Warning over unconscious bias against working-class pupils in English schools

<span>Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Schools in England must do more to challenge unconscious bias in the classroom against children from working-class backgrounds, according to the UK’s first professor of social mobility.

Lee Elliot Major, writing in a new book, blames a mindset in education that treats working-class children as “inferior” and requires them to become “middle-class clones” in order to succeed in school.

To help level the education playing field, Elliot Major says lessons should celebrate working-class achievement and feature figures such as Stormzy, Tracey Emin, the 19th-century palaeontologist Mary Anning and the scientist Michael Faraday.

He also suggests pupils from low-income families should be referred to as “under-resourced” rather than “disadvantaged”, as he says the term can lead to unconscious bias and lower expectations for these children.

“The book comes from frustration,” Elliot Major said. “I’ve been working in this field over many years and we are seeing the gap between pupils from under-resourced backgrounds and their more privileged counterparts widening in the post-pandemic era.

“For all the efforts that we’ve made, we still see these incredibly stark divides in education between the education haves and have nots.”

On changing the language used to describe pupils, Elliot Major said: “The problem with terming a child as ‘disadvantaged’ is that it is a binary classification, leading to a crude demarcation between who is or who is not ‘advantaged’.

“It immediately invites us into the trap of deficit thinking, implying there is something wrong with children that we apparently need to solve. It focuses our minds on individuals, when facing hardship or poverty is about the circumstances individuals find themselves in.”

Elliot Major also argues that social class is missing from the debate about diversity in education. “It’s almost become a taboo subject in many schools, but we know from research that it has a profound impact on children’s life chances.”

The book, which is co-authored by Emily Briant, teacher and doctoral studen, argues that middle-class advantages are “baked into” the education system. Even exam questions can be loaded with assumptions that disadvantage children from working-class backgrounds.

In recent years, GCSE papers in maths and modern languages have tested candidates’ ability with questions about trips to the theatre and skiing holidays. “Pupils who have experienced the stage or slopes are much more likely to be able to infer the answer than those who haven’t, whatever their proficiency in maths or languages may be,” said Elliot Major, who works at Exeter University.

The book, Equity in Education: Levelling the playing field of learning (published by John Catt Educational), also cites studies that show teachers may act differently towards children from working-class backgrounds, showing less warmth, giving less eye contact and lower-quality feedback.

It makes a number of practical recommendations for schools, including staff sessions to reflect on subconscious biases that may be creating barriers for some children, a “deep listening campaign” to understand the community the school serves, and measures to “poverty proof” the school day, helping families access food, uniforms, school trips and after school clubs.

Elliot Major was the first in his family to go to university and has devoted his career to improving the education and life chances of under-resourced children and young people, working previously as chief executive of the Sutton Trust, which campaigns for greater social mobility through education.

“Current government approaches to education aren’t working,” he said. “Children from low-income homes are still falling behind their more privileged peers in school.

“Efforts have focused on turning children from working-class backgrounds into middle-class clones armed with the traits needed to prosper in a middle-class system, rather than asking whether the system itself might be changed to make it welcoming to those from all backgrounds. We need a rethink; we need to find out what every child can offer, what we need to change, and how we can work together.”

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Lee Elliot Major is a fantastic champion for social justice and his call that we must do more to confront social class biases in the classroom will be of great interest. There is, of course, a great deal of work that goes on already in schools and colleges to level the education playing field, but there is clearly much more to do.”