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Education, Poverty

The psychology of social class inequalities in the classroom

Several perspectives on a day jointly funded by the University of Sussex and the British Psychological Society as part of the senate campaign #MakeIt10: Tackling Social Class Inequalities.

11 September 2023

The gap in educational outcomes in schools between students from low-income families and their peers is one of the most important and urgent issues that our society faces. On 28 April 2023, the University of Sussex hosted a small-group workshop to get to grips with how insights from psychology can help reduce these inequalities. For example, how can schools help all students, regardless of their background, trust school and feel that they belong and are respected there?

The workshop had a distinctive vision: to bring together theory and practice by giving teachers and headteachers the opportunity to exchange experience and knowledge with specialists from leading organisations in the psychology of education, teacher training, widening participation in university, local government, and education research funding.

The first part of the day was about deepening participants' understanding of the challenges faced by students from low-income families, the ways in which psychological factors can contribute to the resulting inequalities, and how understanding these factors can help us address them in practical ways that make radical improvements to these students' experiences of school by promoting an inclusive and engaging culture. The second part of the day was given over to supporting the participants in developing concrete action plans to integrate these ideas into their school practices and workplaces.

Post-workshop, we aim to help maximise the impact of the day by supporting participants in implementing their action plans and developing case studies. We aim to publish an impact report for widespread dissemination to practitioners and policymakers in 2024. The day was jointly funded by the University of Sussex and the British Psychological Society as part of their senate campaign #MakeIt10: Tackling Social Class Inequalities. This campaign aims to increase the recognition of inequalities based on social class and socioeconomic status and include them in an updated Equalities Act 2010.

The following pieces are reflections by three of the workshop's participants, each from a different professional perspective, on what the day meant for them and how they plan to incorporate its ideas into their work and how, in some cases, they have already done so.

Matt Easterbrook, Ian Hadden and Lewis Doyle, School of Psychology, University of Sussex

School perspective

Emily Taylor, Teacher, Medmerry Primary School

The whole day was very thought-provoking, especially in today's climate with teachers' strikes over pay and funding, post-pandemic teaching and learning, and a cost-of-living crisis. As an educator, I found the impact of this workshop to be profound, as I reflected on my teaching practice as well as my school's commitment to inclusivity and inspiration.

The workshop's emphasis on recognising and addressing classroom inequalities struck a chord with me, as I firmly believe in creating a nurturing, safe and inclusive learning environment for all students. Insightful discussions and evidence-based research from speakers Diane Reay, Lewis Doyle, Matt Easterbrook and Ian Hadden addressed stereotyping, social identity and unconscious bias. These are fundamental areas that we must continue to educate ourselves about, pushing this beyond the classroom by empowering our students to carry on the conversations. Education is key.

The impact of the workshop was not limited to my own classroom. Kathryn Riley's keynote session on 'belonging' helped me guide conversations with senior leadership about our school values. Since the workshop, our school has revamped their mission statement and changed this to 'Connect, Collaborate, Challenge'. At the heart of these values are ensuring that our students know and feel that they belong to our school and the wider community, that they know how to share similarities and celebrate differences, and that they can use challenge to maximise all learning opportunities. Inclusivity is a core principle, aiming to inspire and empower students with key skills that will support them as they navigate their own education and the wider world.

The workshop was a catalyst for positive change, aligning perfectly with my classroom ethos and supporting my school's commitment to update its values to ensure that it inspires every child. As educators, we must continue to advocate for equity and create transformative learning spaces where every student feels valued and motivated to thrive.

Local government perspective

Ashley Seymour-Williams, Senior Education Advisor, School Partnerships, Brighton & Hove City Council

I co-lead Brighton & Hove City Council's Strategy for Tackling Educational Disadvantage, which sets out a comprehensive plan for improving the educational experiences of children and young people in the city who are disadvantaged in some way. Children and young people living in poverty are often left disengaged and disenfranchised by education and tackling this remains a priority for our city, especially following the Covid-19 pandemic.

