10 Apr

Once again we see the call for teaching to lose the pre-requisite degree qualification for entry into the profession. This usually sits hand-in-glove with telling teachers they are middle-class, and that apprenticeships would be a great way to get teachers from other backgrounds into teaching. Those that have met me will be able to picture my face; the eye-roll, shake of the head, and crack of my neck as I weigh-up the need to open my mouth, or engage in another debate about social class in teaching. If you only know me through these blogs or Twitter, it'll be an (American) The Office GIF posted.

I discuss the issues with social class in my masters thesis, and my CEIAG talk on improving careers provision in areas of social deprivation. The teaching profession is overwhelmingly taken up by the white middle-class. So we have an image problem, certainly when we often hear "I became a teacher to make a difference"; that is not to suggest that making a difference is a bad thing, more what the teacher views the problems and solutions are that will make that difference. More often than not it becomes a case of "them that knows best, telling them that know no better" with a unhealthy taste of saviourism being left in the air. 

Here's my positionality. I'm the son of an HGV driver (a trucker), a dinner lady and cleaner. I'm my father's middle of five children, but mother's eldest. I grew up with my older brother, and two younger brothers. I've worked since I was 11, and had to look after my younger siblings after my elder brother was kicked out of home, and ended up in prison. I gained a handful of GCSEs, which (along with a lie to my parents from my headteacher) were enough to get me into sixth form, where I resat English language - dropping out when escaping home was my priority, rather than the dream of becoming an officer in the armed forces after a degree. Joining up was hard enough, because both the Royal Navy and Royal Airforce wanted me to finish my A-levels; the Army on the other hand was keen to offer me any role they had available. I chose to become an apprentice vehicle mechanic in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. After seven-years colour service, I left the Army for the logistics sector. Working my way from "Transport supervisor" to "Operations Manager" in four years. Even at the top of my game, I would be as likely found effecting repairs to vehicles and equipment, driving articulated lorries, forklifts, as I would in meetings with clients, directors and investors.

My career-change into teaching meant that at 36 years old I would have to go to college, then spend three-years at university. I think this provides a 'road less travelled' route into the teaching profession than most, which fundamentally means I do not subscribe to the beliefs that "teaching is a middle-class profession", nor "going to university makes you middle-class". 

I entered teaching through Teach First, because it offered me a salary, about £18k back in 2017, as an unqualified teacher. My PGDE didn't cost me a penny. As a divorced father of two, this was the best route for me due to needing a roof over my head, and food in our bellies. My partner (now wife) and I moved to the East Midlands for the affordable housing, and because I was attached to an East Mids-based regiment, and knew people in the area. My background was what drove me to Teach First in the first instance. I wanted to make a difference, but I wanted to make a difference for kids like me - I think this is a critical distinction to make. I wasn't wanting to save the kids from their lives, or push them to university which is often the solution seen by those in teaching. 

The issue we have in the profession with saviourism is linked to middle-class attitudes to cultural capital and what "success" looks like, alongside not understanding life outside of social-bubbles. McKenzie (2016) worked on the Nottingham St Ann's estate, looking at the distinct cultural identity held in the community there, with distinct values deeply embedded in the psyche of residents. Robertson et al. (2008) found “Neighbourhood identities are underpinned by social class and social status, and these identities are very resilient to change”. Likewise, the sense of place and community has a plays a major role in working-class attitudes, which are arguably more easily understood by those that have lived them; certainly given what Pearce and Milne (2010) define as "estatism":

“The sense among estate residents that there are specific social dynamics of place associated with council estates, and that residents experience prejudice based upon where they live”.

Cole et al.’s (2011) work in low-income neighbourhoods reinforces how place was perceived as fundamental to identity. Ingram (2009) supports this in their work with working-class boys in Belfast. In particular their work in a comprehensive school mirrors the experiences I have had in the East Midlands; families that have lived alongside each other for several generations, forming an idea that ‘everyone is close-knit, everyone knows everybody, you trust people’. Ingram (2009) goes on to state that weaving ones’ identity into the emotional and physical part of a community provides a sense of security, despite the fact this has inherent limitations on their prospects for a what Bourdieu and Richardson (1986) would see as successful due to the middle-class lens on social and cultural capital. 

