‘It’s our job to take the limits away’: A case study approach to exploring culture of teacher expectations in an English secondary school

Posted on

Education Research from UWE reaches around the globe…

In this article, Dr Smith draws on her doctoral research, carried out in the Department of Education and Childhood at UWE, investigating the beliefs and practices of high expectation teachers.

Although Dr Smith’s EdD thesis was only submitted recently, it has already had global reach. One of her supervisors, Dr Richard Waller received an unexpected email from a researcher at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research who wrote to say how impressed he was with the quality of Dr Smith’s research.

Having only had my thesis revisions accepted in June, I am still somewhat in a haze and only just beginning to reflect on my doctoral journey. I began my professional doctorate in education with a keen interest in extending my understanding and in improving practice: I wanted to generate professional knowledge that would have real impact. Achieving that goal was without doubt a challenging, but incredibly rewarding and enriching experience.

My professional interest in my research project was born from a sense of social injustice. Having taught in the state sector for over twenty years, I have been increasingly troubled by the concept of labelling and notions of fixed abilities that are prevalent in our education system. From the earliest stages of formal education, teachers are required to make predictions about future development of the children based on present attainment, as well as determining students’ academic ability. Children from lower socio-economic groups and from particular minority ethnic groups are over-represented in lower sets and streams, and allocation to these groups does not always match the level of ‘ability’ as designated by test scores. As children progress through school, attainment gaps widen between children from lower socio-economic groups and their peers, suggesting that schooling exacerbates inequalities in educational attainment.

This sense of injustice led me to explore the beliefs of ‘high expectation teachers’, and the practices through which teachers aim to build an inclusive learning environment, in addition to the ways they develop strategies that do not rely on pre-determined ability labelling. This exploration led me to understand that what constitutes a ‘high expectation’ teacher needed to be investigated from particular locations: through government policy; through theoretical models; through professional regulation and performance management, and through notions of professional identity. I learnt that these positions sometimes overlap, but at times, also conflict with one another.

The case study design of my research is focussed on one phenomenon, that of the beliefs and practices of high expectation teachers, and one bounded case illustrates the phenomenon. The case is specific, and bounded by time and location. It is intended to emphasize uniqueness through the in-depth exploration of the participants’ experiences. Within this bounded system are the relationships between people and events, and within those are differing perspectives, as the positions on what makes a ‘high expectation’ teacher are contradictory, and not universally agreed.

I used thematic analysis to analyse data collected through questionnaires, interviews and focus groups, but reflected that despite the in-depth nature of this analysis, the phenomena of high teacher expectation remained only partially scrutinised in terms of social justice. Therefore, the social concerns raised throughout my study are also explored through the theories of Bourdieu with the aim of making sense of the wider issues of inequality inherent in this study, particularly in the sense that habitus is helped by, and helps shape, pedagogical action.

My findings are that there needs to be a recognition that in education, socially advantaged interests and voices dominate in terms of social mobility agendas. Social cohesion is therefore a challenge as inequality rises from an education system tailored to white, middle-class values, and until we value the diversity of heritage in all its forms, we cannot hope for greater equity for our students. Furthermore, teachers tend to be granted space in the public domain only through technical competency. Findings also suggest that teachers must be able to be emotionally committed to different aspects of their jobs, as their sense of moral responsibility is at the core of their professional identity.

The research also challenges the assumption that academic achievement is paramount and suggests that there are many other measures of success, in which students discover and are celebrated for a particular talent, or a passion for something new. The ability to make choices should be a fundamental right and should be accessible to all as a result of social justice.

This presents a challenge in today’s economic and political climate. At the time of writing the thesis, 4.1 million children in the UK are living in poverty, a rise of 500,000 in the last five years, and in-work poverty has been rising even faster than unemployment, driven almost entirely by increasing poverty among working parents. In addition to the economic context our young people are living in, educational policy increases social inequities rather than reducing the poverty attainment gap. For example, additional funding has been allocated for new grammar school places, despite evidence that dividing children into the most ‘able’ and the rest from an early age does not appear to lead to better results for either group, including for the most disadvantaged students.

The financial landscape for most schools paints a bleaker picture than that for grammar schools. A further significant challenge for the education sector is the recruitment of the required number of teachers of sufficient quality and motivation, at a time of continued public pay restraint and rising student numbers. Similarly, spending on early education, Sure Start and the childcare element of Working Tax Credit fell by 21% from 2009–10 and 2012–13, with falls of 11% for early education, 29% for targeted support for childcare and 32% for Sure Start. Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit payments were frozen in financial terms. In addition to cuts to income support, community-based support services and to the funding of voluntary groups and services, this financial context may have an impact on children as they enter the school system.

