Equality Act: The 10th protected characteristic?

This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared on the SecEd website on 13 November 2023. To read the full version, click here

The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful for schools to discriminate against, harass or victimise a pupil or potential pupil in relation to admissions, in the way they provide education or access to any benefit, facility or service because of their:

Religion or belief
Sexual orientation
Gender reassignment
Pregnancy or maternity

These seven identifiers are called “protected characteristics”. There are nine in total, with “age” and “marriage and civil partnership” completing the list.

I don’t think the law goes far enough. I think there should be a 10th protected characteristic: social class. After all, class plays an important role in education and in later life…

Classism in education leads to underachievement and under-representation. Working-class students are among the lowest performers in our schools. If you’re a high-ability student from a low social class, you won’t do as well in school and in later life as a low-ability student from a high social class. It is social class and wealth – not ability – that define a pupil’s educational outcomes and their life chances.

Working-class people are also less likely to have a degree, work in professional employment, or be an academic compared to those from more elite backgrounds.

There are three problems with classism in schools: 

Curriculum design

 The stated aim of the national curriculum is to ensure that all students in England encounter the same content and material to provide “an introduction to the essential knowledge that they need to be educated citizens”. There are two problems…

First, curriculum coverage – one size doesn’t fit all. Providing all students with the same curriculum further disadvantages those who are already disadvantaged.

We must deliver the same ambitious curriculum to every pupil. But we should offer more, not less – but, crucially, not the same – to working-class students. This may mean additional opportunities for those whose starting points are lower or for whom opportunities are more limited.

Second, curriculum content – definitions of core knowledge are classist. Selection of knowledge is made by those of a higher social standing rather than by a representative group of people from across the social strata.

Cultural capital is described as “the best that has been thought and said”, but who decides what constitutes the best? Ultimately, every school’s curriculum should celebrate working-class culture alongside culture from the dominant classes.

Also, we know that working-class students tend to be denied the experiences their middle-class peers are afforded, such as books at home, visiting museums and galleries, taking part in educational trips, foreign holidays and so on.

Curriculum assessment

Our current assessment system could be regarded as classist. Let’s consider three elements:

Home advantage: Those who don’t have a home life that is conducive to independent study are placed at a disadvantage, which is compounded for those who don’t have parents with the capacity to support them – whether in terms of time, ability, or buying resources.
Content of exams: Exams tend to have a middle-class bias, such as requiring students to have personal experience of foreign travel or theatre visits.
Exam outcomes: The assessment system is designed to fail a third of students every year – and it is the working classes who the suffer most. This is because the spread of GCSE grades is pegged to what cohorts of similar ability achieved in the past. Young people who fall below this bar pay a high price in terms of reduced prospects.

The hidden curriculum 

All schools have a hidden curriculum. It exists in a school’s rules and routines; in its behaviour policies, rewards, and sanctions; in its physical, social, and learning environments; and in the way all the adults who work in the school interact with each other and with the students. How sure can we be that our hidden curriculum does not discriminate against our working-class students?

Class a protected characteristic 

If social class became the 10th protected characteristic, then schools would be required to:

Remove or minimise disadvantages suffered by working-class pupils.
Take steps to meet the particular needs of working-class pupils.
Encourage working-class pupils to participate fully in a full range of school societies.

You can find out more about supporting working-class pupils in The Working Classroom, which has been written by Matt Bromley and Andy Griffith and is published by Crown House. For information and to access free resources, visit www.theworkingclassroom.co.uk

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