Whatever happened to Social Class?

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In this piece Mathew Brown and Chris Carpenter explore how social difference was presented in Educational Policy under the Coalition Government and suggest that this can be located in previous administrations and are consistent with wider political imperatives.


images of lots of different peopleFrom the earliest times in modern civilisation people have organised themselves into sub-groups based on religious belief, castes, tribes and class. Class divisions are different to other systems of social division as they are not established by legal or religious provision and unlike some other separations an individual’s class can be ‘achieved’ (Giddens, 1997). Indeed some might argue that in a free market economy class can be purchased? Notions of ‘class’ are important in social science in general and political science in particular, not least as they go some way to explain voting behaviours – which is significant as since the Education Reform Act (1988), education has entered a free market and become increasingly subject to direct political control.

The Coalition government came to an end in May 2015 and as we are now four months on this is a good moment to look back on the 5 years of their administration and reflect on how issues of ‘social difference’ were constructed in the policy messages. In this piece we argue that ‘class’ as a means to identify differences, all but disappeared from the Coalition educational policy lexicon. The genesis of this can be traced to previous administrations, and social divisions, while acknowledged, are often described in very different terms.

In this piece we identify the synonyms for ‘class’ that are employed in Coalition political rhetoric, offering tentative explanations as to why this arose.

Class and political policy

The overturning of class seems to have been central to many political campaigns. In 1959 Harold MacMillan claimed that ‘the class war is over’. In 1990 John Major had proposed that, “In the next ten years we will continue to make changes which will make the whole of this country a genuinely classless society”, which has been interpreted as a way to discredit notions of class divisions without actually denying their existence. There have also been more left wing politicians adopting this position, the New Labour deputy Prime Minister John Prescott stated in 1997 that, ‘we’re all middle class now’. Equally, the economic crisis of the late 2000s served to refocus attention on the unjust re-distribution of wealth.

Whilst economic prosperity is but one marker of social division, it is undoubtedly a significant one – and during the economic boom of the ‘90s it seemed possible to imagine that class divisions were actually reducing in the UK.

Under the Coalition government one of the underlying discourses has been that of a meritocracy. A meritocracy is based on the idea that a person’s progress is based on their ability and talent rather than on any inherited class privilege or wealth and so by placing education in a market the assumption is that those who work hard and deserve to thrive will do so. What this perspective does not always acknowledge is that some people enter the marketplace with more capital than others, and are therefore more able to succeed.

The significance of meritocracy is that ‘progress’ is couched in terms of ‘social mobility’, which could be interpreted as tacit acknowledgement of class, and therefore related to the demonization of the working class. There is an assumption that people who are designated as working class should seek to ‘escape’ it.


Ferdinand Mount suggests that one version of classlessness is that of ‘Economic equality and its eclipse’. He argues that the origins of tax were as a means to equalise wealth, although it has to be noted that since the 1980s economic equality has ceased to be the kind of explicit political goal that would have been the case with left wing parties of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Indeed during New Labour’s government the gap between the rich and the poor increased, so whatever version of classlessness parties adopt now, it is difficult to see how it can be a purely economic one.

The genesis for the demise of class and class references in political discourse can be traced back to New Labour (1997-2010). It  seems that for New Labour ‘class’ was no longer an option to describe inequality and disadvantage, so we were introduced to Labour’s terms of ‘Social exclusion’ and the ‘socially excluded’, which were, in effect, code for ‘poverty’ and ‘the poor’. This was significant as left wing governments before were much more likely to have spoken in terms of improving the conditions of the working class, whereas New Labour were speaking in terms of working class people ‘escaping’ their social milieu.

Social divisions as described in Coalition Educational policy

The first big educational policy message of the Coalition government was their White paper – ‘The Importance of Teaching’ in November 2010. In this, they developed the discourse of Social Justice that had been a dominant feature of the conservative agenda during their time in opposition. In this white paper, they stated that: “We need to ensure there are appropriate incentives for schools to attract poorer students and raise their attainment” (page 14). This is a significant statement as it implies that state maintained education is not a necessarily a ‘right’, and that there is a need to ‘counter’ notions of selection.  Simultaneously, they launched their pupil premium initiative and stated that: “Target more resources on the most deprived pupils over the next four years, through a new Pupil Premium” (page 15).

From this political perspective, we can view social division being described in terms of: ‘poorer students’ and ‘most deprived pupils’. This ‘avoidance’ of class became a dominant (missing) feature of Coalition educational policy message.

