The Canon: Education and the Working Class by Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden

July 22, 2010

When I left school at the age of 16 with no educational qualifications to speak of - two CSE grade 1s, not even O levels - I began work for a public-sector employer who sent me to a further education college one day a week on a day-release scheme. Even though this meant that I got a day off work, I said I did not want to go, so much did I hate school. However, they said I had to go; it was the law, they said. In fact this was a lie, but I did not know that then.

At college, one of the books I was asked to read was Education and the Working Class by Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden. First published in 1962, it is a study of 88 working-class children educated in Huddersfield (anonymised as "Marburton" in the first edition) in the late 1940s and early 1950s who not only managed to get a place at grammar school, but who actually did well once they got there.

Educated at grammar schools in Huddersfield themselves - they could have been part of their own sample - Jackson and Marsden wanted to find out why some working-class children who went to grammar school did well, but so many others left early or did not take up their place when it was offered to them.

What they discovered was that a high proportion of those children who stayed on into the sixth form came from what Jackson and Marsden characterised as "sunken middle-class families" where one of the parents, by definition nearly always the mother, had married beneath her social class. Or, where this was not the case, the children may have had a particularly aspirational parent, in these cases usually the father, who, although working class himself, did something else (perhaps serving as a councillor or active in his local church) that made them stand out in the local community in some way.

Jackson and Marsden's study therefore refuted the meritocratic ideology prevalent at the time that the performance of working-class children in grammar schools proved that anyone who wanted to get on and had the talent to do so could succeed in education. In fact, only those children who were already in effect middle class did well.

The comprehensive experiment that Jackson and Marsden's book champion has largely been a failure. The upper class still send their children to fee-paying schools, while those middle-class parents who can afford to do so move house in order to get their children into the catchment area of so-called "good schools" without apparently realising what Jackson and Marsden's study explained almost 50 years ago: it is not the schools (stupid!) that are "good", but the parents who send their children there.

Jackson and Marsden both became teachers, as did a majority of their sample. And what of me? I became a teacher too, of course, and I now have more degrees than I have O levels. Reading Education and the Working Class (and another very similar study, Paul Willis' Learning to Labour), I not only discovered that the education system was more or less designed to fail me, but I learned that I was in fact a working-class bloody hero, too.

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