What Can We Do To Make Secondary School Work For Working Class Students?

By Matt Bromley


The education system is rigged in favour of the privileged. Working-class students are disadvantaged from day one: their birth is, all too often, their destiny. 

To truly tackle inequality, society at large must change, but there are actions which secondary school leaders and teachers can take to help working-class students compete equitably at school and in later life.

Why do we need to make secondary school work for working-class students?

If you’re a high ability student from a low social class, you’re not going to do as well in school and later life as a low ability student from a high social class. In other words, it is social class and wealth – not ability – that define a student’s educational outcomes and future life chances.

For proof of this, see the Institute for Fiscal Studies report, The Deaton Review of Inequalities (2022),[1] which concludes that disadvantaged students start school behind their better-off peers, and the education system is not succeeding in closing these gaps.

Educational inequalities, says the report, result in substantial differences in life chances, leaving millions disadvantaged throughout their lifetime. The report finds that those who have not been successful at school are left behind by an education system which does not offer the right opportunities for further education.

The IFS Deaton Review also finds that educational inequalities translate into large future earnings differences. By the age of 40, the average UK employee with a degree earns twice as much as someone qualified to GCSE level or below. What’s more, despite only 7% of students going to private schools, this cohort is disproportionately over-represented in many professions.

How do secondary schools currently work against working-class students?   

Firstly, there’s funding

According to Professor Diane Reay’s research, working-class students do less well simply because less money is spent on them. Writing in The Guardian in 2017, Reay

highlights the funding deficiencies suffered by state schools which have led to a marked decline in art, drama, dance, and music provision.2 Less affluent families cannot afford to pay for their children to experience these activities outside of school.

Reay cites research from University College London that shows £12,200 a year is the average spending on a privately educated primary pupil, compared with £4,800 on a state pupil. For secondary, it’s £15,000, compared with £6,200.

Secondly, there’s the school curriculum

In terms of curriculum design, there’s a problem of coverage. Providing all students with the same curriculum further disadvantages those who are already disadvantaged. We should not reduce the curriculum for working-class students – to do so is to deepen their existing disadvantage, denying them the opportunities afforded to their more affluent peers – but we should offer more – not less, and crucially, not the same – to working-class students; we must broaden the curriculum for working-class students to ensure equity as opposed to equality.

There’s also a problem of content…

Decisions about what knowledge and skills are taught are made by those of a higher social standing rather than by a representative group of people from across the social strata. The national curriculum seeks to equip students with “the best that has been thought and said” but who decides what constitutes the ‘best’? Notions of ‘best’ are, by definition, always subjective, value choices. Sadly, all too often, these choices are made by politicians from middle-class backgrounds. Every school’s curriculum should celebrate working-class culture alongside culture from the dominant classes.

 In terms of curriculum assessment, there’s the problem of the home advantage. More and more students are expected to complete schoolwork at home, whether that be homework, coursework, or revision. Those who don’t have a home life that’s conducive to independent study are therefore placed at a distinct disadvantage, which is compounded for those who don’t have parents or carers with the capacity to support them – whether that be in terms of time, ability, or money. And then there’s private tuition… with costs of at least £25 per session, many cannot afford to benefit from this extra support, which exacerbates education inequalities.

There’s also the problem of exam content.

There tends to be a middle-class bias in exam questions. For example, in the summer of 2022, an AQA GCSE English Language question privileged those with first-hand knowledge of foreign travel. And this wasn’t an isolated example.

And there’s the problem of exam outcomes.

The assessment system is designed to fail a third of students every year – and it’s the working classes who suffer most.   

In terms of the hidden curriculum, there’s the problem of attitudes and aspirations.  Students in private schools are taught that they are the elite and that their place in society is to rule over others.  Working-class students in state schools might be told that we live in a meritocracy – that with hard work and the right mindset, anyone can achieve anything – but they soon realise that merit is all smoke and mirrors; it’s harder to have a growth mindset if you live in an overcrowded, cold, damp, rented flat, it’s harder to attend an after-school drama club if you are expected to collect a younger sibling from primary school, and it’s harder to do well in exams if you’ve got nowhere to study and no access to the internet or a computer.

What can we do to make secondary school work for working-class students?

We can counter classism by following a 3-point plan:

  1. Achieve equality for all students through the core curriculum and extra-curricular activities. Rather than dumbing down for working-class students, we should plan and deliver the same ambitious curriculum to all students and then give working-class students fair access to extra-curricular activities. We can design an ambitious curriculum by following a 6-step process: 1. Agree on the vision, 2. Set the destination, 3. Assess the starting points, 4. Identify the waypoints, 5. Define excellence, and 6. Diminish disadvantage, as well as by embedding the four knowledge domains throughout. And we can provide fair access to extra-curricular activities by planning a programme that has three purposes: 1. Meeting new people, 2. Exploring new places, and 3. Doing new things, as well as by targeting funding and following a cycle of plan-do-review.
  2. Achieve equity for lower-attaining students through curriculum adaptations and interventions. We should do more for those who start with less through adaptive teaching approaches, additional interventions and support strategies including, for some, access to an alternative curriculum. We can make adaptations by ensuring all students are given the same tasks to do and then by providing scaffolds to those who need more or different help initially – scaffolds should be temporary and can be visual, verbal, or written. We can ensure additional interventions are effective by converting the causes of disadvantage into tangible classroom consequences and following a 3-step process: 1. Identify the barriers, 2. Set the success criteria, and 3. Design and deliver the interventions, then by ensuring interventions are short-term, intensive, tailored, and focused.
  3. Provide an extension to the curriculum for higher-attaining students through curriculum enhancements. We should use carefully designed and targeted enrichment opportunities to build knowledge, and cultural capital and equip students with the secret knowledge they need to compete at school and university, in work, and in later life. We can do this by being clear about the knowledge, attitudes, skills, and habits (KASH) our enrichment opportunities are intended to deliver, by selecting the cohort and the staff to deliver the enhancement carefully.


Matt’s latest book, The Working Classroom, which is co-written by Andy Griffith is out now: https://www.crownhouse.co.uk/the-working-classroom



[1] https://ifs.org.uk/inequality/press-release/lack-of-progress-on-closing-educational-inequalities-disadvantaging-millions-throughout-life/

2 https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/nov/21/english-class-system-shaped-in-schools


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