Middle-class altruism is not all it may seem

The academic who helped show how the better-off get more from comprehensive schools than the poor tells Melanie Newman of his experience of the class divide

February 21, 2008

David James's research on the prospects of middle-class children whose parents eschew private schools and send them to the local comprehensive was expected to garner headlines as Times Higher Education went to press this week. The professor of education at the University of the West of England is in a strong position to lead the debate: he has first-hand experience of the class divide and its effects on a child's future.

Professor James grew up near Epping Forest on a sprawling post-war housing estate, Debden. The estate is thought to be the pseudonymous "Greenleigh" of a famous study by Michael Young and Peter Willmott that found that the estate's design discouraged community integration.

The local primary school never allowed him to forget which side of the tracks he came from.

"It was very stratified," he said. "The kids from the old village sat at the front and they were very much favoured. The teacher seemed to know all their parents."

Years of similar experiences meant he grew up believing there were genetic differences between the two groups. He became a living example of Plato's "foundation myth", in which the citizens of the ideal state are taught to believe that class distinctions are biological as well as social. "I really believed we were fundamentally inferior," he said.

After failing his 11-plus exam he went to the local secondary modern. "Failing was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it was a significant point for me. I thought I had a fair chance of passing and I saw (the exam) as a valid arbiter - that it could somehow shine into your soul and show who you were. Of course, the test has since been largely discredited."

His parents, Professor James believes, were relieved at his failure: the secondary modern was nearby and its uniform was cheaper than that of the grammar schools.

While his school was "really excellent" and he left it with a brace of good CSEs and some O levels, a move to a more academic school to take A levels left him floundering. "It was very strange - more like an academic factory than a school."

Having gained one and a half A levels there, he left school and worked as a musician by night while supporting himself with a series of clerical jobs during the day. He met musicians who were college lecturers, including a guitarist, Mark Knopfler, and singer Dave Pask, both lecturing at Loughton College and playing in a rockabilly band, the Cafe Racers. When Knopfler left to form Dire Straits, the teenaged David James formed a band with Pask.

"He was an enormously significant influence in my life," he recalled. "He taught me how much of the social world was a product of interest and ideology rather than being natural and set in stone, and that it could be understood via research." Inspired, he decided to study sociology at A level; when he passed, he applied and was accepted on to a degree course at the University of Bristol.

"At the time I had a day job with the Greater London Council. They said I was mad to leave behind a job with such great career prospects," Professor James said. After gaining a first-class degree, he trained to teach in further education and worked in London, Bath and Gloucester before once again landing a secure well-paid job - this time for a temporary post as a lecturer in policy studies at Bristol Polytechnic. He never left and has since built an academic career around his interest in the relationship of education to inequality and social justice.

The research published this week, a project led jointly with Diane Reay from the University of Cambridge and Gill Crozier from the University of Sunderland, investigated "counter-intuitive" decision-making by white middle-class parents who choose to send their children to ordinary comprehensive schools instead of better-performing state and private alternatives.

The study found that schools made special efforts to accommodate the children, and they were given extra attention by teachers keen to improve results. The children were often placed on the Gifted and Talented programmes, improving their access to resources compared with children in schools with better overall results.

They went on to "perform brilliantly" and had a much higher than average entry to Oxbridge.

An Evening Standard article quoted Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg last year as saying that middle-class flight from state secondary education was causing a crisis in London.

Does Professor James believe that standards in comprehensives would rise if the "white flight" stopped? "Middle-class parents do have some resources and energies in more abundance than other groups, and these can be harnessed by a school for everyone's benefit," he said.

"Sadly, our research findings suggest that, if anything, the way middle-class parents interact with schools might divert resources away from those most in need. This is a lot more subtle than what happened all those years ago in my primary school, but it has some of the same effects".


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