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Levelling the playing field of learning

Written by: Lee Elliot Major
6 min read
Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility, University of Exeter, UK


All teachers aspire to reduce the barriers and unconscious biases that impede the learning of students from under-resourced backgrounds. Research shows that these impediments are multifaceted, consisting of cultural, material, educational and health-related factors that operate inside and outside the classroom.

Explicitly thinking about how teaching can be made genuinely inclusive to benefit all students, whilst identifying and overcoming barriers to learning outside school, are two foundations of an ‘equity-based approach’ to education (Elliot Major and Briant, 2023). The purpose of this article is to show how educators can use this approach to help to level the playing field of learning.

Cultural and material divides

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu produced a framework comprising three forms of capital in describing the cultural as well as material assets deployed by middle-class parents to help advance their children in the classroom (Bourdieu, 1984). The first form consists of economic capital, which includes parents’ ability to pay for books and tutoring, and homes with study space and internet connectivity. Secondly, cultural capital encompasses parents and students’ tastes, views and values. Lastly, educational capital includes speaking in the academic language of the classroom, commanding an extended vocabulary and knowing how to navigate the tacit rules of the education system.

School environments are characterised by such cultural divides. Middle-class norms are baked into the education system, with tests in maths and modern languages posing questions concerning trips to the theatre and skiing holidays (Elliot Major and Briant, 2023). Such questions are loaded with assumptions that disadvantage those not privileged to have experienced such activities, burdening them with extra cognitive load.

Bourdieu’s capitals have been explored in modern classroom contexts. Middle-class parents are found to engage in ‘concerted cultivation’, involving their children in structured educational activities and discussions over the dinner table, so that they are primed to navigate school environments (Lareau, 2002). In contrast, working-class parents tend to practise ‘natural growth parenting’ which is more hands-off – for many parents leading precarious lives, this approach is their only option (Elliot Major and Briant, 2023). Cultivated children are more likely to flourish in school, as they can advocate for themselves as independent learners, comfortable seeking feedback when needed.

A contemporary study applying the ‘lens of Lareau’ to working-class parents found they experienced ‘frustration, powerlessness and distance from secondary school’ (Wilson and Worsley, 2021, p. 770). Many parents attributed the conflict between school and home practices to their having minimal contact with teachers. Wilson and Worsley urge schools to develop sympathetic interventions when promoting parental partnerships.

Cultural divides are also expressed in the entitlement exhibited by some parents (Reay, 2004). Middle-class mothers were found to be more adept at getting their views across with teachers, whereas working-class mothers were more hesitant when talking with teachers.

Teacher bias research

Studies have also investigated teacher bias by looking at the differences between the judgements made by teachers and how well students perform in tests. On average, teachers tend to judge students from under-resourced backgrounds as lower academic achievers than their actual test marks might suggest (Lee and Newton, 2021).

Initial analysis in my own research tracking 11,000 students born in England at the turn of the millennium (Elliot Major and Parsons, 2022) reveals similar patterns. Children from under-resourced backgrounds performing well in tests at age seven are more likely to be under-rated by their teachers. These unconsciously biased assessments lead to students from graduate households pulling further ahead from their peers (Olczyk et al., 2022).


Observations reveal that teachers can unconsciously act differently towards children from working-class backgrounds, exuding less warmth, giving less eye contact and providing lower-quality feedback (Olczyk et al., 2022). Teachers may slip into stereotypes, interpreting working-class accents, slang or dress codes as signals of lower academic capacity. Social categorisation is the process by which we think of people as members of a social group rather than as individuals. This may save time and effort in making accurate judgements (Lee and Newton, 2021). Some argue that teachers are more likely to accept poor performance from students for whom they hold low expectations (Wang et al., 2018).


Bourdieu’s (1984) theory of social reproduction is not without its critiques. Empirical evidence shows that many working-class children prosper in schools (Bourne, 2015). Reading-related activities rather than trips to theatres or museums have been found to reduce the GCSE attainment gap by family social class (Stopforth and Gayle, 2022). However, research is less conclusive about how large teacher bias effects are. More studies are needed to replicate and refine the findings.

Outside barriers

Children’s progress is profoundly shaped by factors outside school (Hanushek, 2016), over which teachers have little control. When the equalising force of the classroom is removed, home-learning inequities are exposed. This was demonstrated when schools closed during the COVID-19 pandemic (Elliot Major et al., 2021).

Many children are still missing out on healthy food, warmth and basic healthcare, including tests for eyesight, hearing and dental health (Elliot Major and Briant, 2023). Older students are taking up minimum-wage or zero-hour contract jobs to help their families. We are still early in our understanding of which background factors are most important and how they interact in shaping children’s outcomes. Family divides are also driven by the increasing investments made by middle-class parents to secure their children’s futures, highlighted by booming levels of private tutoring (Elliot Major and Machin, 2018).

Suggestions for practice and policy

In my book Equity in Education (2023), written with teacher Emily Briant, we suggest evidence-informed ways for teachers and leaders to help to counter biases and barriers inside and outside schools.

Reflect on social biases

A group exercise for teachers is to reflect on what unconscious biases and stereotypes may be lingering in school practices that unintentionally alienate some students and parents – from classroom rules to parent meetings. This might start with comparing assessments and teacher judgements. The group can also review whether lesson plans, texts and images used in the classroom reflect the full cultural diversity of students.

Reflect on your language

Teachers can work with students and parents to make explicit the language of the classroom and public examinations. A good exercise is to ask students how they have used feedback to make progress in their subject. Often, they will admit that they did not understand what their teacher had said or written. The language of feedback must be clear and accessible.

Schools can also consider the language that they use to describe their students and parents. In Equity in Education, we replace the term ‘disadvantaged students’ with ‘children from under-resourced backgrounds’. The problem with ‘disadvantaged student’ is that it is a binary classification, leading to a demarcation between who is or who is not ‘advantaged’. It implies a deficit approach, suggesting that there is something lacking in these children. It focuses our minds on individuals when learning has, in fact, been hindered by circumstance.

Review parent partnerships

Schools can undertake a deep listening exercise or consultation with their local parent body and community to develop a joint school strategy, underpinned by genuine authentic relationships. Working with parents should be valued above and beyond pure academic gains, and should include positive feedback on pupils’ non-academic accomplishments, as well as low-stakes meetings with parents.

Schools can help parents to establish simple habits at home, from sitting down to read a book with a child each day, to advice on what questions to ask to help their children with homework and revision.


In conclusion, educators can consider several promising strategies to tackle the cultural and material barriers that hinder learning. At the same time, national policies need rebalancing to recognise the job that schools do in countering inequalities outside the school gates, whilst maintaining high expectations for under-resourced students.

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