Review by Lee Peachey

27 May 2018, 5:00


The working class: Poverty, education and alternative voices

By Ian Gilbert

As a senior leader who has been championing equality for disadvantaged pupils since stepping into education, you can imagine how excited I was to get my teeth into this book.

There I sat, one cloudy afternoon, marking a set of year 11 assessments, when I heard the distinctive sounds of a delivery driver wrestling a package through the letterbox, followed by a deep thud. This was the first hint that I was going to have to invest quite some time into what turned out to be a 517-page tome.

Thankfully, the preface alleviated my worries. Ian Gilbert highlights the fact that this book is collaboratively produced and encompasses the voices of many people who are passionate about this field of work. It does not follow a traditional linear path; rather, it is an eclectic mix of extracts, poems, personal experiences and infectious, passion-filled stories about social injustice.

Read this book if you are an NQT, a senior leader, a governor or a teacher

This book, which certainly doesn’t play to the chords of Progress 8, is not a dummies’ guide to creating social equality in your school, nor even a checklist for reducing the attainment gap. It offers a new way of thinking, and challenges the status quo of recent educational stereotypes linked to “disadvantage”.

He breaks down the idea that being from a deprived background automatically labels you as a drain on society with no aspiration or intention to work.

The stereotype of “the feckless poor” is completely blown out of the water when one contributor, Chris Kilkenny, describes having to work two jobs and sleep only a couple of hours each night to put food on the table for his son. This is not a man with low aspirations but someone with a ferocious work ethic, who wants to improve his situation.

The working class sets the moral compass of why we should be going above and beyond for children from challenging backgrounds.

In its early chapters it looks at challenging “neoliberal orthodoxies” and passionately unpicks current educational policy. The later chapters investigate other turbulence factors such as hope, family, belonging, solidarity of communities, shame, agency and diet. All these vital elements are then woven ingeniously through current research to give deeper understanding to the reader.

The most moving and engaging parts are the personal and heartfelt anecdotes from people who are from communities of high deprivation, providing a brutal, no-holds-barred insight into what it is really like to come from one of “those estates”.

This passion is clearly visible in Jaz Ampaw-Farr’s section, “A message to my teachers”, where she eloquently describes her struggle through education, as a pupil from a very deprived background being taught entirely by middle class teachers.

Kilkenny, in ’Down but not out’, explains the mental exhaustion of being raised by a mother addicted to heroin. This story not only brutally highlights how hard life it is for some of our pupils, but also shows how an awful start can ignite a fire of hope within someone and become the catalyst for them to better their situation.

These sincere tales are not all grey clouds and thunderstorms, but also demonstrate the strength of community, the loyalty of family, and the unwavering work ethic of people from challenging backgrounds.

In short, this book drills down deeper than the superficial label of being FSM or Ever6.

Read this book if you are an NQT, a senior leader, a governor or a teacher. It is about developing empathy and understanding for the “challenging” students in your care. It will help identify the broader and commonly unvisited barriers to learning so that you can help them break them down. It reaffirms the fact that we all should be championing equality at every opportunity in our schools.

Finally, as a legacy disadvantaged pupil myself from an estate on the outskirts of Greater Manchester, this book resonates strongly with me and my upbringing.

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