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New Era or Old Times: class, gender and education

Gaby Weiner
South Bank University1

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference
(September 11-14 1997: University of York)


This paper argues that past debates concerning class influences on education in the UK were inadequate because they disregarded girls' and women's values and life patterns. New analytic frameworks involving a synthesis of gender, class and other social formations, are needed in order to develop understanding about how changing patterns of wealth and poverty and/or recent British educational reforms, have affected student learning and life-chances; and therefore how inequalities may be challenged. It draws on a range of sources including a recent study of the impact of recent British education policy changes on gender relations in schools.

There has been a rhetoric of 'classlessness' and 'sex equality' in recent UK academic and media debates concerning education, although with the advent of New Labour, social justice issues appear to have a slightly higher policy profile. Inequality is seen to be the consequence of differences in individual ability and aspiration rather than structural disadvantage, and because girls are achieving better results than boys in some examinations, sex equality in education is deemed to have been achieved. Such notions, however, mask both the strengthening grip that the British middle-classes have on educational advantage and privilege; and the continued exclusion of women from areas of education and employment, and, in particular, at the most senior levels of politics, industry and commerce.

This paper explores some of the issues in this apparent conundrum, and is structured as follows: discussion of the development of class analysis of education in the UK, and women in the British welfare state; feminist perspectives on class; education policy developments concerning gender; the nature of recent British educational reforms; changing gender patterns in British schools; and new class and gender formations in education.

Class analysis of education in the UK

Most UK debates about the impact of social class on education draw on the nineteenth-century theories of Marx and Weber; that is, that class should be viewed in relation to ownership (or lack of ownership) of capital and the means of production and according to the range of capacities of different male social class groupings arising from their ability to manipulate the employment market as property owners, intellectuals, administrators and managers, and members of the working class. In Britain, a person's social class is still officially represented by the status of the male head of household. However such notions of class have recently been rendered problematic in the UK by a number of factors: changes in the labour market and in the family: shifts in perception of class membership; critiques of feminist theorists who have challenged the logocentrism of previous analyses (Lather, 1992); and new class/gender formations emerging within education in the 1980s and 1990s.

Ainley (1993) suggests that under the post-war Labour administration of 1945-51, the British class system remained largely intact. In the case of education, rather than the development of a unified system of state schooling, a tripartite secondary system (grammar, central/technical, secondary-modern) was proposed mirroring the three traditional divisions of male labour (brain, non-manual, manual). In practice, state secondary schooling became bipartite as most of the planned central/technical schools failed to materialise. Tripartism was produced, nevertheless, through the combination of private and public schooling viz. private (called 'public' or independent) schools for the gentry, grammar schools for the middling classes and secondary moderns for working class children. By the 1950s and 1960s inequalities in the social distribution of educational opportunity became the main target of a generation of British social scientists (eg Glass, 1954; Halsey, 1957). They convinced the 1960s Labour administration that grammar schools were attracting a disproportionately high number of children from middle class homes and therefore disadvantaging working class children. As a consequence, the neighbourhood comprehensive school was adopted as the most effective model of educational equality, even if under the slogan 'grammar schools for all'. Despite these shifts towards more egalitarian schooling, however, the early 1960s saw class barriers remaining intact at the level of higher education with the proportion of working-class children entering universities actually decreasing (Ainley 1993). By the end of the 1970s, partly as a consequence of the ending of the post-war boom period and an increasing concern for value-for-money in education, a debate began to develop about the extent to which policies aimed at increased equality might be at odds with those aimed at economic growth and individual aspiration.

This was taken a step further when Margaret Thatcher's New Right administration came into power in 1979 with the explicit intention of rolling back the British welfare state. In the context of education, this meant challenging the policy changes instituted in the 1960s and 1970s by placing the needs of industry and the economy (rather than the child, see Plowden, 1967) at the heart of the education process. This culminated in a period of education reform from 1988 to 1994 which sought to restore the tripartite system of educational privilege through a mix of policy strategies: the promotion of diversification in schooling (eg the creation of semi-private forms of schooling), marketisation (eg competition between schools for pupils) and deregulation; expansion and restructuring of further and higher education; and increased powers of the central state to the detriment of locally elected education authorities (LEAs).

At the same time, the three long-term British twentieth century industrial tendencies identified by Hobsbawm (1969) - the relative decline of industry, decrease of manual work within each industry, and the decline in manual work overall - continued to have an impact on employment patterns. As part-time and contract employment was increasingly introduced, guaranteed male employment (sometimes termed 'a job for life') became less available, and women entered the labour market in increasing numbers though, often in low paid and low status jobs. Job insecurity relating to labour force flexibility and the need to market individual skills began to replace job security linked to public service and/or long-term loyalty to company or employer. Also the added dimension of post-war racial divisions in schooling and employment rendered discussions of the impact of class even more complex, since young blacks, simultaneously, began to reject their inner-city schooling yet aspire to better paid and higher status jobs than those of their parents' generation. Furthermore, technological innovation and the restructuring of industry demanded more highly skilled workers and fewer semi- and unskilled workers thus obscuring traditional mental/manual and clean/dirty polarities (Ainley, 1993; Hutton 1996).

