© 1998 - 2012 RICHARD STAINES. This essay was written in April 1998


  1. Introduction
  2. Equality or 'Equality of opportunity'?
  3. Capitalism and music: the reflection and refraction of social class difference
  4. Discourses of inequality and the management of poverty


Although the liberal-democratic reforms in education since 1944 have been consistent with meritocratic ideology, equality of educational opportunity has never been achieved.  Early in the twentieth century, Tawney had mounted a concerted campaign for an educational system which sought to eliminate social ascription as the determining factor of educational experience.  Yet, despite the reforms of the following fifty years, the twentieth century has ended as it began with the educational system organised on lines of social class.  The advent of city technology colleges and grant-maintained schools further increases the probability of a hierarchy of schools over and above the existing hierarchy between state and private schooling.  As the workforce is becoming individualised and fragmented, so are children in the educational marketplace.  'Equality of opportunity' has become a slogan with current conceptions of it permeated with the multiple contradictions inherent in the nature of advanced capitalism.  Indeed, by mystifying the primary preoccupation of the educational system with social class reproduction, concern about equality of opportunity has become all the more necessary in order to legitimate existing and long-standing social inequality.

This paper explores how these issues affect the work of the music educator working in schools and argues that the theory and practice of music education is directly affected by them.  Children from socio-economically deprived families are less likely to be offered the opportunity to learn musical instruments.

The question 'who shall be educated?' first appeared with the introduction of state schooling in the nineteenth century, but it is likely to reappear as the relevant, political issue it once was, for it concerns not only the distribution of knowledge, power and life-chances, but also highlights the part played by the state in the production and reproduction of educational and social inequality.  Music teachers are no less caught up in these questions than their colleagues working in other subject areas.

'Another complicating factor faced by the adolescent in his adjustment to adult life is the official denial of the existence of the class system. None of Elmtown's institutional leaders admits officially and publicly that the community's institutions are integrated around classes.  Yet each one privately says that classes exist, and proceeds to indicate explicitly how this fact has to be taken into consideration in the administration of the functions of his office.'

(Hollingshead, A.  Elmtown's Youth  Wiley.  1949 p.155)


Any educational system is the growing point of its parent society, for it is here that the future shape of the society is undergoing formation and where that society discloses its complexion by the kinds of interventions it makes and the resources it applies to fashion its future.  Ascertaining the extent to which it is possible to bring enhanced equality, equity and freedom for pupils requires observing how the system works in relation to the parent society; what objectives it determines for itself; what methods it uses to reach them; what consequences, intended or unintended, ensue; what inducements, undercurrents or other forces external or ancillary to the system it draws upon; and how it uses, or eliminates from its purposes, the previous experiences of the child himself.

But educational transactions occur in tangible settings with particular people and particular things; because the historical and evolving purposes of schools are often too subtle and extensive to be easily grasped by teachers operating within the minutiae of everyday affairs, institutions can exert pressures on their staff of which the staff itself is not infrequently unaware.

Moreover, in deploying the term 'society' in discourse, one may be unwittingly misrepresenting the inscape of that society by presuming that the whole population constituting it works together in an apprehensible and integrated manner.

Although issues of equality and class may appear to be less relevant to an understanding of the ostensibly abstract domain of music than to other areas of the curriculum, such as religious education or history (where the ideological faultlines are somewhat more readily identifiable), they are central to any music educator's  conception of his rôle since musical texts are also social texts that are grounded in social meanings, a premise which the 'commonsense' view of music as being a uniquely autonomous and non-ideological affair appears perpetually threatening to conceal.

Accordingly, what can be discovered from the way in which music is produced, distributed and received that might affect, or be affected by, the logic of stratification, by issues of status and by the effects of social closure?  The title implies several sub-questions relating to entitlement, access and to the nature of music itself in how it might be said to reflect class relationships in the way that Adorno held it could.


'The English educational system will never be worthy of a civilised society until the children of all classes in the nation attend the same schools.'

In one of his most splenetic passages, Tawney, quoted above, wrote that 'the hereditary curse upon English education is its organisation upon lines of social class'.  He saw public opinion as saturated with the influence of a long-standing tradition of educational inequality where the individual needs of children were not being met because of the 'barbarous association of differences of educational opportunities with distinctions of wealth and social position' (1931, p.144).

