Why they don’t give a shit: the chronic indifference of the South-Eastern elite to industry


In an excellent dissection of the Conservative party’s failure to offer the steelworkers of Port Talbot realistic long-term state support, Paul Mason briefly referred to the education of large swathes of the political elite:

Not giving a shit — about industries, jobs or social consequences — is at the heart of the ideology the political elite has learned since they were at private school.

This is the soft-end of the critique – clearly the steel crisis is not being caused by the private school education of much of the Conservative cabinet, it is the shifting structures of the global economy which are at work. However, the role of private schools is not just important in thinking about fostering a particular attitude of indifference. Elite, mostly private education plays a deeper, more structural role in British, and especially English, society, which is central to understanding the structures of capitalism in Britain. This is not simply ‘a textbook lesson in neoliberalism’, the tendencies underlying the disinterest in industry in particular have much longer historical roots.

With a famous series of articles in the mid-1960s, Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn delivered a decisive critique of British capitalism. They presented a systematic historical argument about how the social structure of the UK developed, noting the fusion between the rising bourgeoisie and the aristocracy as the key development in preventing conflict within the ruling class and limiting direct bourgeois political control. Within this, brief mention was made of the importance of the public schools in fusing the rising industrial bourgeoisie, the expanding professional middle classes and the aristocracy around the pseudo-aristocratic ideal of the ‘gentleman’.

In fact in their work, an analysis of the nascent public school system of the late 19th century plays only a relatively minor role. It was the work of historian W.D. Rubinstein who really ironed out the creases in the Anderson-Nairn understanding of the British elite[1] and the geography of Britain’s class structure. He showed how middle-class incomes over the 19th century became increasingly concentrated on the South-East – exactly where the majority of private schools were founded and remain. More importantly for the case of the Port Talbot steelworkers, his analysis showed how the wealthiest men of the 19th century overwhelmingly made their fortunes through banking and commerce and lived in or around London. The provincial industrial bourgeoisie were relatively speaking, poorer, lived further from the centre of political and economic power and were culturally disinclined towards sending their sons to the Anglican boarding schools of the South-East.

London and its Home Counties environs have long been the place of residence for Britain’s elites and it remains so in the 21st century. As education became increasingly important for accessing professional employment over the 19th century, this necessitated the creation of an educational infrastructure of elite social reproduction. The reform of Oxford and Cambridge and the older public schools in the late 19th century meant the preservation of a pseudo-aristocratic heritage within education which remains powerful today.

One famous interpretation of British economic malaise, saw this apparently anti-business educational culture as at the heart of the decline of the UK economy, an argument which gained traction amongst Thatcher’s Conservative government. Rubinstein’s rebutted the ‘Wiener thesis’ firmly, and described how public schools fostered links with the most ‘dynamic’ areas of the British economy. Already by the late 19th century, the core source of wealth for British elites and the major area of economic development was concentrated on the City of London and this trend increased over the first half of the 20th century.

As finance grew in importance, students from the public schools increasingly opted to go into finance. Eton in particular developed intense links with the City. The overlap between land-ownership and City finance grew as landed estates declined in value and the wealth exchanged grew. Oxbridge and the public schools formed an increasingly important part of this nexus of elites focussed on the South-East of England, or what Tom Nairn called ‘the Crown Heartland’. This was ‘a Southern-lowland hegemonic bloc uniting an hereditary élite to the central processing block of commercial and financial capital.’ Within England and by proxy, through the continuing political power of Westminster, it is this shifting but persistent social and economic constellation who dominate British politics, economy and culture.

The public schools, and, it must be said, increasingly a small number of elite state schools, are the first institutional stage in what must be understood as a broader infrastructure of elite power, with Oxbridge, the City and Westminster being its other obvious institutional bases. It is not the curricular emphasis of the public schools which creates a bias towards finance within the British economy, it is their role within a nexus of economic, cultural and political power concentrated on South-East England and the fact that generations of their alumnae have gone on to work in these central institutions of the British state.

More than any other Conservative politician, Cameron himself embodies this Anderson-Nairn-Rubinstein understanding of the British ruling class. He comes from a family which has worked in the City for generations, married into minor aristocracy over several generations (both himself and his father) and has sent its sons to Eton from the late 19th century (which could be behind the apparent decision to send his son to prep school). Samantha Cameron may have family with strong aristocratic Yorkshire-Lincolnshire connections, but she grew up and went to school in the South-East of England.

Why though does any of this matter for the steelworkers of Port Talbot?