In the 1980s, then, fundamental changes in the workforce due to cyclical recession, long term structural decline of British industry and displacement arising from the technological and electronic revolutions resulted in a further blurring of traditional class boundaries. While conservative administrations of the 1980s and 1990s sought, mostly covertly, to buttress traditional class affiliations through changes in education policy, these attempts were subverted by labour market restructuring, technological changes and because of raised student and parental aspiration, all of which rendered the interpretation of class patterns as highly problematic.

Yet some old class divisions clearly continued to exist and even intensify. For example, following deregulation in public service provision and the lowering of the welfare safety-net, there was evidence of a downturn in the conditions of the poorest in British society. It was thus claimed that 'malnutrition is devastating the poor on a scale not seen since the Thirties' and that welfare provision established at the beginning of the twentieth century was under attack (Mills, 1996). Hutton laid the responsibility for this at the door of Conservative government policy rather than due to the requirements of commerce or industry.

Economic efficiency is believed to arise only from individual responses to market signals; the relationship between social cohesion and wealth generation is consistently denied. But the urge to market every aspect of the way we live in the name of efficiency has eroded the fabric of our social life, which in its turn has weakened the economy. (Hutton, 1996: 192)

The need for an empire-less Britain to develop new structures and strategies (inside and outside education) in order to survive the turbulent waters of the 'free' global market, has thus apparently most sharply affected the poorest in British society. As a recent commentator suggests:

The outlook on the breadline remains bleak. Few economists believe full employment is a viable option. The growing wealth divide had undermined the 'trickle down' theories of free marketeers. The poverty lobby claims that the welfare state safety net is being unravelled by a government anxious to keep taxes low (Mills, 1996:18).

Given, then, the undoubted existence of class difference yet the complexity of identifying specific class structures and experiences, how can we develop understanding of the impact of social class on British education? How can it be accommodated with inequalities involving gender, race and ethnicity, sexuality and so on?

Class and Identity

Class is not just an economic position as Mahony and Zmroczek point out. 'Class experience is deeply rooted, retained and carried through life rather than left behind (or below)', as some individuals find themselves in a different social class from that into which they were born (Mahony and Zmroczek, 1997:4). So individuals may well move across social class divisions (either materially or consciously or both) several times during a lifetime as earning and consumption patterns change. The nature of social class iIdentity is also important in this context.

In their study of black and white, working and middle-class young Londoners, Phoenix and Tizard (1996) found that the discourse of class is used to distinguish between 'us' and 'them'. Because of the rhetoric of 'classlessness' in British culture and the apparent reification of middle-class patterns of consumption, Phoenix and Tizard (1996:439) found also that working-class youth appears particularly confused:

social class was more likely to constitute a conscious identity position for middle class than for working class young people. Young people from the working classes often called themselves 'middle class' and were more likely than their middle-class peers to ask what we meant by social class. Yet, social class was part of their identities. One way in which social class appeared to be symbolically experienced was through the comparison of the consumption of different social classes.

Clearly, previous ways in which class consciousness has been understood needs to be reworked in the context of 1990s Britain.

Gender, the welfare state and changing employment patterns

At the end of World War II, government policy assumed that women would return from employment in the field and factory to their 'natural' roles in the family (Dean 1991); hence women's work (paid or unpaid) was excluded from contemporary debates about labour force shifts and patterns. Thus, while the creation of the British welfare state was premised on a concern to redistribute social privilege and benefits more equally, assumptions concerning women proved to be highly conservative. According to Coppock, Haydn and Richter (1995:12):

For the sake of rebuilding the war-stricken nation, women's primary role was defined in British social policy as that of homemaker and childrearer. The Beveridge Report (1942) relied on the reassertion of traditional sex roles.

Thus the structure of the welfare state and indeed, the school day, assumed that women worked primarily in the home and were dependant economically on their husbands' wage. The Beveridge Report which became the blueprint for the British welfare state contained certain assumptions based, in part, on empirical evidence of the number of married women dependants between 1918 and 1939, but also, to some extent, on its chairman's personal narrowed perspectives on marriage and family life (Lewis, 1983).

What this meant in terms of education was that in the 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s, equality issues were viewed wholly in terms of social class. Implicitly, ideas about the naturalness of gender differences were maintained and reproduced through schooling (Coppock et al, 1995), emphasised, for example, by the widespread incorporation within teacher training of Bowlby's theories of maternal deprivation and Parson's functionalist perspectives on distinctive sex roles (Bowlby, 1953; Parsons, 1952).