In 2010 Michael Gove, the then secretary of state for Education said: “the need to raise attainment for all children and close the gap between the richest and poorest.” Michael Wilshaw, the chief Inspector (Ofsted), who in addition to reporting on inspections, entered the policy arena speaking about: ‘Children from low income families’. Perhaps, in order to maintain this political ‘missing feature’, he could not bring himself to mention ‘working class’ and spoke in terms of “Non-middle class families”. Gove’s successor Nicky Morgan, continued this theme and spoke about “Rich and poor” in her speech to the conservative party conference in 2014. So it may be argued the Coalition government was very aware of social division, but was reluctant to describe them in terms of class.


The question then is why the Coalition politicians were so ready to recognise inequality, yet not prepared to talk openly in terms of social class? We feel that there may be a number of reasons, and offer some tentative interpretations and would naturally welcome readers’ thoughts on this.

The disappearance of ‘class’ from political rhetoric, we feel, began before the Coalition government. This omission is not restricted to Education, as ‘class blindness’ applies across much of the policy portfolio. However, the Coalition education policy was deeply underpinned by free market principles, which means that an assumption must therefore arise that those who thrive will be individual, competitive and market aware. It follows that if there are inequalities they have to be attributed to people not taking advantage of the opportunities served by this free market. If difference is explained as a matter of social class, it is more likely to be seen as fixed and inborn. If it is fixed in this way then it follows that notions of ‘social mobility’ and ‘meritocracy’ become problematic as they describe an alternative perspective of the possibilities open to people.

For a free market to ‘work’ in education, there must be the classical economic association that if you work hard, everyone can thrive. Naturally, this leads to a conclusion that those who do not advance (by merit) are portrayed as ‘failed’ consumers who are responsible for their own failure to thrive (Bauman 2005).

This form of radical meritocracy is deeply flawed; for some to succeed, then some must fail – for how can everyone succeed, unless there are unlimited spoils?

On the other hand, and to end on a more optimistic note, the economist Simon Kuznets famously proposed that although all income inequality will automatically increase in the early stages of industrialisation and marketisation, soon thereafter there is a ‘rising tide’ that will lift all in the advanced phases of economic development – regardless of economic policy choices. Could it be that the politicians are playing a ‘long game’ and that we will all eventually experience a much more ‘increased’ equitable educational provision?


Bauman, Z. (2005) Liquid Life. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Giddens, A. (1997) Sociology London, Polity Press.

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2 Responses to Whatever happened to Social Class?

  1. Alastair Sloan Friday, 16 October 2015 at 18:19 #

    This is an excellent piece that asks an important question.
    For me the explanation is found in asking what would have happened should DfE spin doctors have chosen to deploy the word “working class.”

    One can reasonably predict the media, even the right wing media (which is ultimately all the Conservatives care about) would have positioned this in a negative light. They might accuse the Tories of resurrecting a class war that had been rhetorically put to bed by the previous administration, or using a divide and rule strategy, or of demonising etc.

    In that respect, Gove acted both in his own party political interests but also I think deserves some credit for using a reasonable (though imperfect) way of describing children in most need in an accurate, non-emotive and tangible manner – via the free school meals indicator.

    One minor point I disagree with is that social class is not defined by religious or ethnic grounds. You mention caste – in which Hinduism directly impacts economic opportunites. Visibly racially different ethnic minorities in most (all?) majority white Western countries unfortunately find themselves in the working class whether they like it or not (in many cases).

  2. Chris Carpenter
    Chris Carpenter Tuesday, 20 October 2015 at 04:40 #

    Thank you for such a thoughtful response. I really like your point about the ‘class war’ being rhetorically ‘put to bed’ by New Labour. Do you feel this is related to the idea that the old working class communities centred on production have all but disappeared (Giddens 1998). This has meant that the kind of class relations that were once so closely correlated with political alliance has shifted. Related to this the ‘flattening’ of the political landscape from divisions of right and left has been replaced by identity politics? Therefore in some senses class as a means to explain difference in society is less relevant anyway?
    I am intrigued by Andrew Gamble’s point that around 2008 the conservatives recast themselves as the party of the oppressed with Ian Duncan-Smith heading up the Centre for Social justice. If you factor in the idea that one of the defining characteristics of neo-liberalism is that it seems to cross political administrations without significant rupture then it follows that class divisions mean less. Of course there is the idea that the less well off in society are positioned in such a way that the ‘escape’ is for them to work their way out of it rather than that society will look after them. This is a classic right wing position? Also means that the government are distancing themselves?

    The point about caste is a good one and maybe we were a little bit careless there. We included it in the ‘opening out’ section to make the point that society is separated. I suppose the counter to this is that notions of caste are fixed whereas the argument in the west would be that if we are a meritocracy. The assumption being that if we work hard we have social mobility and we can ‘escape’ our class. The problem there is that it assumes that where we are requires escaping from. Also that given the ‘top’ positions are in limited supply then we are invited to become the model neo-liberal citizen and compete.