A Tale of Two Cities: Tackling Class Inequality in Education in Brighton and Hove

Carlie Goldsmith, Ali Ghanimi & Matt Lee

Once a seaside town, now a city by the sea, Brighton and Hove has a reputation as a fair and progressive place.  A closer look, however, tells a different story. Long term residents will tell you that before the turn of the millennium Brighton was a small, grimy town with few remarkable features other than the sea and its LGBTQ+ community. As the 2000s began, things changed. The town became a city in 2001 and its obvious attractions and short commute time into London quickly earned it the moniker ‘London by the Sea.’ Artisan bakeries and independent coffee shops sprung up to meet new demand and the cost of housing soared. The city changed; its air of grotty glamour replaced by a glossier middle-class urbanism sharpened social class distinctions and excluded much of the existing working-class population. 

The last two decades has also seen a marked shift in education locally. Like everywhere, Brighton and Hove has always had ‘good’ and ‘bad’ schools but in the early 2000s the group of schools who served the city’s children produced outcomes below the national averages at GCSE. In response, the local authority implemented a range of school improvement initiatives, which have over time narrowed this gap.

It also made the controversial decision to close East Brighton College of Media Arts (COMART) in 2005. This school served a catchment area that included the housing estates of Whitehawk, Manor Farm and Bristol Estate as well as some traditionally upper working-class neighbourhoods at its fringes. Neighbourhoods whose residential populations had been transformed by the influx of new people into the city and now included parents who were unwilling to send their children to a ‘failing’ school located on the edge of a council estate. 

This change in attitude is not just a reflection of a change of residential population but is a consequence of the resurrection and deliberate misuse of the concept of meritocracy, which was then embedded into the education system through policy reform and became the new ‘common sense’ in the minds of parents.

The Rise of Meritocracy was a cautionary tale set in a dystopian 2030 where intelligence and merit had replaced social class as the way social goods, such as education, income and wealth are organised and distributed (Young 1958). In such a society, Young warned, existing elites could hide and deny the class-based privileges that are the very foundation of educational success and use the concept of meritocracy to expand their power. They could defend against any claim that they had an obligation to share any financial rewards accrued by arguing that they had ‘earned it’, and that people forced to endure precarious lives at the bottom of the social hierarchy were there because they were, to put it bluntly, thick and lazy. In a meritocracy, education is a high-stakes pursuit and the vehicle for social mobility because it is the mechanism through which financial and social status is acquired. In this system parents who do not aspire enough and/or who fail to secure every advantage available to their children are ‘bad parents’. 

Class Divide is a grassroots campaign established out of concerns about the educational experiences of young people living in some of Brighton’s poorest areas. The campaign has accessed and examined unpublished local authority and other data which shows indefensible levels of educational inequality between children and young people growing up in the East Brighton communities of Whitehawk, Manor Farm and Bristol Estate and their counterparts in the rest of the city. In one Brighton and Hove, parents have gained and then defended educational advantages for their children by paying a premium to move into catchment areas for the best performing schools. They’ve strongly opposed policies designed to make the allocations slightly fairer and stopped the creation of new schools because it would disrupt this advantage. This has paid dividends and data from the paid Index of Multiple Deprivations education, training and skills domain shows that the most advantaged area in the city in 2005 became more advantaged in 2015 and 2019. It is ranked in the top 1% most advantaged for education, skills and training in England, and entry into Higher Education is one of the categories used to calculate the ranking. 

In the other Brighton and Hove, less than 1 in 4 (37%) young people gained basic grades at GCSE English and Maths compared to the citywide average of 69%.  Children and young people from the working-class communities of Whitehawk, Manor Farm and Bristol Estate are twice as likely as their counterparts across Brighton and Hove to be excluded from school at least once and three times more likely to end up being educated outside of the mainstream. Whitehawk is ranked in the top 1% most deprived for education, skills and training, a position that has remained unchanged since 2005. Conversations with those responsible for education in the city have shown us that families are perceived as ‘the problem’ despite the fact that they have no power to disrupt or overturn middle-class advantage by, for example, forcing changes to catchment areas so that their children have access to the highest performing secondary schools in the city. 

Without any sign of a shift in education policy, how can people in and from the community show their resistance to and work to change such deep divisions? Following the Coalition government’s trebling of university tuition fees, cuts to further and higher education and the failure of widening participation initiatives to meaningfully change the representation and experiences of working-class young people in British universities, a group of local academics and activists came together in 2012 to create Free University Brighton (FUB).

FUB is both a political response and a practical alternative to the mainstream university, it offers co-operative, community-based education free of charge. Inspired by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress, it is a shining example of what a transgressive citizens’ approach to education can achieve; creating an alternative university run for and by the people.
Here students from all backgrounds can study up to degree level in their own time, without the pressure of competition, exams or debt. While other UK universities are driven by league tables (REF, TEF, NSS etc) and generating income, the free university aims to reclaim the joy of learning and create engaged citizens able to understand and question the world around them and see the possibilities for social change.

“It’s given me a much deeper understanding of what’s going on around me and how my life is connected with all these broader movements”.

Creating an alternative space for education is a vital and ongoing experiment in pedagogic practice and the role of class. We began by holding classes in pubs, cafes and other public spaces until the GMB union offered us use of their Learning Resource Centre in a municipal refuse depot in Brighton. This free classroom space enabled us to expand our offer but also shifted the nature of what a university could look like. In some ways, it’s easier to address the nature of working-class life in the classroom when that classroom isn’t itself isolated out into its own middle-class cultural space.  

In Chapter 12 of bell hooks ‘Teaching to Transgress’, she makes the point that:

Conservative discussions of censorship in contemporary university settings often suggest that the absence of constructive dialogue, enforced silencing, takes place as a by-product of progressive efforts to question canonical knowledge, critique relations of domination, or subvert bourgeois class biases. There is little or no discussion of the way in which the attitudes and values of those from materially privileged classes are imposed upon everyone via biased pedagogical strategies.

Yet shifting values and practices within the classroom is only one element of addressing the way capitalist education fails the working class. Our work in Brighton and Hove has shown that it’s not enough to change things within the classroom, it’s also vital to address who is allowed and encouraged to enter that space. There’s little point in professing to change attitudes around class in a space that’s already selected out the working class to begin with. ‘Nothing about us without us’.

Free University Brighton is a community-led alternative to fee-paying further and higher education. It offers eduction up to university-level as a practice of desire for teaching and learning; free of charge, and free from the institutional confines of conventional universities.

Class Divide is a grassroots community campaign working to urgently bring attention and to change the deeply unjust educational inequalities faced by the children from the East Brighton communities of Whitehawk, Manor Farm and Bristol Estate.

Faithful to our principles, this pitch was collectively written by members of both campaigns.


Hooks, Bell. (1994), Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom,  New York: Routledge 

Friere, P. (1972), Pedagogy of the oppressed, New York:  Herder and Herder.

Young, M. (1958), The Rise of Meritocracy, London: Routledge.

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