Subsequently, and ironically perhaps, the welfare state itself was to have a major impact on women's lives, as did changes in social and cultural assumptions arising from the impact of second-wave feminism (eg Friedan, 1963; Greer, 1970; Rowbotham, 1973), other aspects of 1960s political progressivism and later demands of the deregulated market. These dramatically changed work patterns, as women's proportion of overall waged labour increased and that of males, decreased. Hermes (1987) suggests that the growth of the welfare state transferred women's dependency from men in the private sphere to the state in the public sphere. Women thus developed a triple status: as citizens with political rights; as clients and consumers of welfare; and as employees in the state sector. This triple status both released women from their traditional relationship with men, and required newly negotiated terms with both men and the state.

If this scenario characterises public and private relationships in the 1970s and 1980s, it could be argued that those of the 1990s remain unstable. As economic restructuring and unemployment continue, and work patterns of women and men converge, men are also having to engage more with the private sphere of the family, and to renegotiate their relationship to women, the labour market and public sphere. Indeed, Hochschild (1996) suggests that for some people, family life cultures and work cultures are reversing. She suggests that, for many women, the model of the family as a secure haven is outdated, and it is the family that now provides increasing sources of anxiety and insecurity. For example, in her study of American workers, one interviewee, a factory shift operator and remarried mother of two describes her daily re-entry into home life:

I walk in the door and the minute I turn the key in the lock my oldest daughter is there. Granted she needs somebody to talk to about her day. The baby is still up...My husband is in the other room hollering to my daughter...They all come at me at once. (Hochschild, 1996:23)

Quarrels, unwashed dishes and demand of her family are contrasted unfavourably to her experience of work 'I usually come to work early just to get away from the house' (ibid). In the same study, women suggested that while work was not necessarily a haven either, it was sometimes more stable and reassuring than the family.

Work was not always 'there for you', but increasingly, 'home', as they had know it, wasn't either. As one woman recounted, 'One day my husband came home and told me, 'I've fallen in love with a woman at work....I want a divorce'. (Hochschild, 1996:25)

The outcomes, then, of such changes in the welfare state and in work and family patterns, provide some glimpses into why young men and women may be altering previously held assumptions about their life-destinations and career trajectories as is suggested later in this paper.

Feminist perspectives on class

Debates concerning social class inequalities in education and how to address them are no longer at the top of the educational agenda as in the 1950s and 1960s, largely because of the complexities of social shifts as already described. Additionally, by the early 1980s, the complexities of the impact of gender, racial divisions, sexuality and disability on educational experience and performance were seen to displace previous concepts of class, rendering them highly problematic.

Recent renewed interest in issues of social class is the consequence not only of changed labour market patterns and evidence of increasing poverty, but also from an increasing number of feminists who come from working class backgrounds (eg Mahony and Zmroczek, 1997; Reay, 1996). According to Walkerdine (1996:355), they are 'beginning to write experientially about class and to understand it as a significant issue for the understanding of culture, feminine subjectivity and identity'.

As we have already seen, in previous decades it was mainly male sociologists on the political left, who studied working class communities and/or rural or manufacturing working class experience (all of which have largely disappeared from Britain in the 1980s as a consequence of Thatcherite policy). Feminists had similar concerns but with the added interest of exploring both the relationship between patriarchy and capitalism, and the impact of social class on women's experience. For example, Mitchell (1971) referred to the importance of changes in: production - women's place in the labour market; reproduction - sexual divisions within the family; sexuality - in the views of women as primarily sexual beings and sex-objects; and socialisation - in the way in which the young were reared and educated. (Mitchell, 1971).

Socialist feminists, in particular, attempted to incorporate ideas about women's oppression and patriarchal relations into classic marxism, focusing in particular, on the relationship between production (the labour market) and reproduction (the family); the interrelationship of capitalism and patriarchy; and the complex interplay between gender, culture and society (see, for example, Barrett, 1980; Davis, 1981; Segal, 1987). Hartmann (1976) for example, defined patriarchy as a set of social relations with a material base underpinned by a system of male hierarchical relations and solidarity. An important emphasis was that of the impact of class on gender formation exemplified in MacDonald's (1981) claim that gender and class are inexorably drawn together within capitalism:

both class relations and gender relations, while they exist within their own histories, can nevertheless be so closely interwoven that it is theoretically very difficult to draw them apart within specific historic conjunctures. The development of capitalism is one such conjuncture where one finds patriarchal relations of dominance and control over women buttressing the structure of class domination (MacDonald:160)

British Black feminists also developed links with socialist feminism, due to the specific experience of British imperialism and colonialism (eg Brah and Minhas, 1985) . They emphasized the exploitation and unjust treatment of black immigrants (women and men) from the Caribbean and the Asian sub-continent from the 1950s onwards, for example, concerning overt discrimination ie the use of the 'colour bar' in housing, employment and education (Bryan et al, 1985). The state was further viewed as having created new forms of racism (termed 'institutional racism') within the bureaucracies and institutions for which it was responsible:: thus 'contemporary racism now needs to be seen as a structural feature of the social system rather than a phenomenon merely of individual prejudice' (Brah & Minhas, 1985:15). Furthermore, the possibility of making generalisations across all groups derived, say, from theories based on the white family as a site of sexual oppression, drew heavy criticism (Phoenix, 1987).