The ‘political ideology’ of the public schools is not anti-industry per se. Rather it forms part of a broader institutional pattern within the British ruling classes. Post-war, state-owned industry did not challenge the hegemonic position of the City of London over British economic life any more than industry did during the 19th century. This tendency of the south-eastern elite to be largely indifferent to the fate of industry predates neoliberalism. For certain strata of the elite, the City has been integral to their personal and broader class interests for generations.

Whilst the ownership of the Port Talbot mills by Tata, an Indian multinational, reveal the depth of changes to the British and global economy, the response of the Conservatives is partly driven by this path-dependent set of interests aligned with this socio-cultural south-eastern elite. These interests are deeply historical and relate to the long-term orientation of the British economy. Neo-liberalism gave this a new form and mode of operation but it did so within the context of an existing geography of class and economic power which was structurally indifferent to provincial industry.

Moving away from this model would involve a seismic shift within the British economy and society. It would involve acknowledging the real geographical political division within the UK is between the Crown Heartland elite and the rest of the country. The steelworkers of Lanarkshire, Port Talbot and Scunthorpe, just like the rest of us, have more in common than what divides us.


[1] There are clearly important distinctions to be made in terms of the history of Irish, Scottish and Welsh elites which I can’t do justice to here. I refer to British elites concentrated on London as these groups were dominant within the British ruling class as a whole but that is not to say that there are not distinctive national histories as well.









Brit-Chic: tales of geography and education in a visit to the Mid-West

This April I visited the American Mid-West to attend three academic conferences, below I summarize some of the best papers and key issues which my visit covered.


Picture: As a proud Sheffielder and geographer of education, I was particularly tickled to travel all the way to Chicago to attend a session organized by Chris Taylor on the geography of school choice in a room called Sheffield.

Local dynamics of race: the Dept. of Education Policy Studies Conference, Madison

My first stop on my academic excursion in the Mid-West was the University of Madison-Wisconsin. Through a speaker at an urban education session I co-organized at the RGS-IBG in 2014, Linn Posey-Maddox I found out about the annual conference of the Dept. of Education Policy Studies, this year entitled ‘Race, Class, and Inequality in American Education: Placing the Local in Context’. The salience of race, as opposed to class, was a notable feature of the critical educational scholarship in the two American education conferences I attended in the USA. This did not come as a shock per se, but compared to the UK context where the dominant structural inequality in education debates is class this was distinctive. In the case of the Madison conference this was a deliberate theme of the conference and L’Heureux Lewis McCoy’s keynote framed this very clearly. His recent book concentrates on African American experiences in the suburban district of ‘Rolling Acres’, perceived as “a promised land” educationally by the African American families increasingly locating there. However, despite this initial optimism, the reality has been the maintenance of racial inequalities within suburban settings. McCoy drew on relative deprivation theory to highlight the contradictory position of recently re-located parents who found themselves unable to afford the extra-curricular activities which may previously have been offered free through outreach activities aimed at inner-city areas. Similarly success in a suburban setting was still seen by parents of colour to be relative to their own family background as opposed to the expectations of others in the school: parity of destinations was not the aim. He also sought to highlight how rather than Lareau’s concerted cultivation vs. natural growth model of parental engagement in schooling, what was central here was the racially differentiated institutional reception of parents of colour and their white counter-parts. Forms of racial discrimination were both subtle and quietly overt: there were distinctions made between working and middle-class African American parents though both experienced racial barriers, white middle-class parents also successfully petitioned to avoid their children being taught by the only black teacher in the school. At the heart of McCoy’s argument para-phrasing the Wutan Clan he argued that rather than class ruling everything around me‘Class Rules Everything Around Me’ (CREAM), or ‘class matters for all and race matters for something’ and instead emphasise the role of race in these new suburban settings.

Scholar-activism in Madison

The second day of the conference continued these themes with Decoteau Irby describing how their research team asked students and teachers how they explained racially stratified attainment data from within their own school. In discussion afterwards there was also critical reflection on the need to move away from white guilt and hand-wringing from parents and teachers which in the end was not helpful for other minority students: being politically hamstrung by feelings of guilt was not an excuse for doing nothing. The Hope Lab initiatives providing direct financial and pastoral care for students of colour/working class students in university and the Race to equity project provided useful examples of the more activist and engaged scholarship which seemed to me to be more prevalent in Madison and the AERA in Chicago than in the UK context. The Hope Lab approach may be of interest to those working in widening participation in the UK (see below however for at least one exception), though it is worth noting the director Sara Goldrick-Raab’s distinction between the ‘scholar-activist’ and advocacy-type roles of other politically engaged academics. Certainly her randomised-controlled trial-esque approach was quite different to the community organizing and union-aligned approach seen in Chicago. The latter was present here too however, with Michael Apple’s talk recalling the recent demonstrations to protect collective bargaining in the state of Wisconsin.