It must be noted at this point, that the "good job" definition is not in keeping with the middle-class ideal of a well-paid graduate role. Organisations and charities seeking to raise aspirations and work within these communities fail to define in their literature what a "good job" is. While writing my masters thesis, I had to find a clear definition, which was found in the Good Work Plan (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, 2018), which does not match the push from successive governments to increase the number of students we send to university, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds. I believe these factors converge leading to a conflation between "university educated" and "good jobs" within the education sector, likely cause by the lens our overwhelmingly middle-class profession views success when looking at their own social circles. 

When taking the BBC's "The Great British class calculator" from a position before and after university, I can see why it is easy to assume teaching (and being a graduate) makes one middle-class:

Pre-university, I am an "emergent service worker" - my "high social and cultural factors" are reading books, seeing live bands, and watching films. My friendships are limited to those in a range from "cleaner" or "carer" to "manager".

Post-university, I become "established middle-class" - my "diverse range of cultural activities" are my previous ones, with more museums thrown in, and going to the theatre more. My friendships now include "doctors", "university professors", and "lawyers".

This is a flawed, and reductive, system; a blunt tool to put us in convenient boxes. The bands I listen to are most definitely not what Bourdieu and Richardson would link to the middle-class. The theatre production I went to see was "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", not quite popping to The Globe for a cultural afternoon with the RSC! However, I did find it important to be able to give my own children opportunities to experience things I couldn't as a child, so have spent many hours in the Natural History Museum, Kew Gardens, and The Science Museum - because they interest me more than anything. I've never set foot in an art gallery, or any other museum. 

Putting people in these convenient boxes is flawed. Especially when the norm in teaching follows the school - sixth form - university - school route, with a couple of part-time or summer jobs thrown in. Yet, personally, I am told that I am wrong not to identify as middle-class due to how I earn an income. Just because most of a profession identifies as this, does not mean all teachers, certainly those who arrived to the profession later - and like me did a degree as a mature student - will have had many years of life before entering this profession. As was pointed out by one Twitter user, it is probably done by those closest to 'losing' their middle-class status, rather than anyone else. Me? I think the comedian Jason Manford sums things up well with the term "muddle class". Growing up working-class, and spending most of my adult life as working-class means I struggle to understand middle-class values in their entirety. I don't feel comfortable exploring lots of "cultural capital" because I don't have the knowledge to fully appreciate these things. I do have a want to learn more about them though, with a guide to educate me (The Globe and Shakespeare being up there), but I also look at the price of accessing these things, and can see how I would never have spent money on these things before; conflicted internally about justifying the expense - not to my middle-class wife though. Rather I need to justify it to myself; well, my old-self, to my parents, to the ancestors in my head that struggled for money. It's a complicated thing holding on to cultural values and that fear of having it all taken away from you because you don't belong in this world. I think I'm unashamedly "a knuckle-dragging, working-class Northerner" because if I own it, I can't be 'found out' as an imposter. My kids though, they are "proper middle-class", and I make no apologies for it - thankfully, some of their Dad's values have stuck.

I think it would be great to have a more diverse teaching profession. This should not be achieved by lowering the standards required to enter it though. I've seen suggestions that EYFS and Primary could easily take an apprenticeship route, without the need for a degree. This would've been my take on things before I entered teaching too, if truth be told. Now, a more enlightened graduate, I can see that the level of education an undergraduate degree offers is a solid foundation upon which to build teaching practice on. Being able to access research, with criticality is important. I have listened to many teachers outside of my own phase, and their breadth of subject knowledge, child development, and understanding of pedagogy make them experts in teaching within their phase. Having an underpinning degree in a subject that supports this is important. In secondary, I see the difference it makes having a subject specialist in the room, and someone with an A-level in science. The depth of knowledge is not the same. Even within science, it has taken me five years of teaching chemistry to feel I can do a good job teaching it at GCSE. As an engineer, I would struggle to do justice teaching A-level physics, because I would not be able to stretch and challenge, or answer questions that require a physics degree to answer. As a biologist, I feel confident in being able to do so, and even if I needed to read a paper to answer something outside of my own field of study, I know my degree would support this.