The recent renewed feminist interest in social class has a different focus, coming from the wish to interrogate, through concern about identity and subjectivity and through autobiographical reflection and writing, the impact of social class on childhood experience, and the forms of femininity and masculinity which are thus produced. According to Walkerdine (1996: 356), 'the new feminist writers on class open up vital new possibilities for inquiry, new ways of understanding a topic which has been played out in the academy and in politics'.

British policy developments concerning gender

Nineteenth-century British society, as the works of Dickens testify, was sharply stratified by social class as defined by male status. Women both shared many of the same social class experiences as their male contemporaries, yet at the same time, were often treated as a class apart. Thus, as Davidoff and Hall (1987) show, class consciousness had specific gendered forms, an outcome of women's inferior and subordinate status to men. This was reflected in nineteenth-century education policy and provision where children of different classes experienced different forms of schooling and education, and girls received different treatment to that of boys (Purvis, 1991)

At various times in the twentieth century usually during periods of Labour government, equality was a target of British government policy-making, though rarely was it perceived as a high priority. From the 1944 Education Act onwards, 'equality of opportunity' was included in the rhetoric of schooling though gender (or sex equality as it was then termed) was not a specific consideration until the 1970s.

In the decades before the Thatcher administration began in 1979, policies under both Labour and Conservative governments were orientated towards the twin goals of greater equality and increased economic growth - with the former seen as contributing to the latter. Nineteenth-century assumptions about the natural characteristics of males and females, continued to be used as foundations upon which to frame and build the post-War British welfare state, as we have seen.

The main legislation associated with gender and equal opportunities from the 1970s onwards were the Equal Pay Act (1970, coming into force in 1975) the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) and with respect to 'race' issues, the Race Relations Act (1976). This set of legislation led to a range of policy strategies instituted by individual teachers (many of whom were feminists), schools and local authorities, anxious to see enacted the spirit as well as the letter of the legislation. A number of consistent research findings began to emerge pointing to inadequacies in schooling for girls taken as a whole. In terms of the formal curriculum, syllabuses and content were found to exclude the experiences of girls and women (Northam, 1982; Stanworth, 1981; Chisholm & Holland, 1987) and where choice was available, usually at secondary level, girls tended to prefer the humanities, languages and social science, and boys, science, mathematics and technological subjects (Pratt et al, 1984). Also, students tended to be directed into conventionally male and female subjects and careers, and in the main, girls' careers were believed to be less important than boys' (Arnot & Weiner, 1987).

In terms of performance, girls were generally found to be achieving well at primary level although they tended to slip back at secondary level, particularly in mathematics and science (Kelly, 1985; Burton, 1986). Boys' poor performance in English and languages throughout schooling was seen to be offset by their progressively better performance in examinations as they reached school-leaving age (Spender, 1980). In general, young men had an advantage in the labour market because of employer bias, and also because many young women had low occupational aspirations, tending to opt for low status and low paid 'feminine' jobs to bridge the gap between leaving school and marriage.

The hidden or unwritten curriculum of schooling was also found to exert pressure on students (and staff) to conform in sex-specific ways; for example, there were different rules on uniform and discipline for girls and boys, and sexual and racial harassment, and verbal abuse were identified as regular features of school life (Lees, 1987; Wright, 1987; Troyna & Carrington, 1990).

By the early 1980s, a range of local authority and school-based strategies had developed to counter these inequalities, though gender in/equality was rarely a high priority of government and never was awarded extensive resources for research and evaluation. Nevertheless, because of the relative decentralisation of British education at the time, local projects were able to flourish aided by feminist work in universities and colleges. Most notably, strategies were developed which acknowledged that individual children had multiple identities relating to their sex, social class, ethnicity, family culture etc., all of which needed to be addressed if social inequality was to be reduced or eliminated (ILEA 1986a, b).

Towards the mid 1980s, a number of labour-controlled Local Education Authorities (LEAs) adopted increased support for equality projects and initiatives, as part of their challenge to the Thatcher government's New Right policies. The upshot of the power struggle that ensued was that the powers of the local authorities were sharply curtailed by the 1988 Education Reform Act and subsequent legislation (David, 1993), and funding and resources were gradually withdrawn from initiatives on gender and other work orientated towards increasing social justice in education.

