Doing the dirty work of social class? Mothers' work in support of their children's
Professor of Sociology of Education
A major achievement of feminist research has been the broadening of the concept of
work to include 'the invisible labour' of the home and neighbourhood ( Glucksmann
1995; Ungerson 1997). A growing, but still relatively neglected, aspect of domestic
labour is the educative work increasingly expected of parents. Over the past twenty years
there has been an increased emphasis on the accountability of parents for their children's
learning, but more recently expectations that parents become 'home educators' have
grown exponentially. Since the early 1990s, parental involvement has been officially
recognised as a key factor in school improvement and effectiveness (Reynolds and
Cuttance 1992), and in 1994 became a requisite part of a school's development plan
(OFSTED 1994). OFSTED guidelines issued the following year (1995: 98) encouraged
inspectors to explore how well schools help parents to understand the curriculum, the
teaching it provides, and how this can lead to parents and teachers working together to
provide educational support at home.
Miriam Glucksmann (2000) argues that the boundaries between household and market
economies, and what is produced in each, varies over time and between places.
Educational activities have always gone on in middle class households and a significant
numbers of working class ones. However, what has changed is the intensification of this
work within the home. The educational workload of families has grown apace and school
work is now seen to be the responsibility of the family as well as the teacher.
Glucksmann has developed the notion of the 'total social organisation of labour' which
refers to "the social division of all of the labour in a given society of whatever kind
between institutional spheres" (Glucksmann 2000: 19), and we need to deploy such an
understanding of work in order to grasp both the shifting balance in relation to
educational work between family and state schooling, and the current high expectations
and delegated responsibilities imposed on families.
We have reached a point at the beginning of the twenty-first century when parental
involvement is no longer optional. Under the Labour Government, elected in 1997, there
has been an intensification of the move from parental rights to increased parental
responsibilities initiated under the previous Conservative administration (Whitty et al
1998). Edwards and Warin (1999) go as far as to argue that collaboration between home
and school seems to have been superseded by the colonisation of the home by the school.
Certainly, schemes like PACT and IMPACT, devised to ensure parents support their
children's reading and numeracy development, are widespread (Merttens and Vass 1993),
while in 1999 home-school agreements became a statutory requirement, despite
considerable disquiet from both educationalists and parent groups. According to the
Government White Paper 'Excellence in Cities' (DfEE 1998a):
all schools should, in discussion with parents develop a home-school contract.
These agreements will reflect the respective responsibilities of home and school
in raising standards, stating clearly what is expected of the school, of the parent
and the pupil.
With the home-school agreement policy, the expectation that all parents will engage in
'home-school work' with their children has become normative and part of common sense
understanding about what being a parent involves (Crozier 2000). Parents are expected
to carry out a range of tasks, for example, supervising homework, attending school
meetings and providing the correct equipment, as well as offering unconditional support
to the school (Vincent 2000). As Stephen Ball (2003) argues, the range of recent
educational policies which emphasize parenting roles and empower parents in relation to
schools have made the boundary between the private domestic sphere and the public
sphere of schooling increasingly porous. Currently, we have a paradoxical situation in
which the public sphere, including education, is increasingly being privatised, while the
private sphere of the home is increasingly being publicly regulated and activities within it
held up for scrutiny and judgement. According to Brannen (2002) family time is today's
symbol of proper family life. Yet, family time is increasingly transformed into work time.
As Kay Standing asserts, parental involvement in schooling has become:
A form of unpaid household labour that breaks down the public/private divide by
taking the work of the home into the school and that of the school into the home.
Now that the prevailing dominant discourse is one which sees education neither as an
entitlement nor an end in its own right, but as a means to enhancing economic growth and
proficiency, a case could be made that parents' work in support of their children's
schooling should increasingly be viewed as an economic as well as an educational
activity. What is uncontestable is that supporting schooling has a substantial economic
impact on families. In 2003 for the first time in the history of state schooling parents were
spending more per annum than their children's schools on textbooks (Townsend 2003).