Community organizing and the politics of research in Chicago

Pauline Lipman’s recent work on the politics of urban school reform in Chicago has provided one of the sharpest and strident critiques of how neo-liberal school reform is moulded to new patterns of urban governance and old forms of racial injustice in American cities. Charter School reform in the city has been deliberately aligned with housing projects of state-led gentrification and displacement of communities of colour. The governance structures of charters have been constructed to allow the school itself to become a direct site for capital to seek investment returns as Dan Cohen would argue the following week at the AAG. The Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where Lipman is based, were strongly represented in sessions at AERA. Papers from Rhoda Rae Guetierrez, Carol Caref and many others from the collective highlighted the strength of links between researchers and the rich alliance of community organizations and the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) in particular. The latter make strong use of GIS software in reports opposing school reform and also in workshops allowing parents and teachers to use GIS software to explore socio-spatial urban and educational inequalities themselves. Sarah Hainds is employed directly by the CTU in a research role which includes extensive use of GIS in a role which should give UK teachers’ unions pause for thought. Moreover, the tradition of an ‘off-site’ visit organized by one of the SIG’s to hear local grassroots education activists removed the middle-man of academic interpretation, allowing them to speak directly and on their own terms. At a community centre in Pilsen, students, teachers’ and parents’ organizations were all present including a student from a youth organization campaigning for public schools and against school closures. The latter had been included in a book I reviewed on Schools and Urban Revitalization which also reflected the closer engagement of academics in various forms of community-based activism. It was interesting in particular to hear about resistance to newly-introduced standardized testing through parental opt-out, a strategy which I had not heard of in a UK context.

Not everywhere has the rich history of community organizing that Chicago does, but the simple need to consider what effect our analyses and ‘critiques’ actually have was underlined in a joint-session by led by politically-active researchers from Chicago and Chile, two testing grounds for neo-liberal school reform. Lipman spoke again drawing on Tuck’s (2009) paper on the need to move beyond documenting the damage experienced by marginalized communities and instead:

re-vision and firm up our theory(ies) of change and to determine what role, if any, research has in making our dreams come true for our communities

(Tuck, 2009: 23)

With my own work on spatial patterns of social reproduction across urban school systems in the UK, the question does linger sometimes about whether empirical and theoretical critiques of social reproduction are self-indulgent. Hattam and Smyth (2015) have drawn on Rancière to critique Bourdieusian approaches to social reproduction, focussing specifically on the tendency for Bourdieu’s work to ‘assume deficit positions for the subjects of our study’ allowing ‘the critical intellectual to play master explicator again’ (Hattam and Smyth: 281). Knowing the work, background and political activity of those in the Bourdieu Study Group in the UK I am extremely sceptical that Bourdieu is being used in this sense. Moreover, whilst theoretical debates are important the more powerful critique of critical intellectuals is to judge them by their own political activism (or lack thereof). Speaking personally, my activism has been concentrated on politicizing the conditions of my own workplace at the university as a PhD rep I also speak up at departmental meetings, a setting which provides a restricted space for dialogue (let alone activism) despite the number of more established critical intellectuals in the room who are otherwise supportive. However, I feel increasingly that this is insufficient and, whether it be from a sociological or geographical perspective, asking what social and political contribution are critiques are actually making to the communities we research should be central to our work.

Embedding the geography of education…

From my perspective the most exciting sessions were the Placing Education sessions organized by two PhD students, Dan Cohen and Chris Lizotte. AERA had included a panel on the critical geographies of school choice at which Ee-Seul Yoon, Kalervo Gulson, Sarah Hainds and others spoke about the potential for critical uses of GIS in education research. However the Placing Education sessions at the AAG provided the largest collection of papers I have seen at any conference up till now, more than twice the size of the two urban education sessions I co-organized last year at the RGS. The presentations were of very high quality and scope and I cannot do justice to all the speakers here. Alice Huff’s paper on the eradication of attendance boundaries with Charter school reform in New Orleans echoed AERA papers on Chicago school reform where the same process has happened. A central concern was the loss of local public space from which communities can both organize and engage in schooling. Caroline Loomis also provided a rich ethnographic account of elementary schools the division of space in a site shared by both a public school and a new, and academically selective, charter school. The latter confirmed patterns of internal segmentation and classed, racial segregation of tracks within gentrifying neighbourhoods as seen in Allison Rhoda’s paper in an excellent AERA session co-organized with Molly Makris. In the AAG session three other papers stood out for me personally, Håkan Forsberg, Dan Cohen (as already mentioned above) and Nicole Nguyen. Håkan’s work, like my own paper on new-old patterns of social reproduction in a selective-suburban grammar school, drew on Bourdieu pushing this approach forward by combining Multiple Correspondence Analysis with GIS to examine neo-liberal school reform in Stockholm. Nicole’s paper provided a rich theoretical analysis of how neo-liberalism alone is not sufficient to understand contemporary racialized and, in her study, militarized nature of school reform, a historical understanding of the deep roots of these processes is also necessary.

