Talk-ED: The Middle Class Advantage

Stuart Middleton
EDTalkNZ
11 July 2011

I was chatting with some folks the other day about careers advice and guidance and all that stuff. I put forward the view that what we should aspire to is to give every young person the “middle class advantage” that we had enjoyed. Of course someone had to ask me just what I meant!

Well, for a start there is the advantage of being brought up to believe that the purpose of schooling was to learn things that would eventually get us a job.  We knew with certainty that we would work. Not only because there were jobs to go round but also because that was why you went to school.

And it was an advantage to be brought up believing that school was important and that enjoying it was of less importance than doing what we were told to do when we were told to do it. We were encouraged to have questioning minds but to never question the teachers. Trouble at school meant trouble at home and homework was done before the radio was allowed on. I am sure that all that helped.

Then there was the question of which career pathway to follow. Well, since being in work was valued more highly than which job we had, simply getting ready into work was the goal. I became a teacher probably because of the availability of a secondary teaching studentship which provided a wage. We did have an uncle who had been a teacher so I guess that helped but I do not recall ever discussing it with him.

Another thing that helped was exactly that – help with homework. Mum, Dad, older  brothers were always there to help. Except on one occasion in intermediate school when the homework in mathematics stumped the whole family. Not once, but a few nights in a row. Well, Mum had the answer to that. On her bike and off to see the teacher.

“What’s the use of homework they can’t do?” she asked the teacher. “It teaches them to think, fudge and more fudge.” Well, that soon stopped and we got back to homework we could do. You see, being able to deal with the school was also a middle class advantage. Being able to intervene in education, to get what you want (in this case happy children) is not a skill or an opportunity open to everyone.

Then it came to holiday employment. First it was, at about the age of eight, employment as a grocer’s assistant. The grocer was our uncle. There’s another middle class trait – having a family that can organise these opportunities. Ten shillings a week and our own apron, bagging potatoes, weighing nails, making up the orders and then helping with the delivery.  The delivery thing came to a halt when one afternoon my brother fell out of the door of the old and quite rickety delivery van.  It was all hushed up, no health and safety in those days!

But we learned the skills of employment, a good day’s work for a good days pay, honesty, cleanliness etc. I worked pretty well every school holiday after that and each of those opportunities came along through contacts of the family.

Of course there were no student loans and allowances to speak of but with a bit of help from Mum and Dad, no board, a little car brought for us to share and to get to the university and suchlike we did OK.

Any failure we had at university was almost of our own making but that was where the middle class advantage wore thin and we did not have a clear idea of what we needed to do – first generation students and all that.

There is nothing in this middle class advantage thing – and as a phenomenon it is clear – that educational institutions could not with some thought and with a little planning provide for every student. Of course there would not be the evening meal discussions, the questions (“What does a X or a Y or a Z do Mummy?”), the steering of aspirations towards achievable directions (I was deflected from wanting to be a farmer – “We could never help you buy a farm and you’ll be a share-milker the rest of your life!”) nor that whanau collection of contacts (well, when you think of it there could be a network that was almost as good).

The middle-class advantage, let’s see that all students get it.

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