Undoubtedly, in the past, the problem of social waste in education could be seen in comparatively straightforward terms for gross material factors overshadowed all others; poverty caused ill-health and poor school attendance; facilities for study could not be provided in slum homes, nor proper instruction in overcrowded schools; grammar school places were refused by parents unable to afford to forgo adolescent earning-power. Following the second world war, however, the influence on the distribution of educational opportunity of the material environment, in which children lived at home and were taught at school before the age of selection, tended to diminish in importance in the face of rising general prosperity and the measures of social reform that were characteristic of post-war Britain.  As Floud, et al have pointed out (Silver, 1973, p.164) the social factors influencing educational selection came to reveal themselves in more subtle ways.

Although the 1944 Act had not been the first legislation concerning itself with economic equity in education, it exerted a signal effect in promoting a noticeable movement towards equality in the decade following it. But these accruals in equality did not last and the trend effectuated by the Act was subsequently reversed with the number of selective places continuing to grow throughout the 1950s and early 1960s but outstripped by the 'baby-boom' population.

'In these circumstances, the effective value of social advantage became greater.  The old inequalities reasserted themselves and indeed rose to higher levels than before.'  (Blackburn and Marsh, 1991, p.529)

Disparities existed in the relationship between the emerging comprehensive ideal and reality embedded in the restricted, conditional view of education enclosed by the notion of 'equal opportunity':

'The Englishman of the 1960s does not believe in equality. What he wants is equal opportunity to be unequal.' (Ford, 1969, Silver, p.253)

The broad equality of opportunity rhetoric of dominant class spokepersons in the relatively expansionist 1960s was to be replaced by narrower meritocratic arguments concerning student selection; indeed, in a Canadian study, Livingstone (1983) had indicated the extent to which mass sentiments about educational alternatives had already become highly vulnerable to ideological manipulation by dominant class interests from around 1973 and with the very legitimacy possessed by schools coming itself under question in that decade. The class coalition underwriting the expansion broke apart, for the crisis, which had begun in the late 1970s, had arisen from the attempt to maximise equality of opportunity within a larger commitment to reform rather than to change capitalism since opportunities could not be expanded at the very time they were being reduced by the economic crisis (Lauder and Brown, 1988). As a direct consequence, the entire justification for educational expansion demonstrated itself to have failed and with such limits to social democracy in an era of crisis manifesting themselves in very high unemployment rate levels, particularly for working-class youth. Fundamental questions about education's utility were asked, especially by those for whom it appeared not to have worked. Much of the discourse of attack originated not from capital itself but from within the working-class whose interests were supposedly embodied with progressivism, the major target of their disapprobation. Indeed, Sharp and Green (1975) have scrutinised progressive, child-centred educational practice and its effect on working-class children and offer an account of how class-bias and stratification is produced, even in a system that was intentionally designed to avoid such corollaries. Moreover the notion of 'equality of opportunity' can itself be annexed by the ideology of capitalism and with which it can be perfectly compatible, provided that it remains an ideal the implementation of which is not too diligently pursued. Preoccupations with political pacification, industrial discipline and, above all, labour recruitment and efficiency have both joined and clashed with more liberal sentiments for the expansion of state activity in the field of equity; the argument for equality of opportunity becomes a cover for a yet more limited plea: the viewpoint that selection should be based on the single criterion of 'ability'. As Ford points out, this is always an ideological position,  'a bid to remove an injustice, a statement that discrimination is being made on irrelevant grounds and that this should be replaced by efficient selection on relevant and reasonable criteria.' (Silver, 1973, p.253; Westergaard and Resler,1975) The all-pervasiveness today of the meritocratic argument should be enough to make us realise the doubtfulness of the assumption that public education is essentially an egalitarian welfare service designed to enlarge children's horizons and opportunities; meritocracies, for all their appeal and plausibility, nevertheless not only deny excuses for failure but actively encourage individuals to accept full responsibility for it. (Hopper, 1971)

Study after study throughout advanced capitalist countries have documented substantial differences between those from upper and lower status family backgrounds in levels of cognitive achievement, educational aspirations, level of schooling attained and consequent economic success. Indeed, assessing equality of educational opportunities in relation to parental socio-economic status has been the major preoccupation of sociologists (HMSO, 1967; Husen, 1979; Bowles and Gintis, 1976; Wright and Perrone, 1977; Lindsey, 1981; Clement, 1975; Williamson, 1979; Bourdieu, 1977; Lazonick, 1979; Holly, 1977; Gibson and Barrow, 1986).