As we discussed after the session, there is a general issue of how we place and position ourselves within geography. Having a strong session like this is key to establish the subject as a regular fixture within the discipline and particularly on an international stage. However, this sits next to the contradictory need to speak ‘out’ and proselytize for the geography of education by participating in non-education sessions. Developing an international network for geographers of education either as a SIG or, more likely perhaps in the short-term, something more informal is something we should consider. This presents various difficulties which face researchers working between and across disciplines but is the only way to establish the sub-discipline and, speaking personally, to combat the everyday isolation of ‘lone-wolf’ educational geographers/spatial sociologists of education like myself.

There are a number of other papers, speakers and friends who deserve mention here. Above all, to my old friend Berit Ness who I stayed with in Madison and travelled with me to Detroit for brief post-conference visit. Also to Linn Posey-Maddox who let me know about the departmental conference in Madison and James Glaeckner who met me there. Meeting Michael Bradford, Geoff Whitty and several other key people who were only ‘big-names’ beforehand was particularly exciting and useful. There were two strong sessions of class-conscious urban analysis from the UK and Chile in a paper organized by Emma Jackson, Michaela Benson, Kirsteen Patton and Roger Burrows. Sarah Leaney’s fantastic paper on classed experiences on a council housing estate and Maria Luisa Mendez’s work on the upper and middle classes in Santiago De Chile particularly stood out for me personally. A paper in an earlier AERA session also attempted to transfer the concept of “red-lining” from the housing-insurance market to racialized inequalities in the class-room which I also found particularly interesting. Another UK grouping also made a splash at the AERA with Ruth Boyask and Katy Vigurs speaking in a session on the politics of educational research from a UK perspective. I gave a second paper in an excellent session on the geographies of higher education organized by the great cluster of geographers interested in education from the University of Loughborough. One of the last and best sessions I attended at the AAG was organized by and for ‘Blue Collar Scholars‘. A group of working class scholars, both women and men, and scholars of colour, discussed openly and honestly the difficulties of being ‘a fish out of water’ and confronting the deeply rooted prejudice and inequalities on which academia itself rests. My friend and colleague Mark Griffiths also drew on similar experiences in his paper which discussed how his Northern English, working-class background played a role in his positionality as a white researcher from the globa north in India: the imperial legacy binds us all but acknowledging how class differentiates us is important. The Blue Collar Scholar session was important for allowing a safe and supportive space in which people could speak about their experiences, for me the key  focus has to be how we move from this to to actively changing the institutions we work in which frequently remain implicitly sexist, racist and classist in how they operate. It was a credit to geography that this kind of session made it onto the programme and it topped off a politcally challenging and intellectually rich visit to the Mid-West.

Here’s to old and new friends, politicizing our research and embedding the geography of education!

In solidarity from London,


Conference report – funding acknowledgement

The funds I received allowed All in all the conferences were a rich intellectual and social experience and I am grateful to both the SSPP Small Bursaries Fund and the KCL Grad School Fund for contributions to cover costs.g me to attend two international conferences in Chicago, the annual conferences of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association of Geographers (AAG), as well as a smaller departmental conference at the University of Wisconsin Madison. I gave two papers both at the AAG and whilst I did not participate as a speaker at the other conferences I was active from the floor as a participant and made some useful connections to younger and more established figures in the field. I am grateful to the SSPP Small Bursaries Fund and the KCL Graduate School Conference Fund for financial support they provided.

Going to school, crossing borders (1): visualizing student movements between London LEAs


Figure 1: Cross Border Flows of Students into and out of London 2010-11 (Fruchtman Rheingold Layout, no filter, Modularity Analysis)

Last year I produced a few visualizations of cross-border flows of students moving across Local Education Authority boundaries across the Greater London area and have been meaning to write a blogpost on them for a while. Looking at these cross-border movements provides a broad picture of the geography of student movements between different parts of the capital. It is a loose proxy for geography of school choice too, but only to indicate broad sub-regional movements.

