Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

Working-class students at middle-class schools exist in a liminal state

The biggest lesson I’ve learnt at my middle-class school in Sheffield is just how all-pervasive class is. Policymakers should be asking why the subtext of social mobility is the abandonment of self and community.

Library shelves
Priscilla Du Preez (Unsplash)

British comprehensives are so socially segregated that, in 2018, schools in rich areas were much more likely to be rated as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted. This economic disparity in education expects working-class students to choose between their education and their sense of identity. If they want to access well-resourced, high-achieving schools, that almost always means schools in middle-class catchment areas.

To thrive, or even just survive, in these foreign environments, working-class – which, remember, means disproportionately ethnic minority – students have to aid in their own self-annihilation. Whether it’s the language they use or even their mannerisms, headteachers, teachers and peers will belittle them every day and this all contributes towards a hostile, elitist atmosphere.

To avoid these awkward and upsetting encounters, working-class students quickly begin to surveil their own conduct, because they know deep down that to ‘succeed’ in these environments is to fade into the middle-class culture they’re built on. This constant ‘re-education’ means that working-class students aid the very power structures which cause their alienation in the first place. By suppressing their own values and culture, they are indirectly supporting the idea that middle-class values and culture are superior – that access to the best education and the best jobs requires a particular 'sort of person'.

As a student who lives in a working-class area of Sheffield but goes to a school in an overwhelmingly middle-class area, these processes of re-education have only left me isolated. Some teachers unconsciously felt I required a tough love approach, that because of my background they had to overcompensate in regards to managing my ‘behaviour’. This never pushed me into middle-class excellence; it just pushed me, someone who loves learning, away from school. I never really felt like a student, but a vehicle for my teachers to project their own values and assumptions onto. At best, I was a project to them, someone they could mine to uncover some sort of ‘potential’. At worst, I was looked down on and constantly reminded of my outsider status.

Fellow pupils express existing in a liminal state, where they are pariahs in school and simultaneously distant from the communities that raised them. They are reminded by the gatekeepers of education that they are outsiders, at the same time as being disconnected from their communities.

I’m from Darnall. For context, the annual income of a household in Darnall was £29,600 in 2020, more than £11,000 below the average for Sheffield. Me and my mates spent the first month at our sixth form complaining about the one hour-plus commute, but once we realised how starkly different the two places were, an hour felt incomprehensibly quick. They really are two completely different halves of the same city. While my peers’ time at sixth form was characterised by revision, mine was characterised by screaming students on the 52 bus.

In comparison to my new school, Darnall is a racially diverse community. Middle-class parents moving near all the ‘good’ schools looks and functions almost identically to white flight. A lot of the working-class students who travel far to get to school like me are also from ethnic minority backgrounds. So alongside the class barrier we feel in school, there is an equally restrictive racial barrier. The way others respond to my class and race in middle-class educational settings have eerily similar consequences; exclusion and maltreatment, with no-one to go to who will take my concerns seriously.

The even more insidious function at play is that the students who succeed in these environments, rather than being treated as exceptions, are held up as poster children for meritocracy. This allows policymakers to ignore the systemic problems hindering the educational success of most working-class children, as they have a catalogue of rags to riches stories they can defer to.

What happens to the majority of working-class students who don’t have the choice to access middle-class catchment areas? Why should working-class students who do not want to conform to an educational system that was created for another class be punished for that? Why are policymakers asking themselves how they turn working-class students into mirror images of their middle-class peers, when they should instead be asking why the subtext of social mobility is the abandonment of the self and the abandonment of community?

The biggest lesson I’ve learnt at a middle-class school is just how all-pervasive social class is. It’s almost impossible to not gain a greater class consciousness when you are forced into a subsection of the education system which promised you an escape from financial precarity, but instead fuels your alienation from others. Instead of succumbing to the shame, otherness and imposter syndrome you are gifted when you walk through the school’s doors, you should grasp this overwhelming awareness of your class and recognise the strength of those values.

The unrest you feel should fill you with pride that the values of collectivism, solidarity and authenticity refused to be assimilated. Instead of waiting for the fast repression and slow death of those values, you should channel your frustrations into campaigning – put pressure on parties to implement policies that tackle the root causes of poverty, increase funding for schools and show a greater commitment to diversifying their policymakers, so more working-class people actually have a say on educational policy.

Education is supposed to be a beacon of good democracy, something that leads people to push beyond their assumptions of the known and use this knowledge to improve the world around them. We all lose out on great thinking when we restrict a large proportion of young people from gaining access to well-resourced schooling. An exclusive education system breeds shame and isolation within its working-class students and entraps others in under-funded schooling. This isn’t meritocracy; this is an outright disregard for the future of young working-class people.

Filed under: 

More Equality & Social Justice

Can Sheffield end new HIV transmissions by 2030?

In anticipation of next week’s Festival of Debate panel, Rei Takver speaks with Sheffield doctor and HIV specialist Dr Claire Dewsnap about what the city still needs to do to tackle the virus.

More Equality & Social Justice