Music educators are no less involved and implicated in these factors than their colleagues in other curriculum areas, a fact which Paton has highlighted in a salutary, if somewhat preachy, caveat:

'Much of the classical tradition in music is drawn into the curriculum largely because many teachers themselves share the aspiring middle-class values which are ritualised by the contexts of performance and production of this particular tradition[1] Teachers should be aware and acknowledge that music does have social meanings which need to be taken into account when choosing repertoire.' (Paton, p.264)

Achievement in the schooling process is significantly related to social and affective factors but which are deemed to have cognitive and intellectual significance (Rist, 1970), so while the feminisation of the teaching profession is crucial to an understanding of the moral control functions of the process, (Cole, 1989) an analysis of the social class perspectives of teachers is also useful to an awareness of the legitimisation of the socially divisive nature of the educational system. Grace (1978) has detailed the way in which teachers were, and still are, presented with a view of demoralised, disorganised working-class life which is seen as consequential from personal failings rather than from structural asymmetries and discrimination. Teachers then become preoccupied with the amelioration of these personal conditions, compensating the working-class child by the application of social pathological interpretations of working-class life that counteract serious analyses of the structural modalities promoting these differences or from offering any critique of the underlying ideological purposes of perceiving working-class value systems and/or behaviour patterns as deficient rather than merely different:

'   social deprivation models can function as ideological mediators between a societal context, where at the macrolevel there is structural inequality of material conditions and rewards which work against the working-class, and a microsituation where a middle-class teacher, socialised into the ideology of equality of opportunity, tries to educate and maintain social control when confronted by large numbers of working-class pupils with cultural experiences which, from the educator's point of view, are viewed as alien and inappropriate.' (Sharp and Green, 1975)


In believing that educators cannot avoid issues arising from the social class system, Kipps Horn, in a paper on community-based rock making (1984) holds that music-making offers the means for acquiring the functional and qualitative skills necessary for a balanced society; indeed, he views his working-class youth as having cultural experiences that are neither alien nor inappropriate. With the ongoing decline in the demand for traditional labour it is apparent that social groups offering such labour are the first to encounter unemployment and social marginalisation; indeed, they have little choice but to adapt to radically altered circumstances. Horn contends that society at large might profitably learn from the attitudes of the young workshop musicians who are providing examples of co-operative project work in rock workshops and who leave one in no doubt as to their serious and committed approach towards rock music-making:

'We have no jobs ... our music is more than a job and more than a leisure activity.  It is a way of life.  It is a means for self-expression and to do with finding yourself.  Being in a band is almost a kind of rebellion about being unemployed and receiving a pittance on the dole.  Society, particularly those in power, don't realise that what we do involves a lot of hard work.' (p.133)

Such a perspective deviates from current, conventional and emasculated perceptions of 'leisure time' activities and strikingly confutes the prescriptive designation of adult education as 'non-vocational' and concerned with only personal development' and/or 'recreation' - a derivative of the 1980s Thatcherite educational coarsening which left adult education out in the cold.  (Certainly the liberal equation of 'individual personal development' and 'social and economic progress' has been easy prey for the New Right; rampant, egotistical individualism as the mainstay of a competitive and market-dominated society has become the simple brutalisation of that liberal aspiration.  Elsewhere, the final shreds of the progressive defence of adult education have been left in tatters by the consistent realignment of popular education as a social/technical priming for the market place.)

Horn suggests that the 'lived' culture generated by his rock musicians may ultimately be able to meet the needs of the 'postindustrial society' more surely than the values traditionally associated with industrial work ethics.