Furthermore, Britain’s high-status professions remain dominated by the privileged; those from traditionally working-class backgrounds earn on average £6,800 less than colleagues from professional and managerial backgrounds. Although students in my study feel that they can ‘get ahead’ on merit, it could be suggested that British society is profoundly unfair. Education is crucial to change, but it cannot be considered in isolation if we are going to tackle the challenge of disadvantage. Education must be freed from its current constraints so that educators have the opportunity to develop every child’s personality, talents and abilities to the full.

Within the constraints of this wider context, one recommendation that arose from the study with the aim of creating a culture of high expectations is that a form of ‘high-integrity’ setting could be implemented in schools. In practice, strategies such as: making setting as subject-specific as possible; grouping students by attainment rather than perceived effort; regularly testing and moving students between sets, and using a lottery system when assigning borderline students to sets may help mitigate the consequences of attainment grouping. Schools, however, may be deterred from implementing more equitable grouping practices by perceptions of middle-class parental and student preferences for attainment grouping. A further complication raised in this study is that most teachers who currently teach in attainment groupings believe that mixed attainment groupings would create further barriers to progress.

A final reflection for me is on the complex and problematic nature of the barriers to creating a culture of high expectation. I entered into this research project with a rather idealistic notion that exploring one definition of high-expectation beliefs and teaching practices could lead to the creation of a culture of high expectation. The reality is far messier. In addition to my exploration of the contradictory definitions of what makes a ‘high expectation’ teacher, research discourse related to teachers tends to be prescriptive, rather than serious study of, or collaboration with, those prescribed to or portrayed. This resonates with my own professional experience, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to explore this complex phenomenon through several lenses, even though at times these lenses seemed somewhat elusive!

Dr. Julie Smith has recently completed her doctoral research into the beliefs and practices of high expectation teachers, in the Department of Education and Childhood under the supervision of Dr. Richard Waller, Dr. Nicola Bowden-Clissold and Dr. Sarah Chicken. She is also Vice-Principal at a secondary school in Gloucestershire.

Follow Dr Julie Smith on twitter

References:

Archer, L., Francis, B., Miller, S., Taylor, B., Tereshchenko, A., Mazenod, A., Pepper, D. and Travers, M. C. (2018) The symbolic violence of setting: A Bourdieusian analysis of mixed methods data on secondary school students’ views about setting. British Educational Research Journal. 44 (1), pp. 119–40.

Barnard, H., Collingwood, A., Leese, D., Wenham, A., Drake, D, Smith, E. and Kumar, A (2018) UK Poverty 2018 [online].York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Available from: https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/uk-poverty-2018 [Accessed 25 April 2019].

Blandford, S. (2018) Born To Fail? Social Mobility: A Working Class View. Suffolk: John Catt.

Bourdieu, P. (1973). Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction. In:R. Brown, ed., (1973) Knowledge, Education, and Cultural Change: Papers in the Sociology of Education. London: Tavistock, pp. 71–112.

Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction.London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Bourdieu, P. (1990) The Logic of Practice. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1992) The purpose of reflexive sociology. In Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L., eds., (1992) An Introduction to Reflexive Sociology.Cambridge: Polity Press, pp.61–217.

Bourdieu, P. (2002) Habitus. In: Hiller, J. and Rooksby, E., eds., (2002) Habitus: A Sense of Place. Farnham: Ashgate, pp.27–34.Bourdieu, P. and Passeron, J. C. (1977) Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. London: Sage.

Braun, V. and Clarke, V. (2006) Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology. 3 (2), pp. 77–101.

Clifton, J., and Cook, W. (2012). A long division: Closing the attainment gap in England’s secondary schools. London: IPPR.

De Boer, H., Timmermans, A. C. and P. C. van der Werf, M (2018) The effects of teacher expectation interventions on teachers’ expectations and student achievement: narrative review and meta-analysis. Educational Research and Evaluation. 24 (3-5), pp. 180-200.

Francis, B., Taylor, B., Hodgen, J., Tereshchenko, A. and Archer, L. (2018). Dos and don’ts of attainment grouping. London: UCL Institute of Education.

Friedman, S. and Savage, M. (2017) The Shifting Politics of Inequality and the Class Ceiling. Renewal.25 (2), pp. 31–40.

