s. Class – just like ethnicity or nationality – is a gynacological lottery that significantly impacts your chance of survival.*

Over the years some other facts have struck me as equally important:

Lesbian and gay young people are 3 times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexual peers (paper here)

Black people are over-represented in prison by 7 times their number in the British population (here)

Only 22% of elected MPs are women

All of these statistics point us towards inequalities in opportunity or the attitudes towards certain groups in our society. My view is that not only do we have a duty to talk about these statistics we must analyse the “Why?” and “What can be done?” It is too easy to get dragged down into the minutiae: What is meant by ‘lesbian and gay’?  Someone who is in a same-sex relationship or had any sexual contact with someone of the same sex?  Or, in the case of race: How do you account for mixed race?  Is it the same for African and Caribbean nations? One can make infinitely more delicate definitions – and research papers generally do otherwise they wouldn’t pass peer-review – but the truth remains: some things are more likely to happen to you than other things given your ethnicity, gender, social background, etc, and pretending this isn’t true won’t help anyone.

Knowing that such discrimination exists, however, does not make it inevitable for everyone.  For example, I have long advocated about transgender issues as I grew up with someone who transitioned from female to male. I have campaigned particularly about the high percentage of transexuals who experience employment discrimination. Acknowledging that employer prejudice exists does not mean I assume it happens to every transgender person nor that I think it’s acceptable – quite the opposite! – but talking about the issue is important because it might lead someone in charge of employment policies to think carefully about their recruitment. [In fact, when I worked at McDonald’s I wrote to Head Office about the difference in men and women’s uniforms for precisely this reason].

Speaking about inequality is imperative for getting change in society.  An abstract fear of ‘generalising’ across people in a discriminated group is not a good enough reason to sweep differences in their treatment or access to services under the carpet. But simply knowing that a group you belong to faces inequities should not – it must not! – lead to the limiting of a child’s belief about what they can do in the future. Just this week I ran a series of Tweets taking quotes from biographies my students did of people with disabilities who excelled in their field and who they compared themselves to in a piece of comparative biographical writing.  In my classroom we didn’t pretend that disability had no bearing on the person’s life, just as I don’t pretend that growing up in a family with little education had no impact on me – but the message is made clear that with dedication and effort one can certainly overcome those odds.

There is no inherent contradiction between talking honestly about the problems a group faces and wanting there to be a change in the future. In fact, I wonder if change is ever really possible without accepting and talking about such differences?

So, my final fact is this: The background and body you are born into impacts the likelihood of certain life outcomes and the discrimination you may face. When I am thinking as a policymaker I have a responsibility to question these inequalities and consider how policies might overcome them.  As a teacher, however, I truthfully recognise these challenge and difficulties, discussing honestly with students, but also demonstrating that the responsibility for making the best use of our background and bodies rests firmly on the student’s shoulders. At least as long as they’ve made it past the age of 2.


*At least it did in the late 90s.

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