Trans-social movements were a feature of Horn's workshops even though they were located in working-class areas; for youth culture is not some amorphous indivisibility but rather more a kaleidoscopic interplay of multiple subcultures exhibiting different age-groups yet distinctly related to the class position of those in them.  It is notable that young people manifestly inhabit a marginal status in modern societies, a feature which I have observed to be especially pronounced in Britain. For even those students who in terms of class, gender and ethnicity should identify strongly with the assumptions and values underlying school culture nevertheless experience significant alienation vis-à-vis those assumptions and values (Vulliamy and Shepherd, 1984). But pop music can articulate statements about the 'here and now' and can appeal to  its  audiences by operating within a sense of social relevance, even if such an acknowledgement of social significance may not be coterminous with a candid confrontation with reality:

'For while market forces are not deterministic, the music industry does have significant success in deflecting the attention of its audiences from political realities.  Their gaze is never allowed to linger on the inescapable actuality of their social situation, but is drawn away by the mass-mediated music industry to visions of mythical escape.' (ibid, p.260)

Such fabrication of alternative realities in the minds of its audiences is often likely to entail the studied adoption and cultivation of very specific life-styles by pop music's devotees as well as by listeners and practitioners of alternative styles and genres; it is certainly possible to use music in this way and to communicate to others the forms of identity that music delineates.

Retailers are clearly deploying similar forms of knowledge:

'in some record megastores the classical consumer may enter and leave through a separate entrance and need not even walk through the contemporary rock/pop sections.  One, perhaps rather obvious, justification for these closed environments, as reported by the music trade press, is that research suggests that the thirty-something Vivaldi CD buyer does not want to rub shoulders with the teenage Vanilla Ice single customer, and the feeling is probably mutual.' (du Gay and Negus, 1994) 

It is clear that powerful hegemonic forces are at work here for it is in these and in other ways that music's delineations can be observed to be playing a key rôle in the exhibition and reinforcement of the patterns of social stratification within the milieu of advanced, disorganised capitalism.  I am aware that this perspective conflicts with alternative viewpoints that emphasise not only technology's 'liberating potential' but also the presumed inventive engagement of consumers in the way they are held to be exercising 'choice' by the manipulation of certain aspects of their own symbolic environment (Collins, 1986).  Nevertheless although as music educators we may be enjoined not to use music as a 'form of identity' like 'wearing a suit of clothes', the fact remains that the increasing dominance of product markets by grandiose retail outlets, engaged in frenetic, interlocking competition, is encouraging processes allowing these retailers to 'stay closer to the customer' than ever before. The agenda is none other than the dictation, regulation and standardisation of taste amongst consumers who are correspondingly appealed to as 'free' individuals at the same time as even the very trajectories traced through the megastore encompassments by these 'individual' consumers are more and more thoroughly and electronically scrutinised, surveyed and controlled by centralised retail management (Foucault, 1988; du Gay, 1992; Lyon, 1994).

'To gain their City and Guilds certificates new staff are examined on categorising music as well as on health and safety, shop lay-out and display; indeed, since the late 1980s megastores have been constructing  discrete, multipartite  enclosures  for music's different styles and genres, most noticeably for jazz, country and classical. Unobtrusive but effectively sound-proofed barriers, glass partitions or heavy sound-proof glass doors mark out the space to the next section. And often housed in a separate room is the classical section.' (du Gay and Negus, 1994)

By such means the consumption of music can be closely regulated, for it is possible by observing the practices of music mega-retailing to appreciate the methods by which coercive consumerism ('consumer freedom') has become virtually coterminous with the world of social control, as well as by analysing what appears to be the essentially dislocated and contingent nature of the relationship between music 'production' and 'consumption':

'In the realm of culture the new totalitarianism manifests itself precisely in a harmonising pluralism where the most contradictory works and truths peacefully coexist in indifference' (Marcuse, 1964, p. 61)


It is one of the ironies of a complex society, where wealth and power are so tightly concentrated, that the concentration itself helps to keep the privileged hidden from the spotlight, because they are so few in number. Such groups are well placed to pass on their privileges to their children. Whatever divergences of interest there may exist amongst them, they have a common stake in a single overriding cause: to keep the working rules of the society capitalist, and even if it means, as now, that 20% of the nation's children reside in households where no-one is in employment.

