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Views of working class parents as feckless and having low aspirations for their children were radically challenged by working class young people in a focus group held at the RSA a few days ago.

Views of working class parents as feckless and having low aspirations for their children were radically challenged by working class young people in a focus group held at the RSA a few days ago.

We know that the ‘classless society’ is a myth – from the vast gaps in educational attainment, health and life expectancy according to socio-economic background, to the number of privately-educated Ministers in the Government, the effects of social class on life outcomes is well evidenced. The educational achievement gap was the topic of our focus group, which asked working class young people themselves their views on the gap, and on the various intervention ideas we are working on in our programme on education and social justice.

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The young people, all from working class backgrounds and attending Lower Sixth at an inner-city school, articulated opinions that turn on their head some popular assumptions about working class parents’ ‘deficit’ behaviours. For example, the young people argued that it is not that their parents have low aspirations for them – indeed some of them felt their parents’ expectations were so high as to be unrealistic – but rather that their parents had insufficient experience and knowledge of the education system to be able to effectively guide them in realising these aspirations. Hence the young people felt that rather than mentoring schemes addressing young people, as so many do, the focus would be better on providing information to parents. Their feeling was that most working class parents care desperately about their children’s futures and want to help, but need to be empowered to do so.

The young people were also clear that social class segregation remains a problem, even within state schooling. They felt that class (and sometimes ethnic) segregation among parents and pupils was stronger at secondary school than primary school. Therefore they proposed secondary school initiatives to encourage social mixing – targeting pupils from their arrival in Year 7, before differentiation sets in too far; and parents and the wider community via festivals and other events that bring people together.

Clearly, there are some deeply entrenched issues underpinning the social class gap for educational attainment, that cannot be simplistically addressed. However, what these perceptive, intelligent and socially-aware working class young people illuminated is that it is not they that are ‘in need of fixing’, but the broader education system.

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