Are Britain’s ‘Working Class’ Children Harmed by Politeness?

Could the real reason behind the achievement gap between working-class and middle-class pupils come down to politeness? That is the argument made by a recent study out of Indiana University that seeks to pinpoint why students from higher-income background outperform their lower-income peers in academics. The researchers found that while middle-class kids felt more confident about speaking out during class, those from working-class families tended to be quieter and more polite, often failing to engage with teachers during class and preferring to work on problems on their own.

One of the possible reasons why students from middle-class backgrounds were more assertive and less shy is because they were encouraged by their parents from an early age to engage and challenge authority. Jessica Calarco, who headed the research team at IU, said that when her colleagues looked at behavioral patterns of primary schoolers, they found that even the shyest middle-class child felt more comfortable about approaching a teacher with questions and to ask for assistance. Those from families with lower incomes felt judged by their classmates if they approached an instructor for help, in addition to expressing worry that they might displease the teacher if they make the request at the wrong time or in an incorrect way.

“These differences, in turn, seem to stem not from differences in how teachers responded to students – when working-class students did ask questions, teachers welcomed and readily addressed these requests – but from differences in the skills, strategies and orientations that children learn from their parents at home.”

The study was based on observations of a class of state school children aged nine to 11 over a two year period. Children were assessed twice a week and then interviewed with their parents over the summer holidays.

Trying to gain insight into the income achievement gap is especially urgent in light of a recent British study that found highest-performing students from low-income backgrounds still lagged the high achievers from wealthy backgrounds by as much as two-and-a-half years by the age of 15. These results were especially alarming in light of the extensive effort put in by the Labour Government over its nearly two decades in power to raise the percentage of working-class students pursuing university degrees.

Although parents from all social and economic backgrounds put in the effort to teach their children proper school behavior, which aspects of proper behavior were emphasized depended greatly on the income level of the family in question.

Working class parents were more likely to emphasize the role of politeness and courtesy and being deferential to authority, it was revealed. They would also tackle assignments or projects but on their own without asking for help.

In contrast, middle class children were encouraged to raise their hand, ask questions and not be afraid to ask for help when needed.