Gorard, S. and Siddiqui, N. (2016) Grammar Schools in England: a new approach to analysing their intake and outcomes. Project report. Durham: Durham University.

Harrison, N. and Waller, R. (2017) Success and Impact in Widening Participation Policy: What Works and How Do We Know? Higher Education Policy.30 (2), pp. 141–160.

Hart, S., Annabelle, D., Drummond, M. J. and McIntyre, D. (2004) Learning Without Limits. Berkshire: OUP.

Jussim, L. and Harber, K. (2005) Teacher Expectations and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: Knowns and Unknowns, Resolved and Unresolved Controversies. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 9 (2), pp.131–55.

Lupton, R., Burchardt, T., Fitzgerald, A., Hills, A., McKnight, A., Obolenskaya, P. Stewart, K., Thomson, S., Tunstall, R. and Vizard, P. (2015) The Coalition’s Social Policy Record: Policy, Spending and Outcomes 2010-2015. Social Policy in a Cold Climate Report 4 [online]. Manchester: University of Manchester; London School of Economics and the University of York. Available from http://sticerd.lse.ac.uk/dps/case/spcc/rr04.pdf [Accessed 27 May 2019].

Nias, J. (1989). Primary teachers talking: A study of teaching as work. London: Routledge.

Rosenthal, R. and Jacobson, L. (1968) Pygmalion in the Classroom: teacher expectation and pupil’s intellectual development.New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Rubie-Davies, C. (2015) Becoming A High Expectation Teacher: Raising The Bar.Abingdon: Routledge.

Stake, R. E. (2005). Qualitative case studies. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The Sage handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed., pp. 443-466). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

UNCRC (1990) The United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child [online]. UK: Unicef.Available from: https://www.unicef.org.uk/what-we-do/un-convention-child-rights/ [Accessed 23 October 2017].

School reopening? top scientists say not yet*

Posted on

“It is clear from the evidence we have collected that 1 June is simply too early to go back. By going ahead with this dangerous decision, the government is further risking the health of our communities and the likelihood of a second spike.” (Sir David King, Independent SAGE Group)

This blog post could end there, but given the high stakes, it’s worth pondering more…

Teachers and their unions have been robustly rallying against the Government’s decision to re-open schools as early as June 1st. Some sections of the press and government ministers have revisited Michael Gove’s characterisation of these opponents as the “Blob”, who according to the Daily Mail is

“made up of political opponents, union barons and local government administrations – is colluding to sabotage the reopening of schools.”

In 2013, I was one of the 100 academics who signed a letter against Gove’s damaging curriculum reforms, and this time it’s even more serious, so much so that the neutral British Medical Association (BMA) have supported the call from the Independent SAGE Group to keep schools closed for the time-being.

Because of misleading advice and data issued by Downing Street, renowned medical scientists decided to set-up an Independent SAGE group (ISG).

The ISG’s opposition to 1st June re-opening of schools came after a meeting, which included Mumsnet, and supplemented by rigorous advice from expert educationists. Professor Sir David King concluded that there is almost zero chance of conditions being reached for a safe reopening of schools on 1 June.

The report makes clear that decisions on school re-opening should depend on low levels of infections in the community and the capacity to respond quickly to new infections through a local test, track and isolate strategy. We are not there yet.

Although children are less likely than adults to get ill, they are still transmission agents. Even the DfE advice seems to reflect this concern:

Some studies suggest younger children may transmit less, but this evidence is mixed and provides a low degree of confidence at best.”

So, a child carrying the infection but not showing symptoms could spread it unnoticed to other children and staff, and it could then reach family members with existing medical problems as well as older relatives. The collateral damage could be fatally serious.

The Government have been keen to stress that their decision was about ethics stating that working class children are being disproportionately disadvantaged because they do not have the learning resources that children from wealthier families have for home schooling.

But the ISG report stresses that rather than rushing to re-open schools, it would be safer to provision computer equipment and offer distance learning. When the conditions are appropriate, outdoor (where transmission is minimised) summer activity schemes, including educational “catch up” sessions would be a viable option.

The current situation opens-up existential questions about how we conceive of education.  We in the Reclaiming Schools network have (long) argued that it is necessary to take a rounded view of children’s needs, not just getting children (back) behind desks.

Education should be geared for developing children’s social, emotional, and wider characteristics. In this context, one could imagine a school strictly adhering to social distancing being harmful for children. Stories of nurseries and reception classes having to remove all toys for a June 1st re-opening are clearly being forced to create an environment devoid of richness.