The apprenticeship levy would be a great way to fund alternative routes in, especially when there are many who become TAs before teachers. However, this shouldn't be done at the expense of a relevant degree. This would simply present the profession with more recruitment issues. I often see jobs asking for a "first class degree" or "Russell group university" in the candidate spec; the apprenticeship route would provide a three-tiered entry that schools would exploit. It might see more working-class teachers enter the profession from the TA route, but what we will see is those with a degree being snapped up by schools that can offer incentives, while this new cohort of non-graduates would find employment in schools already struggling to recruit. Likewise, there would be a glass ceiling placed on these teachers, as graduates climb the ladder into leadership roles.

We would also see wages and status affected by this move. If teaching ceased to be a graduate profession, then we would fall behind other public sector workers like nurses, midwives, and even many police constabularies. This won't solve a recruitment crisis; it will perpetuate the issue of students in areas of social deprivation not having access to an education experience equal to that of their more affluent counterparts.

The practicalities of an apprenticeship concern me too. The Teach First programme required me to teach an 80% timetable from day-one, and study for my PGDE for two years, on the back of this I also completed my masters degree in leadership in learning. This was challenging, and finding a healthy work-life balance was difficult at the start of my teaching career. Apprentice teachers would face the same challenges, while studying for a undergraduate degree - because without it, I think the career would be stunted for opportunities and for the enjoyment teaching one's subject brings. There are issues with being a graduate that has not completed an apprenticeship, and not recognising the privileges or status that degree brings.

There are issues we need to fix in education. Relevant degrees make a difference. I do think this is something Scotland is right to address; yet this would be unwise to enforce at a time when recruitment and retention are both below where we need them to be. The standing of teaching as a profession needs to be addressed; I feel the political stances of our unions do not help us here - they often feed the mainstream media negative narrative of teaching, and result in education being the political football it is.

What would I do? I'd remove education from government influence, put experienced teachers in charge of running it, and ensure there was funding to make it world class. I'd wipe out the student loans of teachers that serve 10 years in schools (made that number up, feels about right), and provide teacher training bursaries for those undertaking a BEd or degree "with education" at university. But, I'm just a mechanic that ended up in the classroom...


Bourdieu, P. and Richardson, J. (1986), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Westport, CT (USA), Greenwood, pp241-258. [Online] Available from:       http://home.iitk.ac.in/~amman/soc748/bourdieu_forms_of_capital.pdf [Accessed on 29 May 2019]

Cole, I., Batty, E. and Green, S. (2011), Low-income neighbourhoods in Britain: The gap between policy ideas and residents’ realities. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. York, UK.

Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (2018), Good Work Plan – Industrial Strategy. UK: APS Group on behalf of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. [Online] Available from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/766167/good-work-plan-command-paper.pdf [Accessed on: 04 Jan 2020]

Ingram, N. (2009) Workingclass boys, educational success and the misrecognition of workingclass culture, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 30(4), pp421-434,                       DOI: 10.1080/01425690902954604

McKenzie, L. (2016) Narrative, ethnography and class inequality: Talking Bourdieu in a British council estate. In Thatcher, J. (ed) (2016) Bourdieu: the next generation : the development of Bourdieu's intellectual heritage in contemporary UK. Abingdon (UK): Routledge, pp25-36.

Pearce, J. and Milne, E. (2010), Participation and community on Bradford’s traditionally white estates: a community research project. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. York, UK.

Robertson, D., Smyth, J. and McIntosh, I. (2008), Neighbourhood identity – People, time and place. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. York, UK.

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