The educational equivalent of the ‘brown shoe effect’

Children growing up in poorer families are less likely to get finance jobs because they don’t “present” themselves well enough at interviews.

That’s the gist of a survey released this week by The Sutton Trust, a charity that aims to encourage social mobility.

A press release says the survey quantifies the “brown shoe effect” – that is, the likelihood that if you wear the wrong sort of shoes to a job interview it can count against you.

It doesn’t actually show that. It was a survey of 1,008 “senior decision-makers”, of which only 131 were senior people in finance, and we don’t have their views separated out from the others. But it does show that 82 per cent of surveyed decision-makers felt that unprofessional presentation limited people from a disadvantaged background from getting a job.

This is not a new problem. But you might question if it is merely about shoes. Go back to the 1960s and the ground-breaking work of Basil Bernstein, who looked carefully at the differences in language use between “lower working class” and “middle-class” children.

Bernstein noticed that children from poorer families tended to speak in a “restricted” code: shorter sentences, simple and frequent conjunctions (such as “and” or “then”), and used lots of phrases such as “isn’t that right” or “you know what I mean” to get responses from other people.

Children from “middle-class” families used more grammatically coherent sentence structures, lots of words that help to specify what is being talked about, and much more use of “I”.

He theorised that the richer verbal language enabled a greater ability to make your way through education and – I would expect – makes you much better in an interview where you are expected to coherently explain precisely why you (I) would be better for a job.

In his chapter in the 1967 book Linking Home and School, Bernstein gives a clear reason as to why he thinks there is a difference. It’s in the language children hear. For example, imagine a child on a parent’s lap, sitting on the bus.

Parent Hold on tight

Child Why?

Parent You’ll fall

Child Why?

Parent I told you to hold tight didn’t it?


Parent Hold on tightly, darling

Child Why?

Parent If you don’t you will be thrown forward and then you will fall.

Child Why?

Parent Because if the bus suddenly stops you’ll jerk forward.

Child Why?

Parent Hold tightly and don’t make such a fuss.

In the first example, the child’s curiosity is blunted. Language is only used to give instruction and asking questions is seen as a challenge to authority.
In the second, the child is exposed to connection and consequence. Language is a way to explain and direct.

This is a very basic example of Bernstein’s work, which has influenced generations of sociologists. Unfortunately, much of it has become so complicated that it is difficult for teachers to understand what to do with it.

But Bernstein gives two very clear ways that he believes the issue could be overcome.

First, that the “lower the status” of the pupil (presumably, he meant the less good their verbal skills), then the smaller the class they should be in at school. Teacher relationships matter for improvement.

Second, knowing about these differences can open our eyes to these issues and develop programmes, such as the Oracy Project at School 21 in east London, which can help pupils to improve their language skills.

History has done the hard work for us in diagnosing the problem. It’s up to us to figure out how to overcome it.

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  1. MulticolouredLily

    Of course this is correct. It is less about applicants not being good enough at…. *insert the words of your own choice* and more about applicants not being identified as a member of the social group with whom they wish to mix. That identification being achieved by their performance of the rules of that group.

    One way, perhaps the only way, to remedy that is to diversify any particular group so that the cohesion of the group and the rules of identification are weakened. This can be done through deceit by teaching people ‘to be’ something they are not until they gain entry, by forcing people into the group through positive action, or by making it in the group’s interests to diversify. However, unless this is on a significant scale, we could just as well whistle in the wind. Groups are extraordinarily well equipped to protect their homogeneity.

    It does not help to repeatedly tell poorer families that the fault lies in their childrearing, family life or some other deficiency that ‘deprived’ people have. That is simply another powerful group performing their identity at the expense of the deprived people who they are paid study.

  2. It’s worth looking at the debates over Bernstein’s deficit theory. Harold Rosen’s ‘Language and Class’ (1972) gave an early critique. In recent years, Bernstein has adapted his theory to argue that the ‘vertical’ discourse of formal education is more supportive of learning than the ‘horizontal’ discourse of everyday communication. These views need careful teasing out to ensure they don’t justify further denigration of children’s language and justification of supposedly superior class discourse.

  3. Stephen Fowler

    Attending school for 35 hours a week would iron out most of the differences if the children were taught how to speak correctly in school. A boy came to me for tuition recently and could not say ‘th’. He would say ‘dat’s de one I want’ and he is in Year 5. I told him how to say the words correctly and the next week he spoke correctly. It really is not that hard to correct children’s speech. Most children who come to me for tuition say ‘for’y nine’ after attending local schools for six years, and after telling JUST ONCE, can say ‘forty nine’ from then onwards.