Furthermore, the Government instruction to get the youngest children back first is questionable. In most nations in the world, the school starting age is 6 or 7, so very few children of nursery and reception age are actually in school.

Mental health problems in children are always much lower in countries with admission at age 6 or 7. Children have had the chance to be children, and without baseline testing (followed by high stakes tests at 7, 11, 16 – England tests more than any comparable country).

There is a strong case to postpone national standardised high stakes testing, it would provide an opportunity to evaluate the impact of tests on children and teachers.

In any given year, around 15% of teacher leave the profession just after 12 months, and over 30% leave within 5 years. In most cases, that’s 4 years of education/training to find out that teaching is not only hard work, the external pressures of tests and league tables make it mentally and physically damaging, ultimately impossible.

Beyond and C-19, we need to reclaim education to make it progressive and socially responsible, and a National Education Service provides a vehicle to do this. 

Dr Alpesh Maisuria is Associate Professor of Education Policy in Critical Education at the University of the West of England. He writes widely about issues of social class, educational policy, neoliberalism and Marxism, as well the proposal of the Nationalised Education Service; academy and free schools; private schools; Swedish social democracy and class. This blog post is written in a personal capacity. 

*Sections of this writing have been reworked from a Reclaiming Schools blog post. Alpesh Maisuria is a Steering Group member of Reclaiming Schools.

The Education Research Network (ERNie) Upcoming Events

Posted on

The Education Research Network (ERNie) has forthcoming interesting and varied events that will be of interest.  They include talks, discussions, a book club meeting, and a writing café.  Further details will follow in due course.  Many of these events are at lunchtime and ERNie would encourage you to bring your lunch and take time out from more mundane duties!

Please feel free to circulate this information more widely.  Suggestions for other events are very welcome, as are offers of talks and other kinds of knowledge-sharing.

Events

Book club

This event is part of the Festival of Learning 2019 organised by the Academic Practice Directorate, Convened by Dr Richard Waller, Wednesday 27 Feb 12.00 – 1.00 pm Room to be confirmed. Paper to be discussed:

Harrison, N. & Waller, R. (2018) Challenging discourses of aspiration: The role of expectations and attainment in access to higher education, British Educational Research Journal, 44 (5), 9-4 – 938

Writing cafe

This event is part of the Festival of Learning 2019 organised by the Academic Practice Directorate, further details to follow. The Writing Cafe is convened by Dr Jane Humphreys, Wednesday 27 Feb 3 – 6.00 pm, Room
Frenchay 2D67. 

The Characteristics of Expertise in HE Teaching

This event is run by Dr Helen King, Associate Director of Academic Practice, Academic Practice Directorate, Monday 4 March, 1 – 2.00 pm,
Room Frenchay 3B46. 

Educational Equity: Do single-sex classrooms help to close the gender-achievement gap?

This event is led by Dr Charlotte Pennington, Lecturer in Social Psychology, Department of Health and Social Sciences, Tuesday 30 April, 1 – 2.00 pm, Room, Frenchay 1K2. 

 

On-campus Bystander Behaviour 

This event is led by Dr Helen Bovill, AHoD Research, Dept of Education and Childhood,  Thursday 11 April , 12.30 – 2.00 pm, Room, Frenchay 3B46

 

This is posted on behalf of Dr Jane Humphreys. 

The Learning Adult Building and Reflecting on the Work of Peter Jarvis

Posted on

 Richard Waller, Associate Professor of the Sociology of Education at the Department of Education and Childhood,  has just published a co-edited book ‘The Learning Adult: Building and Reflecting on the Work of Peter Jarvis’ with Routledge. Peter has been one of the most influential figures in adult and lifelong education for several decades, and is a leading and original theorist of learning.

The book is a collection of sixteen chapters by authors from across the world, and explores the breadth and significance of Peter’s work in a number of contexts. The chapters explain and engage critically with his theorisation of learning, and with his extensive writings on the sociology, politics, ethics and history of adult education, and on professional education, lifelong learning and the learning society. The book is co-edited with Richard’s three other co-editors from the International Journal of Lifelong Education.

Six factors supporting success for care leavers in higher education

Posted on

There has long been a social policy concern about groups of young people who do not have ready access to higher education (HE).  Among the lowest participation rates are those for care-experienced young people – i.e. those taken into the care of their local authority, usually due to abuse, neglect or other challenges within their birth family.  Within this group, those still in care at 16 (broadly designated as ‘care leavers’) are the least likely to enter HE.

