• Alison Baker

Addressing poverty and social class in initial teacher education

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

By Alison Baker, Senior Lecturer, BA Early Childhood Studies and BA Primary Education with QTS.

As teacher educators, it is our duty to explicitly address inclusion issues in the classroom. We base our approach to inclusion on three documents: firstly, the Equality Act 2010, which outlines our legal requirement to ensure that no child or young person is excluded from education because of their race, gender, disability, age, gender reassignment, pregnancy, marital status, religion or belief or sexual orientation. The second document is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the United Kingdom is a signatory. Article 2 states Convention applies to all young people:

The Convention applies to every child without discrimination, whatever their ethnicity, sex, religion, language, abilities or any other status, whatever they think or say whatever their family background,

while Article 28 outlines that all children have the right to an education. Finally, our approach to inclusion is underpinned by the Initial Teacher Training Core Content Framework standard 5, which states that students should learn that “Pupils are likely to learn at different rates and to require different levels and types of support from teachers to succeed”. The framework cites the SEND code of conduct as the supporting document for this standard. However, social class, poverty and Pupil Premium is not mentioned within the standard, despite the Department of Education’s data demonstrating that young people in receipt of Free School Meals in every demographic doing worse under the metric of GCSE achievement. In my opinion, it is vital that the impact of poverty and social class is discussed and that students are aware of the barriers to inclusion in the full life of the school poverty can create.

My 3rd year undergraduate students have finished their final School Based Training in East London just before schools reopened to all children. Some have been teaching key workers’ and Pupil Premium children on-site; some taught online; some did a mixture of both. All could discuss how the lockdown impacted all children’s progress, but in particular children most impacted by poverty: one student described how she had been involved in helping to make learning packs to be delivered to children who may not have had paper, pencils or maths counters at home. Another outlined the challenge of planning Expressive Art and Design lessons for Early Years pupils who did not have art resources at home. But all also understood how the “unseen” school curriculum impacted lower income families: the challenges of charity non-uniform or dressing-up days for families who struggle to keep their children fed, for example.

In the seminar I asked students to complete a questionnaire to outline their understanding of the impact of social class on education. 7 students out of a total 13 completed it, and all indicated that they were happy for me to share their responses. The students clearly articulated their understanding of the imperfect metric of free school meals as a proxy for social class. They demonstrated their understanding of working-class jobs as low-paid, but although only the very poorest families are entitled to free school meals, middle-class families experiencing financial hardship may also be in receipt.

One student’s response to a question on the impact of social class on education indicated that she understood that it went beyond purely financial terms into what Bourdieu calls “social capital”- that is, access to resources such as books, academic tutors and wider educational opportunities. Another outlined extracurricular activities as an advantage that working-class children may not have.

All respondents agreed that it was important for student teachers to learn about the impact of poverty and social class on educational attainment. One student outlined how social class impacted on her and her fellow students’ education:

Those from higher social classes can pay to go to university and/or apply to more prestigious universities where they will receive higher educations. They also have the means to not work (if they choose not to), whereas lower class who attend university may have to get a job to pay tuition, rent, bills etc.

Other students described their responsibilities to ensure the inclusion of working-class children:

Lower social class can be seen as a barrier for some children to reach their full potential. Therefore, as teachers it is our duty to find ways to that these barriers are removed.

Another responded that during this lecture:

I have learnt more about the relationship between social class and achievement. I also understand ways to help ensure that the children are not negatively affected by this. For example. mixed ability groupings where possible- children can learn from each other and help their friends, this also develops social skills.

Discussing their own experiences gave students the opportunity to reflect on experiences of both their own education and school placement through the lens of class. This was particularly important for students of colour, empowering them to discuss their understanding of the intersections of classism and racism in education, and how to address them. Understanding the impact of class on inclusive practice is a subject I intend to cover with all my teaching groups.

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