Simultaneously, feminist and equality activists were confronted by what seemed to be a fragmentation of political effort with the emergence of identity politics around different forms of feminist, masculine, black and minority ethnic voices (Weiner, 1994). The Conservative government retained its own particular interpretation of concepts of equality of opportunity and social justice; which were recast as 'entitlement' and promoted rhetorically through support for individualism and entrepeneurism. Thus, the capacity to survive and succeed in the turbulence of the market and the aspirations of the individual were superimposed over post-war welfarism and equality initiatives systematically targeted at identifiable social groups and communities.

The period from the mid 1970s until the mid 1980s in Britain, thus, might be viewed as one where educational equality was hotly contested and voluntary, of interest mainly to committed politicians, teachers and local authorities, and having different meanings for different groups. Initiatives were often short-term, small-scale, temporary and local, and the national picture was difficult to ascertain. Also, there was little opportunity to evaluate the long-term effects of any policies and practices, though short-term evaluations suggested that the perceptions of some teachers and pupils were changing (Whyte et al 1984; ILEA, 1986a, b).

By the late 1980s, as government increasingly focused on achievement, standards and data collection, interest in gender shifted from policy and practice inputs to examination and assessment outcomes (Murphy and Gipps, 1994). This coincided with, and was the consequence of, the educational reforms: thus much debate and analysis focused on the significance and effects (anticipated and actual) of the Educational Reform Act and, particularly, of the new national curriculum (see, for example, Arnot, 1989; Burton and Weiner, 1990; Miles and Middleton, 1990; Shah, 1990).

The educational reforms introduced in the UK, mainly between 1988 and 1994, were sweeping and extensive and aimed at destabilising and breaking up the post-War professional culture of schooling which was perceived by some on the New Right as mediocre, collectivist and self-serving, and by many equality activists including feminists, as excluding, discriminatory and elitist. The reforms reflected the ideological split in the Conservative Party with the heavily centralised and prescriptive curriculum and assessment changes representing the views of the neo-conservatives, and the atomised, deregulation of the organisational changes, representing those of the market-liberals. Market-liberals identified as strategies, increased consumer choice and greater efficiency within a highly competitive market framework, in order to counter the 'production capture' of the large state bureaucracies and institutions such as education. In contrast, neo-conservatives emphasised the pivotal role of education and the state in consolidating and transmitting a national, firmly British, culture (Hickox, 1993).

Between 1994 and 1997 when the Conservative administration was voted out, the reform agenda continued to extend bureaucratic and regulatory controls over education. It included primary as well as secondary school league tables, the introduction of a nursery voucher scheme (the only policy speedily abandoned by New Labour), more targeted inspection of schools, a national curriculum for teacher training, and attempts at formal identification and dismissal of 'failing' teachers.

Changing gender patterns in British schools: recent research findings

Early in 1994, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) authorized a research study of gender relations in schools in order to evaluate the impact of the recent period of legislation. The three co-directors of the project, of which I was one2, were equally intrigued about the dual consequences of Thatcherism/Majorism and the education reforms, if fairly pessimistic given the stated anti-egalitarianism of the government and its appointees.

Three forms of data collection were employed in the study, in order to elucidate and explain the various patterns and trends in gender equality in schools over the last decade: statistical analysis of published examination and performance data for the period 1984-1994; questionnaire surveys of national sample of primary and secondary maintained schools in England and Wales and all LEAs in England and Wales; and case studies of equal opportunities policy and practice in seven selected LEAs in England and Wales.

The findings of the project (reported in Arnot, David and Weiner, 1996) were notable if less dramatic than some media discussions would have us believe. While researching one of the case-studies, I remember the exhilaration of seeing how different the girls and young women I had talked to for the project seemed, compared to those growing up in previous decades, including myself. In particular, today's schoolgirls seemed more ambitious and practical, less romantic and innocent than in the past. One striking factor was their apparent rejection of dependence on men. According to a group of inner-city 10-year-old girls interviewed for the project, the main cause of this was men's unreliability. As a consequence, they articulated practical, focused, and unsentimental ideas about how to look after children when at the same time as holding down a job (Arnot et al, 1996).

At other points in the project, the research team were less convinced about the extent of change. This was particularly notable in the case of the conspicuous dominance of white male cultures in schools and LEA hierarchies. A male headteacher offered the description of 'grey suited men running the authority in a paternalistic rather than partnership sort of way' with 'blunt autocratic reputations' and with 'uncomfortable, defensive, dismissive, sceptical, [and] hostile' responses to gender issues (Arnot et al, 1996: 133).