Halsey (1972) has documented how the term 'equality of opportunity' was subject to different interpretations at different times. Originally meaning 'equality of access to education', it came to denote 'equality of achievement' whereby the objective becomes the goal of equality of outcome for the median member of each identifiable non-educationally defined societal group. At least two different approaches appear now to be running; the first emphasises school action to equalise pupils' chances of entering high status occupations, irrespective of background, whilst the second calls for school change which would render the content of schooling more socially comprehensive and to change the attitudes of teachers as well as the expectations embodied in the institutional ideology by the democratisation of schooling (Blackburn, 1983). Undoubtedly, the advancement of greater social equality through education has been a major preoccupation of educational reformers, for it has been assumed that schools distribute life-chances, that by the manipulation of school variables it is somehow possible to restructure how these life-chances are distributed and that those who consume more formal education will correspondingly benefit from better jobs, higher income and improved consumption levels.

Yet even by the late 1960s the experience of educational reform and expansion in the twenty or so years before then had produced sufficient evidence of the limitations of formal education as a vehicle for social equality. And moreover, at the present time, the tremendous increase in enrolments at all educational levels has left unaffected the fundamental inequalities in educational participation, for substantial proportions of the population remain excluded or underinvolved (Hughes and Tight, 1995; OECD, 1992).  Add to that the prevailing orthodoxies over 'standards' (standardisation?), and the long-held dependence on schools as agents for social transformation suffers further erosion. Perhaps it is easy to see how 'equality' and 'standards' become contestants; indeed 'freedom' and 'standards' have assumed an antagonistic stance towards equality, as Cooper says when (1975) arguing that equality and standards are necessarily rivals, that their rivalry is a matter of logic and not merely of fact.  Elsewhere and at other times, sociobiological orthodoxies founded on notions of genetic deficiency and biological determinism (e.g. Beardmore, 1975) have served as handmaids to the ideological  drift.

Ideologies, of course, have to connect to real problems, to real people, for equality, no matter how restricted or broadly conceived, has now undergone redefinition; no longer is it perceived as connected to past group oppression and subordinacy, it is simply now a case of blithely guaranteeing individual choice under the conditions of a 'free market', so that the current stress on 'excellence' has displaced equality discourse with under-achievement, which is once more viewed largely as the pupil's fault, or, to state its current and more familiar, modern variant, the fault of teachers and schools themselves.  Equality has become commercial (Apple, 1988, p.179).  Moreover, such ideology lurks behind the recent simplistic statistical interpretation of gender dissimilarities in examination results which made national news earlier this year and about which Dr. Gillian Plummer has written:

'We do not have a hierarchy in which girls are positioned in the top 50% and boys in the bottom 50%. It is social class, not gender or race differences, which continues to have the single most important influence on educational attainment in Britain ... a closer look at the situation of working class girls in terms of examination results and work placements is long overdue and attention could then focus on the many problems underlying girls' failure and which manifest themselves in equally harmful ways: withdrawal, depression, anorexia and early pregnancies.  These are serious issues which have been neglected for too long.' (1998, p.21)

The proliferation of equal opportunity policy documentation has become an established feature of the present time. It is noticeable that the Ofsted Handbook, (1993, paragraph 7,3(ii)) enunciates policies conspicuously restricted to the monitoring of ethnicity and gender though Pratt's chapter on 'Equal Opportunities in Music' (Pratt and Stephens, 1995) adds disabilities.  Noticeable too is the virtual absence of any representation of a cross-curricular approach to the subject, no doubt a consequence of the bleak subject-centredness of the National Curriculum. For the mainstream educational press will willingly focus on race and gender but will pass over social class whilst giving very limited coverage to disability and special needs (but see Crichton, 1992). In the music education literature there is relatively little on the area, well-intentioned statements like those of Fletcher's (1987, p.121) serving to legitimate the status quo:

'   music in education is not always controlled by musicians, and the economics of providing instrumental tuition make it inevitable that instruction on skilled instruments can be offered only to a minority.'

