Carrying the beacon of excellence: social class differentiation and anxiety at a time of transition

Lucey, Helen and Reay, Diane (2002). Carrying the beacon of excellence: social class differentiation and anxiety at a time of transition. Journal of Education Policy, 17(3) pp. 321–336.



In the current performance and "excellence" culture that has so bewitched politicians and beset educators, there are no discourses available to voice and to make sense of the anxieties that consistently arise for children who are pushed towards ever-higher performance. Drawing on the findings from a study of children"s transitions from primary to secondary school, this paper examines some of the structural and emotional consequences of current school-choice policy in the UK. Deep-seated fears of downward mobility held by some sections of the middle classes are potently mobilized when faced with the constraints of local secondary schools markets. Children from professional middle-class families are pushed towards high performance as a response to these fears with parents using a range of strategies to place their child in a high performing school, including entering them for selective schools" entrance examinations. In the pursuit of the kind of attainment seen to be necessary in order to ensure the successful reproduction of professional middle-class status, we argue that difficult emotions have to be suppressed or split off. For middle-class girls in particular, the constant striving for and achievement of high attainment, rather than unproblematically engendering a sense of confidence in their abilities, can produce a sense of never being good enough. Nor is it only the middle classes who are implicated in these processes. There are serious consequences for working-class children and we discuss how they are positioned in relation to UK policy initiatives that prioritize "excellence"

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