The publication of the ‘Moving On Up’ report in late 2017 was designed to fill a gap in our understanding about the pathways that care leavers and other care-experienced students take into and through HE in England.  It draws on both national educational data and the accounts of 212 current students.

The report identifies six factors that appear to underpin successful participation in HE – not all of these will apply to all care leavers, but they provide a useful framework for examining their experiences and evaluating policy and practice:

 

  1. Strong attainment at 16

 By some way the strongest predictor for success was attainment at 16 in the shape of GCSEs or other qualifications.  Once this was taken into account, the participation rates for care leavers were only slightly lower than for young people as a whole.  However, the challenges experienced by care leavers meant that they were significantly less likely to achieve highly – around one quarter were not even entered for examination.

This finding reinforces the importance of supporting attainment for children in care, whilst recognising that many will not be in the position to achieve what they are capable of at their first attempt.  What remains unclear is whether it is the embedded knowledge/skills within GCSEs that propel care leavers towards success or whether our education system simply uses (and overuses) them to filter and redirect young people onto the pathway deemed most appropriate for them – see 6 below.

 

  1. A managed transition from care to HE

 For many, the process of transitioning from care into independent living as a student is a significant upheaval.  Financial support needs to be negotiated, appropriate accommodation secured and new friendships forged.  While this is true of all young people, those in care are likely to have more complexity and greater needs, at the same time as less family support on which to draw.

The best accounts of transition were marked by pre-entry collaboration between local authority, university/college and young person, enabling them to navigate changes as painlessly as possible.  Conversely, some ended up having to find their own way in the face of indifference or negativity.  Many reported not being able to attend open days, having difficulty getting forms signed or being forced to move into new housing on their own.

  

  1. Membership of the HE community

 Following on, rapid integration into the HE community was seen as a key element in becoming a successful student.  Those care leavers who had not integrated quickly reported loneliness, isolation and a disempowering feeling of being unsupported.  This not only impacted on their mental health, but also undermined their ability to focus on their studies.

The barriers to joining the HE community were varied.  Some found themselves living too far from the university – especially those who were parents or had remained with their foster family.  Another group reported feeling different to other students and unable to talk about their childhood as part of friendship formation.  Others found that HE staff were uninformed or unsympathetic.

 

 4. Strong disability and mental health support

 The study found that two-thirds of care leavers were deemed to have special educational needs.  Unsurprisingly, emotional and mental health issues were commonplace – many wrote about the continuing legacy of childhood trauma.  Others had specific learning difficulties or other impairments that had influenced their ability to achieve highly.

 Those self-identifying as ‘disabled’ were significantly more likely to have used HE support services and to have considered leaving.  For those with long-term mental health issues, the transition into HE posed new problems, including the end of child-focused therapeutic support.  Several reported that their university/college was unable to provide the form of ongoing support that they needed.

  

  1. Resilience and determination

 A key element in many stories was a strong sense of determination to succeed – as they saw it – against the odds.  They saw HE as a stepping stone to increase their life chances and enable them to transcend the struggles they had undergone, either with their birth families or their later experiences in care.  For some, they saw it is as their only chance to do so.

The other side of this coin was the despair that some expressed.  They were conscious of still struggling through HE, looking to an uncertain future.  It was rarely clear why one student would be resilient and another, ostensibly similar, would be fragile.

 

 6. Recognition for alternative educational pathways

 A distinctive feature of care leavers’ routes into HE was that they tended to start later (around a year, on average) and to take longer to complete than other young people, with changed courses, retakes and periods of dormancy being common.  They were significantly more likely to enter with qualifications that were not A Levels, including Access to HE and work-based learning courses.

Many care leavers are not in a position to attain highly at 16 and they are therefore ‘filtered’ into pathways that led them away from HE – at least initially – including lower-level further education courses or entry into the unskilled labour market.  It was a testament to their resolve that some found their way back into HE; local authorities and universities could do more to valorise these alternative pathways and make them easier to find and traverse.

 

Dr Neil Harrison  , Associate Professor of Education Policy

Twitter: @DrNeilHarrison 

 

A Working-Class Feminist’s Perspective of Navigating the ‘Classed’ Higher Education System

Posted on

After being invited to contribute to the Think Human Festival, organised by Professor Simon Kövesi, Laura Baldock and their colleagues at Oxford Brookes University, a familiar resurgence of anxiety momentarily flooded me.

Not only did I face the usual worries over whether I’d pronounce words ‘correctly’ or whether I’d be perceived as a ‘caricature’ (as I have heard other working-class female academics being described), I was instantly reminded of the previous time I spoke on a similar theme to that which I was invited to speak on at Brookes.

