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Perhaps the most class-conscious nation in the world, the UK has long struggled with inequality in its educational system. Despite government initiatives to boost academic performance in inner-city schools, for example, the country’s great institutions of learning such as Eton, Harrow, Oxford, and Cambridge have in large part remained the preserve of the wealthy and well-connected.


For many students from impoverished backgrounds, a lack of educational success can sometimes feel like a foregone conclusion. Despite similar economic backgrounds, however, the children of first-generation immigrants to the UK are surpassing their peers in standardized testing and university results, leading many experts to speculate as to why white working-class families tend to be left behind in academic performance nationwide. Understanding this dilemma first requires an understanding of the recent economic and social history of the UK, however.


Generational Expectations

A key to understanding disparities in academic performance among different social groups in the UK first lies in deeply-held generational attitudes towards the country’s elite families. The parents of many students from the working classes grew up at a time of economic and social upheaval in the UK, for example, and under the strict rule of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the country saw many blue collar careers all but evaporate from the economy, leaving many working class families dependent on public assistance to survive. This economic fallout left a bitter taste in the mouths of many working class families, who watched throughout the 1980s as their communities collapsed due to mine and factory closures.


Tall Poppy Syndrome

The patrician attitude towards working class interests under Thatcher also led to widespread blue collar resentment against the UK’s upper classes, who were often seen to be taking advantage of Thatcher’s anti-union and pro-privatization agenda to monopolize banks and take in record profits, even while the rest of the country dealt with harsh austerity measures and a lower standard of living. This attitude towards the wealthy reinforced a nascent “tall poppy syndrome” in the UK school system, wherein ambitious students were singled out for criticism or abuse for “siding” against their own class.


New Citizens, New Attitudes

For many immigrant families who are new to the culture of the UK, the “us vs. them” ethos that defines much of working class ideology may not be a factor in setting expectations for educational performance, meaning that immigrant students may not feel constrained in their ambitions to succeed at school or university. Indeed, a family who has recently immigrated to the UK may see opportunity for career advancement in the educational system where other impoverished families see only a hopeless endeavor.


Whatever the reasons for this disparity in academic performance among students, the differences between educational outcomes for the rich and poor in the UK has become a nationwide cause for concern. By addressing these issues head-on, the UK may find that its core value of equal opportunity for all citizens can become a reality.