Working class hurt by naivety

August 21, 1998

A study of more than 700 sixth-formers and their families in south-east Wales has revealed why working-class status is still such a deep disadvantage for many potential university students.

Middle-class parents in the study measured success in higher education not on the basis of merely gaining a university place; it must be a "good" university. In contrast, the working-class families knew nothing of league tables, were often totally bewildered by the application process and ill- advised by their schools with "disastrous" consequences.

Lesley Pugsley of the school of education at the University of Wales, Cardiff said the class inequalities that affected decisions about higher education had persisted despite initiatives aiming to solve them. The introduction of the quasi market and the dramatic rise in post-compulsory participation had not ended the missed chances, frustrations and anxieties for some families, which remain as sharp today, Ms Pugsley said, as they were 40 years ago when a similar study was conducted in Huddersfield.

Ms Pugsley's research, which tracked sample students through their sixth-form careers, finds that the middle-class parents have "decoded" the rhetoric of equality surrounding the former polytechnics.

"They have been able to deconstruct the implications of this structural differentiation and the ramifications for the graduate labour market," said Ms Pugsley, whose study is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Such pupils as Claire at independent schools are aware of the extent of their families' investment in their education: "My parents keep saying to me, 'We want what's best for you, we want you to do all the things we didn't have the chance to do'."

Some of the working-class families in the study had no knowledge of how higher education works, and their schools' failure to offer formal guidance before making A-level subject choices proved disastrous. Michael attended a school in an inner-city area that had no sixth form, so he moved to a further education college for his A-level course. "I just went up there and said, 'I want to do some A levels'. They said, 'All right. What do you want to do?' And that was it really. It was only later I realised that the university was not going to look at me if I was doing only art I but by that time it was too late."

Ms Pugsley found some of the parents were not only uninformed, but demonstrated an implicit faith in the system and relied on the teachers to do the right thing.

Ms Pugsley concluded that such parents cannot engage with the process of institutional choice. "The parents feel they are out of their depth, that this is an alien environment and one in which their perceived incompetence will hamper rather than facilitate the progress of their child."

The sense of not being part of the school prevents working-class families from intervening to help their children, Ms Pugsley added. In contrast, middle-class parents have a sense of ownership of the school. "Much of what needs to be known is taken for granted by the middle class, but it needs to be discovered or explained to the working class," she said.

Patterns of university applications highlighted other contrasts. Working-class families were concerned that their child go to a local university in order to "keep close". But for the middle classes, moving away from home was regarded as an ideal way for the young to gain independence.

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