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Blog post Part of series: BERA Conference 2023

‘So I suppose they think I’m a failure’: How schools (unwittingly) marginalise white working-class families

Emma Simpson, Senior research fellow at IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society

This blog post relates to a qualitative research project focused on the engagement and achievement of white working-class students carried out in three comprehensive secondary schools in an inner London borough and presented at the annual BERA conference in September 2023. For further details, see Simpson (2023).

This research found that the pressure schools are under to secure exam results, together with chronic funding cuts, have led to a privileging of academic attainment which implicitly devalues working-class culture and marginalises some working-class students and their families. I am not saying that working-class students should not be enabled to pursue academic pathways; just that the current system devalues non-academic pathways which makes it more difficult for students (from all backgrounds) who are not academic to feel that school is working in their best interests.

‘The current system devalues non-academic pathways which makes it more difficult for students (from all backgrounds) who are not academic to feel that school is working in their best interests.’

As a member of staff from a focus group in this research put it:

‘If you’re not academic, what’s in it for you? You get a certificate for looking smart every day, that’s what’s valued – do you wear the correct uniform and are you academic. We need something more.’

In discourses about white working-class underachievement, lack of aspiration is held up as a key barrier (Adams, 2018). Yet many students I spoke to had clear aspirations, as typified by this student: ‘I know what I wanna be, an electrician.’ However, when asked if the school and the student’s current studies were supporting this goal, she responded: ‘I haven’t really spoke about it to the school.’ It is not a career pathway the school wants to hear about, or the curriculum supports.

When academia is presented as the only form of success, other strengths and aspirations are understood as ‘less than’. The title quotation was an aside made by a parent during a senior leader talk which equated success in life to academic success. The parent’s inference was reasonable. Feeling implicitly judged as a failure’ is not conducive to parental or student engagement and affects how students feel about themselves as learners.

Many of the white working-class students in this study had a learner identity made fragile by their experiences of school which manifested as difficulties with concentration, resilience and confidence. The following were found to be protective factors that strengthen learner identity:

  • strong student–teacher relationships
  • felt safety
  • student-centered pedagogies which promote responsibility and agency
  • academically supportive peer relationships
  • investment in the social and emotional aspects of learning.

Yet many of these are undermined by ‘pedagogies of poverty’ prevalent in schools serving working-class communities (Lupton & Hempel-Jorgensen, 2012).

In such places, pressure to secure exam results can drive schools to adopt approaches which seem like the most efficient way to get through a content-heavy curriculum and drill students to pass tests: an emphasis on teacher instruction, discipline, and on individual, silent work. Yet these weaken learner identity by making students feel anxious, increasing passivity, reducing agency and limiting opportunities for students to bond over shared academic outcomes and thereby develop peer relationships which support, rather than undermine, academic success.

Ironically, this approach to education disengages and disempowers the very students who most need to feel supported, included, seen, heard and valued: white working-class students and others marginalised by institutional classism (and racism). The obsession with academic results squeezes out myriad other important aspects of education: enjoyment; wellbeing; creativity; collaboration; independence; success in vocational and creative subjects; and personal growth. This direction of travel marginalises the very students who should be at the centre of thinking about education.

The implications from this research and the work of many others are clear. The system needs to reduce performance pressure, invest in the social and emotional aspects of learning, and promote inclusive mindsets and practices to enable all to engage meaningfully in a version of education which is enjoyable, and one which makes people feel seen and valued and able to proudly pursue a diverse range of careers. All this is known. The question is, will politicians listen?


Adams, R. (2018, June 22). ‘Ofsted chief: Families of white working-class children lack drive of migrants. Guardian.  

Lupton, R., & Hempel-Jorgensen, A. (2012). The importance of teaching: pedagogical constraints and possibilities in working-class schools. Journal of Education Policy, 27(5), 601–620.

Simpson, E. (2023). Canary in the mine: What white working-class underachievement reveals about processes of marginalisation in English secondary education. International Studies in Sociology of Education. Advance online publication.