The main findings of the project were that there was improved examination entry and performance patterns of girls due to the introduction the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), a new broader based examination for 16-year-olds. Largely because of this, girls had caught up with boys in mathematics and science at GCSE and there had been an increased entry and a closing gender performance gap3 in most subjects apart from chemistry and economics which were still largely taken by boys, and social sciences, largely taken by girls. Male students achieved relatively less well in English and the arts, humanities, modern foreign languages and technology. Also, single sex girls' schools continued to be particularly successful in examination performance (reported in OFSTED/EOC, 1996).

At the age of 18, stereotyped choice re-emerged. There was higher male entry into Advanced Level (A-level) sciences (physics, technology, computer studies, geography, chemistry, mathematics) and an increasing male entry into English and modern foreign languages. There was a higher female entry for the arts and humanities, though overall, males gain higher A-level grades in nearly all subjects, especially mathematics, chemistry, technology, history, English and modern foreign languages. However, this male grade superiority was gradually being eroded with a marked improvement in female performance at A-level, particularly in biology, social sciences, art and design.

Conventional stereotyped entry and performance patterns also re-emerged post-16 for those students seeking vocational rather than academic qualifications. Here we found that young men had a slight (7%) advantage over young women in numbers gaining vocational qualifications and were also more likely to gain higher awards. Young women and men also chose different subjects, courses, and levels of award, related to the labour market sector to which they aspired, many of which are conventionally confined to one or other sex.

Moreover, gender perspectives in British schools were seen as having been altered and reshaped to accommodate the new language of schooling of the post-reform era. Some schools had brought gender issues into line with concerns about performance, standards, school improvement and value-added policies; others had focused on broader based and more inclusive concepts of entitlement and effective citizenship. Thus the language of equal opportunities policy-making had, to some extent, adapted to, and become part of the new mainstream culture of schools.

Additionally, students' perceptions of gender issues, across a range of ages and social groups and localities were viewed as more open and more sensitive to changing cultural expectations and/or changes in the labour market than previously. Thus, girls and young women appeared more confident and positive about their future working lives and opportunities and boys and young men also seemed aware of gender debates about women's working lives. Nevertheless occupational choices for both sexes remained generally conventional and stereotyped.

What was less difficult to determine in the overall findings of the project was any impact of social class difference on boys' and girls' achievements and experiences of schooling, as identification of national patterns tended to obscure local or geographical variations.

Recent class and gender formations in education

This section considers recent Australian research (Teese, Davies, Charlton & Polesel, 1995) alongside the British project (Arnot et al, 1996). Both studies observed similar patterns and trends, in particular, the media 'hype' in recent years about girls' greater success in examinations as compared to boys. The Australian study reported girls as completing school more often, studying subjects which lead to employment in growth areas of the economy, better at English and perhaps also at maths, and as entering university in greater numbers than boys (Teese et al, 1995).

Both studies found that it is boys now who have been seen to be the new disadvantaged. They are more likely to fail, to develop behaviour problems, to experience isolation and rejection, and to drop out. The jobs they are more likely to get are in the decline and have no long-term career prospects. However, disadvantages for girls still remain as the Australian study shows:

the labour market and workplace training opportunities leave girls with fewer choices than boys and pressure them to make more intensive use of school....Over the long term, girls have steadily colonized the once-male terrain of mathematics and the physical sciences. But progress has been very uneven and not so impressive during the last decade.

Moreover, working-class girls have not benefitted from the cultural and educational shifts to the same degree as their middle-class counterparts. As Teese et al point out: 'girls from lower status backgrounds continue to be especially disadvantaged, and some subjects have proved almost impervious to population change' (Teese et al: v). Thus it seems that the higher up the scale of socio-economic status, the lower the differences between the sexes. 'Gender relativities, in other words, are weakest where individuals enjoy the greatest cultural and material advantages, although they are by no means absent, even here (Teese et al:109, my italics).

In contrast, the lower the social status of girls, the less likely they are to take maths and the more likely to fail when they do.

In general, the differences between girls and boys become sharper the more socially disadvantaged their parents and the more gender itself operates as a category of cultural manipulation. Thus the real question is not whether girls as a group or boys as a group are more disadvantaged, but which girls and which boys (Teese et al:109, my italics).

The British study showed similar findings, but further suggested that the overall gains being made by girls might be the consequence of particular movement in specific social class categories. It also suggested that social class could no longer be treated as a distinct category in education. Other factors, such as gender and ethnicity, identity, and local culture and labour market need to be taken into account in explaining experiences and outcomes of schooling.

Moreover following Foucault (1977), exploration of the local is crucial if a clearer understanding is to be achieved of how individual identity and aspiration are formed and how they relate to educational experience. Rather than large scale surveys as in the past, it is, perhaps, through small studies that knowledge may be generated, of how class and gender inequalities in education are experienced and therefore how they may be more effectively challenged.

