Skip to Content

Articles, News & Updates

Education and the Working Class

Part of the recently released RLE Sociology of Education collection Education and the Working class studies the works of Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden.

Stephen J. Ball, editor of the Journal of Education Policy Education Foundations and Policy Studies Institute of Education discusses the the Works of Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden, why Education and the Working Class is an important reissue and the influence their work had on him.


Education and the Working Class is about class mobility, class inequality and social waste, and about what Brian and Dennis describe as a ‘blockage’ – selective education. In stark contrast to the sometimes pathologising focus on working class failure in much of the contemporary sociology of education, Education and the Working Class works with a sample of 90 ‘successfully’ working class children. That is, children who passed the 11+ and went to Grammar school and many of whom went on to Higher Education. The two writers are in the text, they are two of the ninety. The book is about them and the relationships between biography, history and structure.

The book is of course ‘of its time’ but it was also a significant break from the mainstream tradition of sociology and sociology of education of the late 1950s early 1960s. It was set rather within the community studies tradition of Michael Young and Brian Jackson – of Family and Kinship in East London, and Working class Community (Jackson 1972) for which Dennis did the early fieldwork and writing up, and indeed the research was located in Jackson and Marsden’s home town of Huddersfield. Alan Bennett, another ‘local lad’ has acknowledged that the book provided the basis for his play The History Boys, which is set in Cutlers' Grammar School, Sheffield, a fictional boys' grammar school.

The book sets out fairly deliberately to distance itself from the ‘proper sociology’ (p. 17) of the time with a primary emphasis on ‘quotation, scene and incident’ (p. 18), what we now think of as ‘qualitative’ sociology. The Economic and Social Data Service website hails Dennis as ‘a pioneer of qualitative research’. This was decisively different from the dominant tradition and methods of the sociology of education. Nonetheless, the book also encompasses statistical data and history and also uses family histories and sociograms.

In a sense this anticipated Bourdieu’s point that we need a theory of advantage as well as disadvantage – an explanation of inequality which focuses on the resources and strategies of the successful. Indeed in a variety of ways Education and the Working Class anticipates aspects of Bourdieu’s later work on social class and education, a subtle culturalist analysis of process of inequality related to unevenly distributed assets or capitals in relation to particular fields which are social spaces of struggle.

In Bourdieurian terms Jackson and Marsden suggest that: ‘To the middle class child the prevailing grammar school tone was a natural extension of his home life’ (p. 210). In contrast, for the successful working class child ‘grammar school marked … a sharp break with the “former world” of neighbourhood life and were “peculiarly alien”’ (p. 137). This was certainly my experience of Grammar school, and very painful and damaging it was too. Relationships with their neighbourhood and friends from primary school, for the majority of the ninety, soon disappeared: ‘a conscious and articulate rejection of a way of life’ (p. 212), what we might now think of as process of ‘dis-identification’.

What this re-theorising work also did, if I can call it that, was to make the school itself part of the problem of inequality, rather than locating inequalities within families and taking the school to be a neutral social arena. This was taken up more thoroughly a few years later by the Manchester school studies of Lacey (1970) and Hargreaves (1967), and then the ‘new’ sociology of education, although even here Brian Jackson (1964) pioneered aspects of this in his study of streaming in primary schools.

You can now purchase this book online or explore many other fascinating Educational reissues by browsing our 2011 RLE: Education Online Catalog

Related Products

  1. Routledge Library Editions: Education Mini-Set L Sociology of Education

    By Various

    Series: Routledge Library Editions: Education

    Mini-set L: Sociology of Education re-issues 48 volumes originally published between 1928 and 1990. The books in this mini-set discuss: Teaching and social change, research processes in education, class, race, culture and education, marxist perspectives in the sociology of...

    Published December 8th 2011 by Routledge

  2. Education and the Working Class (RLE Edu L Sociology of Education)

    By Brian Jackson, Dennis Marsden

    Series: Routledge Library Editions: Education

    When first published this book had a significant influence on the campaign for comprehensive schools and it spoke to generations of working-class students who were either deterred by the class barriers erected by selective schools and elite universities, or, having broken through them to gain...

    Published December 8th 2011 by Routledge