Can We Free Compulsory School Systems From Class Hierarchies?

Mia Travers-Hayward

“… nowhere is there a more intense silence about the reality of class difference than in educational settings.”

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, p. 177

Since reading the work of sociologists examining class stratification in education, I have found it to be a useful way of understanding the disparate academic experiences of children across economically marginalized and privileged households. The shame and stigma that society unfairly places on families experiencing poverty or struggling with volatile incomes – what I would argue is a system problem, not an individual problem – is also born by children throughout their schooling. Knowing this, how can schools better center the experiences of students whose families lack the resources to align the home learning environment with educational expectations?

When I was teaching in a Canadian primary school, I invited students to share their unique story by producing an autobiography. As we reached the final chapter, I prompted students to write from the perspective of the future — you wake up one day and there are no limits to what you can do, what happens?

Amongst the energetic group of 11-year-olds, several hands shot up:

I would go to the bank and take out millions of dollars and give it to charities for animals…

I would wake up rich and go buy a mansion and build a massive skating rink in the yard…

I would buy a private plane and travel around the world…

For many of these students, their imaginary futures centred, to varying degrees, on wealth and status. According to meritocratic ideology, their goals, or more modest versions of them, are attainable through individual effort and hard work; however, what I observed in classrooms contradicted these claims. Within the social class boundaries that separated students and their families were stark disparities in economic, social, and cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1997). Middle and upper-class families were able to use their material wealth, social networks, and knowledge and experience of the education system to give their children a competitive edge. While schools are often prized as institutions of equal opportunity, educational norms of effort and success tend to privilege families rich in capital and thus can exacerbate the reproduction of social and economic inequalities. If young people are to be able to pursue their dreams on equal footing, illuminating and addressing the harmful disparities in educational privilege across social classes is vital.           

Reading sociologist Annette Lareau’s (2011) Unequal Childhoods contextualized my observations of how the lives of students at home interact with their educational experience. Lareau observed changing family dynamics as she travelled across the boundaries of poor, working-, and middle-class families. Social class, in Lareau’s case, was defined based on a family’s position within the labour hierarchy and corresponding level of education; in the case of poor families, parents had no or volatile work hours and generally relied to some degree on public assistance. While Lareau found value in the child-rearing approaches in the families across all of the social classes she observed, it was the middle-class form of ‘concerted cultivation’ parenting that inculcated children with educational advantage relative to the ‘accomplishment of natural growth’ parenting that she saw in poor and working-class families. It’s worth noting that separating families into two child-rearing approaches overshadows important distinctions within these categories (perhaps if the sample size had been larger, more categories would have been distinguished). In particular, consolidating poor and working-class families can conceal the unique economic and societal factors that underpin the home lives of those experiencing varied levels of deprivation.

What felt most compelling to me in situating my teaching experiences within Lareau’s framework was the clear intergenerational transmission of educational advantage/disadvantage. The more elevated a family sits on the class hierarchy (more often than not, an inherited position), the greater their capability to use their capital to align their child-rearing with the expectations of educational institutions. According to Bourdieu (1997) “the scholastic yield from educational action depends on the cultural capital previously invested by the family” (p. 48). In Lareau’s (2011) findings, this looks like middle-class students tending to be conditioned to excel in the institutional setting: frequent opportunities to reason and negotiate with adults at home and during extra-curriculars can provide a sense of entitlement to challenge and seek support from their teachers; out-of-school activities may provide them with more confidence to share and connect experiences during lessons; and their academic advancement is often supplemented by costly tutoring, exam prep, and application support for higher education. In comparison, for families who are economically and socially marginalized, it is often a struggle to find the resources to support their child’s learning in the same way. The financial constraints faced by many working-class parents, or those living in poverty, limits their ability to engage in the type of concerted cultivation often held up as the standard by education systems; this is one way of understanding why achievement gaps between students from low- and high-socioeconomic status families persist. Given the mounting pressure schools place on families to construct an expansive home learning environment to support a child’s academic success, class divisions in educational attainment risk becoming increasingly pronounced and powerful.

In Miseducation (2017), Diane Reay reflects on how many working-class children she interviewed felt misaligned with school culture, “the vast majority… talked about a sense of powerlessness and educational worthlessness and feeling that they were not really valued and respected within education” (p. 80). Schools can and should be more inclusive communities, where each student feels that they have a voice and a responsibility to use it to contribute to learning (hooks, 1997). Many educators I met went into the profession with the intention of fostering such an environment, but with large classes of students with unique needs, looming standardized tests, and expansive curriculums to cover—that left limited room to practice transformative pedagogy. I experienced this myself as a teacher. While I envisioned creating a classroom environment where everyone could thrive and feel a sense of belonging, in reality I could see students slipping through the cracks out of the corner of my eye as I tried to make it through a lesson with 35 dynamic pre-teens. In cases such as this, when funding for education is constricted and sacrifices in quality are made, families in upper classes can mitigate the impacts of a fractured learning experience by intervening directly with the institution or by paying for supplementary learning out of school (often called ‘shadow education’). This phenomenon has only accelerated as the pandemic forced schools to shutdowns globally, the consequences of which we will see for years to come without a targeted response.

Dismantling class hierarchies in schools requires transformative shifts in educational practice and policy. High-stakes standardized testing, biased ability-streaming, unmanageable class sizes, complex performance expectations on teachers, the private school system—these are areas of the education sector that widen social class divisions and ensure that the manifestation of an academic meritocracy remains a myth. Policies like these enable the type of system that, as Reay (2017) writes, “… operates as an enormous academic sieve, sorting out the educational winners from the losers in a crude and often brutal process that prioritises and rewards upper- and middle-class qualities and resources” (p. 26). While the class divisions that exist in education cannot be solved in isolation from those that exist in wider society, strengthening the capacity of schools to recognize and respond to the needs of marginalized youth must still be an indispensable priority. If we want young people, regardless of social class, to be able to both imagine their dreams and pursue them, education systems need to relinquish notions of success steeped in meritocratic norms precisely so that schools can become inclusive, critical, and creative learning communities.

Mia Travers-Hayward is a researcher and an advocate for transformative social policies. She is currently studying for an MSc in Inequalities & Social Science at the London School of Economics, where she is investigating links between basic income policies and the educational experiences of youth from economically marginalized families.


Bourdieu, P. (1997). The forms of capital. Education, culture, economy, society. ed. A. Halsey, H. Lauder, P. Brown, and A. Stuart-Wells, 46–58. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.

Lareau, A. (2011). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life, 2nd Edition with an update a decade later (2nd ed.). University of California Press.

Reay, D. (2017). Miseducation: Inequality, education and the working classes (21st century standpoints) (1st ed.). Policy Press.

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