To illustrate this point, I now consider three different schools in one LEA which took part in the English research study, and examine to what extent their gender and class relations might be viewed as both different and similar from each other. 'City School' is located in the run-down centre of a large city, 'Border School' is on the edge of the city, and 'Suburban School' is situated in a relatively prosperous city suburb. 1996 GCSE results showed a wider gap between the number of girls and boys who achieved 5 or more A-C grades at Border School (16.9% and 7.9%) than at City School (7.7% and 6.3%). The schools are thus selected for discussion because they appear to indicate the differential social class and gender outcomes both of cultural change and of British New Right policy-making. What follows is a brief snapshot of each school taken late in 1994, based on interviews with, and observations of, staff and students.

City School The school has the largest proportion of ethnic minority students in the city, though another school has a larger number of Somali students and a local girls' school takes some muslim girls. The city is divided along 'ghetto' lines with most Black and minority ethnic groups living in the area around the school. According to staff, the school area is notorious and viewed as indicative of British inner-city malaise involving unemployment, violence and criminality, family-breakdown etc. In 1977 there were between 1,000 and 1,500 students in the school - it was flourishing with a 12-form entry. However, numbers began to dwindle some seven or eight years previously and recently the school has an empty feel to it. Because of falling student numbers, the school has lost 10 staff members recently and will lose more in the near future. This has meant that staff feel constantly 'on the edge' as they have taken on multiple responsibilities vacated by staff who have left. In 1994 there were 630 children in the school with a sixth form of 74 (involved mainly in examination resits). The ratio of Black to white pupils 'is about 50:50' with many children of mixed race and a tenth of students, bi-lingual in twenty or more mother tongue languages. There was also a high number of fully statemented children (with special educational needs). Examination performance in the school was well below the national and city average with minority ethnic students doing less well than white students. A recent government inspection noted that proportionally higher numbers of black pupils are excluded from the school though the school ethos was seen to promote racial harmony with little indication of racial tension or discrimination'. The inspectors noted that in some lessons, the contribution of girls received less attention than those of boys, and that there are insufficient role models within the senior staff of the school for girls and black pupils. The sexes also tended to be divided on the basis of gender - 'almost universally, boys sit separately from girls', though not along racial grounds. Also, Asian girls were often quiet in lessons and need more encouragement to participate in classroom discussion. The headteacher's main concern was to promote a positive image of the school. Despite what was considered a relatively good inspection report showing that the school contributes a considerable 'value-added' element to its largely below average school population, the school is nevertheless losing students each year. Its low position in the league tables was seen as having stigmatised the school with the consequence that more academically able students travel out of the area to attend other, more highly regarded, schools. At the time of the research, the senior management team was all-male. It was reported that there had recently been an increase of girls coming into the school though boys seemed still to be doing rather better than girls in examinations. According to staff, student aspirations remain conventional with girls wanting to be nursery nurses, hairdressers, and recently doctors (though the latter was thought to be 'unrealisable' by some teachers), and boys opting for work in computers, retail and car maintenance. Overall, the school's sexual sub-culture appeared conventional and stereotypical, though the students themselves were lively, humorous and hopeful.

 Border School                                                              
The school is located on the edge of the city area, in a traditionally      
white and working class area and on the border of two other LEAs.  In       
1994, the school population was fairly stable with 820 on roll, though      
with very few Black or minority ethnic students in the school (less than    
10).  Its biggest recruitment problem was seen as the loss of middle-class  
children to other LEAs.                                                     
According to the headteacher, the school appeared to be holding on to its   
numbers, both for intake and throughput.  An increasing proportion of       
students were staying on to the sixth form (90 students in 1994) where      
GNVQ (General National Vocational Qualification) rather than A-level was    
being offered.  In 1994, the school achieved the third best GCSE results    
in the LEA, though this was still considerably lower than the national      
average.  The senior school management was largely male and white, with a   
male head, two deputies (one male, one female), and four male senior        
School staff claimed to have consciously tried to persuade girls and boys   
not to choose traditional careers and subject areas (eg childcare for       
girls, crafts for boys) though with limited success.  In the mid 1980s, a   
taster course for girls and boys in non-traditional subject areas was       
pioneered, and similar courses have continued to be offered since then.     
Overall girls were seen as doing better than boys in most subjects, except  
Technology. In fact, girls' achievement levels seemed to be polarising -    
they were doing well at higher academic levels, and were also               
over-represented in dropout figures mainly due to teenage pregnancy and     
'indiscipline' eg  fights between girls.  Girls' parents were seen as       
influential in insisting on equal treatment for their daughters.            
Girls, it was claimed by staff, seemed to find it easier to gain            
employment, possibly because 'typing' has become 'word-processing' and      
therefore girls are better equipped technologically. Girls feel that they   
have a better chance than boys of gaining employment - but still enter      
jobs which are low paid and of low status. Girls no longer seemed to        
regard any 'forbidden areas' of employment as in the past, and are more     
ambitious. Additionally, employers seemed to be increasingly viewing them   
as reliable and employable.                                                 
One reason for girls' improving examination performance was seen to be the  
GCSE examination which lends itself to the ways in which girls prefer to    
study and produce their highest quality work.  Girls' perceptions have      
also been seen to change, because of changes in and outside school.         
Teachers mentioned that they now rarely hear the argument that girls'       
education is less important than boys. There seems to have been a female    
culture shift arising from feminism, female images in the media/in soap     
operas, changes in employment patterns etc.  Whilst enforced competition    
between schools is not thought to have been beneficial generally, focus on  
the school's achievements to enhance recruitment has highlighted the        
greater achievements of girls.                                              
In contrast, the biggest problem for boys has been lack of ambition and     
motivation, perhaps because there are fewer traditional male jobs, and      
fewer access routes into semi-skilled jobs eg apprenticeship.  According    
to staff, boys do not view education as of value in the labour market,      
though some cross-gender choices in options have been made due to           
employment opportunities: for example, in 1994 more boys than girls were    
taking Home Economics in order to enter the armed services and/or           
Boys' attitudes were also changing towards childcare and within the         
family.  They 'accept[ed] tuition in parent-craft happily and without       
silliness', though did not take these subjects at GCSE.  Boys who were not  
successful academically, seemed less motivated and more alienated.  Many    
stayed on to do vocational qualifications in the sixth form but some        
subjects were not transferable into employment.                             