In 2017, I was invited to speak at the University of Cambridge. The majority of the audience members appeared welcoming of the research that I was there to disseminate from the Paired Peers project and my reflections on how I have navigated the higher education system as a working-class student and academic. Though, as I spoke, I noticed two audience members who were struggling to contain their laughter.

At first, I thought that perhaps I had something on my face or stuck between my teeth. What I soon noticed was that their laughter, which they failed to hide behind their tissues, coincided with some of the words that I was using. As I do in all environments, academic or not, I spoke with my Barnsley accent and dialect. The way in which I pronounced words such as ‘reyt’, made the two audience members widen their eyes while looking towards one another and silently chuckle. I also noticed that they laughed at one of the key suggestions that I proposed: that there should be a working-class association at every UK university, with a particular need for such an association at ‘older’ universities. They found my idea- that students and academics should have space within middle-class dominated university fields to recreate a microcosm based on their own community- laughable.

With this experience nagging at me, I felt doubly anxious to speak about similar matters at Oxford Brookes. However, when I started to present on this occasion, I found myself standing in front of a wholly engaged audience. As I looked around me there was no half-hidden silent laughter, only intrigued faces. As a result, I felt confident to introduce my position that there are three risks faced by working-class students who access higher education, these being: (i) economic, (ii) cultural, and (iii) social risks.

First, I demonstrated the rationale for this position through using data from the Paired Peers research project. I showed that there are class distinctions within university fields between working-class students and their middle-class peers and academic staff. I demonstrated this by showing how working-class and middle-class agents have different social, cultural and economic capital accessible to them and spoke about how these hold different cachets within the university field. Drawing on a variety of student narratives, I was able to explore how different forms of capital were mobilised to mold culture consumption practices which, in turn, differentiated the experiences and graduate outcomes of working-class and middle-class university students.

Second, through reflecting on my own trajectory as a working-class student and academic at university, I explored how I navigated these three risks. I spoke about how I, as an eighteen-year-old undergraduate student, tried to assimilate with the other students that I lived with and the university culture at large. Though, besides meeting three other young working-class women who I studied alongside, I, a working-class girl from ‘Barnslehhhhhhh’, wasn’t successful in assimilating with the hegemonic student population.

I explored how my experiences of social and cultural exclusion were exemplified as I transferred from undergraduate to PhD study. I explained how in response to my lack of ‘fit’ and my observations of those who were proving to be a ‘success’, who were indeed middle-class, I began to question aspects of my identity. I detailed how, as a result of this incessant questioning, I was left with very little: the dominant middle-class culture had pulverised into submission any working-class character that I had. The girl who was known as ‘gob on legs’ throughout her earlier contact with education had become overanalytical of every aspect of herself and, as a result, became subdued. My experiences, and how I embodied these, were misvalued by agents who operated within higher education and thus I jarred with the social and cultural practices which thrived there.

To conclude the talk, I spoke of how I work to find some solutions for these issues for myself and others:

First, I began to observe and read the work published by other working-class women in academia. I watched, listened and drew on their experiences until I was confident enough to share the richness of my own culture: my accent, dialect, sense of humour and style, all of which are considered ‘garish’ when positioned against the backdrop of most universities;

Second, I learned to adore the ‘third space’ that I reside in. I exist here because on the one hand I no longer wholly fit in at home in Barnsley (I am now often perceived as ‘too posh’), and on the other, I do not fit in with academia, not that I have the desire to assimilate with dominant academic culture anyway. Yes, it can be lonely, but I am in the perfect position to achieve my ambitions to teach and work alongside other working-class people who engage with the structures of higher education;

Third, as other academics have done before me, I aim to continue to bring social class- an often-undiscussed or hidden facet of the university experience- to the table, while utilising the tools provided by intersectionality theory. I work to show those who are unrepresented by the prevailing cultures of higher education that they do not have to change to be considered a ‘success’, the definition of which is too often set by a middle-class, white, ableist, male bias.

I will continue to talk about how institutional practices dismiss and ostracize working-class culture and hold up middle-class culture as the archetype of what is deemed successful. I hope that unpicking these via an intersectional approach will help unrepresented students and academics see that it isn’t their fault that they sit on the periphery of these fields. That in fact, our position on the outskirts affords us a unique perspective, one that academia would be foolish to continue to ignore.

Laura Bentley, PhD student, the Paired Peers project 

Twitter: @LauraBentleyPhD