My first key reflection from the workshop is about how we identify success. I have been questioning how the metrics chosen can become drivers for change in themselves, and how the potential impacts of these metrics need to be better understood. There is a wealth of educational assessment data from specific points in a child's journey through the school system. If our strategy measures impact purely on academic outcomes, this dictates a specific set of approaches and interventions, many of them accountable to short-term measures. If we manage to obtain improved academic outcomes, will this improve the educational experiences of disadvantaged children? Are the gains sustained in the long term? Do they lead to young people gaining the qualifications, confidence and skills needed to pursue the careers and life choices they aspire to?

I feel the answer to these questions is unclear and the metrics used need careful consideration. In her keynote presentation, Diane Reay argued that assessment is a root cause for the sense of inferiority some children feel. If children at an early age are made to feel that they cannot achieve – that they somehow are failures – how can they truly feel a sense of belonging in the education system, which is crucial to long term success? Concepts such as 'stereotype threat' also resonated for me as this underlines the concerns around how we measure success. One of my actions moving forward is to explore and prioritise other types of success criteria, framed over a longer period, making better use of stakeholder voice and reflections on lived experiences within the system.

My second key reflection is about agency and empowerment. It is clear that systemic change is needed, and this will only be achieved through effective partnerships between different groups at different layers, including schools, colleges and the council. Within the workshop we worked with a range of different educational professionals. This highlighted for me how the council can be a galvanising force – the agency we have as an organisation to bring together different elements of the education system to target key priorities. Currently, we have a market-led education system where schools are often driven to compete for pupils. This is particularly true in Brighton and Hove, where pupil numbers are dropping. This leads to stresses within the system of partnership and sometimes this ethos works against the needs of disadvantaged communities. Moving forward, we need to focus more on building commitment, bringing together all stakeholders to drive sustainable educational change.

University perspective

Chris Derbyshire, Pre-16 Schools Partnership Manager, University of Sussex

The key ideas behind the workshop align with much of my work and I am currently considering ways in which they can inform my practice. I and my team promote access to higher education for students from schools with the highest levels of socioeconomic deprivation and for those with additional socio-cultural barriers (perceived and real) in accessing the full remit of educational opportunities. I also specialise in the progress of learners who fall, crudely, within the problematically labelled, Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller (GRT) category.

Many of the issues raised by the workshop are those frequently examined in the podcast Class Divide, which focuses on structural education inequalities in a low socioeconomic neighbourhood in East Brighton. Both the podcast and the workshop have highlighted the structural tension caused by a lack of understanding or embrace of local culture, a curriculum that is disconnected from the lived experiences of the students to whom it is delivered, and the difficulties created by the considerable focus on attainment targets driven by Ofsted. My team and I design and run programmes aimed at alleviating some of these pinch points. One of the ways that we do this is by showcasing potential future selves to students. The workshop explored this in some detail, examining how to help students from low-income backgrounds feel that their sense of identity is compatible with being someone who does well at school. We do this by promoting the notion that progressive education is available to all students (higher education being a central element of our communication), and that greater success and travel along this trajectory, along which there are many stopping-off places, leads to more informed and greater choices.

We help learners see that they can navigate and negotiate their own identities, future selves, and educational expectations at university: 'you can study in a place like this'. Professor Kathryn Riley's keynote presentation explored this, as she painted a compelling picture of schools where students, staff and parents all have a strong sense of belonging. In our own work, we seek to engage parents and align them with school staff, creating a shared environment to enable school staff to engage with those parents who might not otherwise access the school. For example, in a recent GRT project we supported the school to review how they communicated, or celebrated, the input of their GRT-heritage learners. The school had been using formats most associated with 'mainstream' learners but found that by adapting not only did they gain better access to these 'hard to engage' parents, but also found that the same parents wanted to talk about their student's school progress, where previously it had been a closed route. The workshop highlighted how such initiatives are rooted in solid evidence and good practice.

We will continue to help lift the glass ceilings from the learner's perspective, but also in terms of expectations held by the educator, an area explored in the workshop in Lewis Doyle's thought-provoking session on unconscious bias in teachers. Following the workshop, I intend to inform our work not only through increased access to our own academic faculty here at the university but also by referencing works and practice such as those of workshop keynote speakers Professor Dianne Reay of the University of Cambridge and Andy Richbell of St Nicolas Primary C of E School. Our work will be delivered in conjunction with local authorities, charities, academics, learners, parents, schools, and other stakeholders.