 Suburban School                                                            
The school conveyed to the researcher a feeling of tradition, order and     
safety, as the school is modelled on the traditions of the British          
grammar/public school.  The school was oversubscribed with selection based  
on academic criteria, interview, primary school recommendation and on       
whether 'the student will benefit from being here?'  The school has high    
examination results with one of the best GCSE and A-level records in the    
country, and is near the top of the league tables: 'GCSE grade A is the     
norm'.  According to staff, the school 'serves middle-class families in     
the locality who are strongly supportive of the school's ethos and          
The staff were mainly male and white, with few young, black and/or female   
teachers.  In the sixth form, girls tended to perform at a full grade       
lower than boys in maths and physics and at the same level in most other    
subjects.  Girls were viewed as more even and consistent workers compared   
to boys.                                                                    
There was a very low drop out rate at 16.  It was claimed by staff that     
those who leave, often from working-class backgrounds, prefer to attend     
the local college having become alienated by the ethos and elitism of the   
school.  The school is strong on requiring conformity.  Parents wanted      
children to do well: at 18, students tended to go into medicine, law,       
accountancy, business, engineering, foreign languages.  Three quarters      
went directly into Higher Education including five to ten per cent, to      
When interviewed, male students showed a tendency to assume superiority     
over their female peers and to be dismissive of their achievements.  The    
girls, however, appeared acutely aware of gender differences, pointing out  
a number of examples of bias in the school.  For example, they claimed      
that: boys pretend they know much more than they do; science teachers are   
frequently much more directive towards girls, treating them differently to  
the boys; boys continually make sexist comments (this was of particular     
embarrassment to the only girl in a physics class); overall teachers seem   
more awkward with girls;  there are too few women on the staff for the      
girls to have at least one female teacher; and girls have the impression    
that many teachers feel that girls 'lower the tone' of the school.          

Concluding Remarks

It is important not to make exaggerated claims derived from small-scale research. However evidence from the case-study work quoted above suggests that the transformations in student performance and perception of gender identified nationally in Britain, may principally be the consequence of change within one particular group; that of white children from upper working class or lower middle class families (eg at Border School).

While some young people, it seems, continue to hang on to stereotyped views about their future careers and lifestyles (such as City School students), others' perceptions and aspirations have been influenced by shifts in the local labour market, by expectations of parents, and in family structure and responsibilities; and perhaps, most surprisingly, by New Right policies. More elite student populations (like those in Suburban School) appear to maintain previous hegemonic class and gender positions.

There is also some evidence from the three schools to support the evidence quoted earlier in the paper that New Right policies in Britain (particularly those concerning deregulation and competition) have exacerbated rather than reduced social class differences in education.


1Paper presented in the Social Justice Symposium at the annual conference of the British Educational Research Association, York University, September, 1997

2The three project directors were Madeleine Arnot, Miriam David and Gaby Weiner. Other researchers involved in the project were: Jackie Davies, Sara Delamont, Elizabeth Gray, Laura Hart, Sally Mitchell, Charles Newbould, Jane Salisbury and Jonathan Tritter.

3The concept of gender gap was used by the project to chart different patterns of subject entry and examination performance in the ten year period under study. The gender gap denotes the measure of difference between the sexes in relation to the proportion of the male and females on entry and/or in performance in a particular subject.


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This document was added to the Education-line database 29 October 1997