Such social and economic inequalities were to lead Caroline Sharp in her analysis of the schools' instrumental service in the 1990s to report:

'The most common pattern was that schools in more 'affluent' areas had a higher proportion of children learning to play an instrument ... the effect has been essentially socio-economic and rural/urban ... involvement in instrumental tuition becomes dependent on the parents' ability to pay.' (1991, p.100)

The principal difficulty which working-class people have in relation to education is that they lack adequate income to maximise the advantages that the system could offer; they are deprived of resources relative to the middle-classes with whom they must compete for credentials. If income and wealth differentials were eliminated, working-class 'failure' in education would cease to be a major issue, but since the entire social democratic project was constructed on the basis of merit and relatedly on differentials and relativities, reducing income differentials would initially involve a radical alteration in the very way in which labour itself is socially defined. And until such time as that happens, those who are required to manage poverty within the household (and they are mostly women) will have to use themselves as a currency in survival and with the energy and time to facilitate their children's education accordingly reduced:

'Women whose families live on small incomes become the first casualties in the game of 'shift and thrift' ... they are forced to juggle time, energy, health and patience in order to feed, clothe and educate their children. Side by side with these tasks they have to deal with the psychological effects of unemployment on their spouses and teenage children.' (Lynch and O'Neill, 1994) 

Moreover, it is likely that the academic origin of knowledge that is institutionalised in the hegemonic curriculum, as well as the practices of individual 'achievement' through academic competition are both at odds, or in tension, with most working-class families and with how they organise, utilise and pass on knowledge. The curriculum thus serves the purposes of the ruling classes in the educational system. The only way in which these children can then succeed in the present system is by acquiring the procedures, rules, expectations and language of the middle-classes, not because these forms are somehow inherently superior but because they are perceived as 'natural' and 'universal' by middle-class teachers, who, in general, have not acquired the critical consciousness which most working-class children appear to have acquired at an early age. For capitalistic techniques are highly developed: Gintis (1970) has argued that education's function in any society is to produce humans socialised into appropriate values and bearing requisite competencies, a process which is contradicted by the mass-consuming society's commodity fetishism which fails ultimately to satisfy the individual, for if the aesthetic and spiritual capacities of the mass of citizens were highly developed, capitalism would be likely to survive for only a short time.

For while work produced by people like Willis (1978) would have been a noticeable exception to much of the literature over the last thirty years or so that decried rather than described working-class life, his research is focused solely on males and is written about working-class 'lads' rather than with them; as such it has failed to lead to any consistently formal recognition of working-class perspectives in education even though his findings were undoubtedly influential at the time.

Lynch and O'Neill quote from one of the women in their analysis of poor families in Kilmount in Dublin:

'It's not just the cost of books which are dear enough, it's also the PE gear and runners, there's swimming, arts and crafts and photocopying as well.  Every day for three months I was handing over money to one or other of my four children for calculators, graph paper and so on ...' (1994, p.320).

Add to that list the burden of paying for music tuition, let alone buying an instrument for the child, and any music educator can begin to appreciate the difficulties faced by poor families.

These two sociologists rightly hold that from the point of view of education, working-class people inhabit a distinctive location in terms of their relationship to the system, for once they succeed within higher education in particular, their class identity changes; even just to participate in the academic definition of their own class culture, they must become part of the colonising/mediating group. Middle-class women, middle-class blacks and middle-class disabled are not in this position: 'at least in their middleclassness they can be at home in education at certain times and at certain stages' (p.319). Not only have indigenous class-based analyses of social and educational inequalities failed to have become regular features in the literature, music educational and otherwise, but working-class children, men and women have remained largely dependent on bourgeois sponsors (like university sociology lecturers) to have their stories told.  Elsewhere in their paper, Lynch and O'Neill quote from Glyn Williams (1992), his critique offering an illuminating shaft; and providing an apt, if trenchant codetta to this essay:

'... sociology is not an objective, privileged discourse but rather ... a historical discourse developed within an Eurocentric, imperialist and statist context by members of dominant groups within dominant states and, as a consequence, it systematically fails to address social and cultural issues from the place of the minority.'


[1] Paton's word here was 'genre'.  Strictly speaking, a genre refers to a substylistic element within an overall style.  Longhurst (1995, p.165) offers a useful list of such definitions.


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