Nationally, London is exceptional in the high proportion of students living in one LEA and going to school in another. The only area that is vaguely similar are the Greater Manchester authorities, where there is also significant movement across borough boundaries. This has implications for funding for LEAs, with money following students. Moreover, it also reveals patterns which may be related to a lack of supply in school places, the reputation of schools in particular boroughs and of course the relatively fluid and easily-crossable boundaries of LEAs in large conurbations.

For fun, and because it is useful for my PhD(!), I started playing around with Gephi the social network package to visualize the movement of secondary school students in the academic year 2010-2011 (http://bit.ly/CrsBrdr10-11). The data is for students who are either educated in or reside in London, hence the ‘outlier’, and outlying, LEA’s like Medway, West Sussex and so forth.  I’m still experimenting with this, so any thoughts are welcome. All three figures show the movement of students living in one borough but attending school in another. The size of nodes is relative to the percentage of students attending school in their The direction of the arrow indicates the movement of students, the thickness of the arrow the number of students. Unfortunately Gephi does not allow a legend for edge thickness but to give you some idea, the largest flow of students is from Greenwich to Bexley with 2887 students. Figure 1 uses the Fruchtman Rheingold algorithm to produce the particle-like layout shown above. Figures 2 and 3 are arranged approximately by geographical location of the different boroughs.


Figure 2: Cross Border Flows of Students into and out of London 2010-11 (Approximate Geographical Layout, no filter, Modularity Analysis)


Figure 3: Cross Border Flows of Students into and out of London 2010-11 (Approximate Geographical Layout, filter: students >=50, Modularity Analysis)

You’ll notice that the LEAs, the ‘nodes’, are grouped by colour. This relates to a modularity analysis which examines community structure of the network. In this case the concentration of edges reflects those LEAs which have more links (i.e. movements of students) between each other. The analysis seems to suggest the existence of ‘sub-regional circuits of schooling’, as the educational market of school choice in London crosses borough boundaries but remains partially constrained by geographical regions and transport links (Butler and Hamnett, 2011: 40, 179). These modularity groups change slightly if the smaller flows of 50 students or less are filtered out (see Figure 3) . However, I would argue that the North-West boroughs of Harrow, Barnet, Brent and Herts are more closely linked to themselves and other central Northern boroughs than to the Western sub-regional circuit. Moreover, showing the small flows is important, given that these are likely to be students who are opting out of local provision for distinctive reasons, such as attending a grammar school instead of their local inner-city school.

On the basis of local knowledge and previous research we can suggest some potential reasons behind these movements. For example, whilst attainment at GCSE in boroughs like Hackney is now improving, at the time (early to mid-2000s) of secondary school choice for many of the students in the visualization above, attainment was only just beginning to improve and remained amongst the lowest in London (http://bbc.in/1otSmIg, see also Butler and Hamnett 2010: 2437) . This probably contributed to the considerable movement of students from Hackney into Islington and in turn from Islington into Camden. In the case of Haringey, faith schools in Enfield are, or at least were, an attractive prospect to parents from Tottenham (catchment areas using 2008/09 data for these schools are visible on educationprofiler.org/?catchment).  The existence of selective schools in Outer London and the Home Counties with very large or historical catchment areas also explains some of the stranger and smaller movements of students. Dame Alice Owen in Potters Bar has its historical roots in Angel, explaining the outward movement of a small number of students from Islington to Hertfordshire each year.

There is much scope for further examination of this data and also the use of Social Network Analysis programmes like gephi for examining educational patterns (For one example in Chile, see: Donoso Diaz and Arias Rojas, 2012). To end on a political note however, the data which these analyses has used is no longer being produced. The DfE scrapped the production of cross-border flows after the data for the 2011-12 academic year. Presumably this was a Govian cull of data production reflecting cuts in departmental budgets, but I am guessing here (there was a consultation and a small number of LEAs responded wanting to keep the data). Moreover, with London’s secondary school system managed less and less at LEA-level as academization proceeds, it will be interesting to see how issues like cross-border flows are resolved (if at all).


Butler, T. and C. Hamnett (2010). “‘You take what you are given’: the limits to parental choice in education in east London.” Environment and planning. A 42(10): 2431.

Butler, T., et al. (2011). Ethnicity, class and aspiration: understanding London’s New East End, The Policy Press.

Donoso Díaz, S. and Ó. Arias Rojas (2012). “Distribución desigual de las oportunidades educativas en el territorio y migración de la matrícula escolar: el caso de la región de Los Lagos (Chile).” Estudios pedagógicos (Valdivia) 38(2): 35-54.