This simultaneous redrawing and blurring of the boundaries between household
economies and the new developing market economy in state schooling potentially
increases the workload and the spending of all families. It also compounds existing
educational inequalities between families. The current political preoccupation with
parental involvement in education is underpinned by an assumption that all parents share
an identical experience of involvement in their children's schooling. We have a discourse
of parenting in which gendered, racialised and classed notions of parent are not
acknowledged, rendering inequalities existing between parents invisible. The actual
processes of parental involvement are very different. I want to examine these processes of
supporting children's schooling more closely and develop a gendered and classed analysis
of parental educational work in the home by drawing on two qualitative research studies,
one of mothers' involvement in their children's schooling in two urban primary schools
conducted from 1992 until 1995 (Reay 1998), and the second, an ESRC project on the
transition to secondary schooling carried out from 1997 until 2000 (Reay and Lucey
A gendered division of labour: Close up engagement or helping at a distance
In both research studies, within a majority of families there was a clear division of labour in
which children's schooling was seen as primarily the mother's responsibility. There was little
evidence in any of the women's accounts of men being closely involved in monitoring or
supporting their children's educational performance. Intense daily work with children was very
much the province of the mother. They were the ones with 'the finger on the pulse'. Men
occasionally helped out with school work, particularly in middle-class homes and would find
time to attend parents' evenings in school, but what came across very clearly was that parental
involvement meant very different things to mothers and fathers. So the vast majority of fathers
'helped out', while the main responsibility lay with their female partners. 'Helping out'
comprised a wide spectrum of different types of support from Janice's husband "who'll maybe
sit with them and read once in a while if I haven't got time to" to Christine's husband "who
helps a lot. He'll pick the kids up one or two nights a week, hear them read and always goes to
Fathers, and in particular the middle class ones, were better at public prominence than private
home-based support with school work, and hardly any of them got involved in the practical
maintenance work that involved physical rather than mental labour, ironing school blouses or
preparing packed lunches. As Evans asserts in his research into primary schooling in Australia:
In equating parenthood with these forms of school activity, fathers are able to shift their
parental responsibility from the home, to the more masculine territory of maintenance
work at school or attending meetings. Within their families such fathers are able to
absent themselves from what little parenting they do at weekends or during evenings, in
order to perform what are recognised as important tasks (Evans 1988: 87).
As one father explained when turning down my request to interview him "Well I suppose I'm
typical of most dads in that I'm only involved at a distance". However, mothers rarely had the
option of being involved 'at a distance'.
Mothers as Educators: 'Doing what comes naturally'
There was very little difference among women, regardless of their social class1 or ethnicity, in
either the importance they attached to education or the mental energy they devoted to their
children's schooling. Where they did differ was in the types of involvement they engaged in
and the level of difficulty they had to negotiate in order to be involved. Particularly in relation
to involvement in academic work, mothers' own educational histories continued to exert a
powerful impact on their involvement in the present. Many of the working class women had had
1 The social class attribution of mothers was based on a composite of socio-economic categorisation, both
their own, their partners and their parents, their own level of educational qualifications and that of their
parents, housing tenure, and how they self-defined in class terms. The intention was to work with three
groupings, the unambiguously middle class, the unambiguously working class and a third grouping that I
have called elsewhere (Reay 1998) women on the boundaries of class. However, in both samples this latter
grouping was small , being less than 10% of the total.
negative experiences of schooling which undermined any sense of expertise in relation to
academic work and left them feeling disempowered in relation to education. Cultural capital
weaves itself through women's accounts of their own schooling just as much as it does in their
tales of involvement in their children's schooling. The working class women invariably talked
about having mothers who were too busy working a double shift in the home and the labour
market to devote any time to their educational progress. In contrast, the middle class mothers
were far more likely to refer to positive educational experiences and parental interest in their
schooling. Schools may not have been making educational demands of mothers in the 1950s,
60s and 70s when these women were growing up, but that did not mean that many middle class
mothers were not independently undertaking educational work with their children in the home.
This class difference was facilitated by home circumstances and the much greater availability of
mothers in middle class homes. While three-quarters of the women from working class
backgrounds had mothers who were working full-time in the labour market while they were
school children, more than half of the women from middle class backgrounds had mothers who
were full-time housewives while they were at school.
Inequalities resulting from the past were compounded by those in the present. Working class
mothers, particularly if they were bringing up children without the financial and emotional
support of a partner, were very hard pressed, and talked of how little free time they had after
finishing paid work. Cathy's comment below was typical:
When I get in in the evening the first thing I do is cook them something, get them to eat,
a little bit of schoolwork or whatever. You see by the time I pick them up at half five or
six o clock it hardly leaves you any time to do the schoolwork. You are kind of thinking
about getting them ready for school the next day, you know, making sure they've got
clean underwear, something ironed, sorting out something they may need to take into
school the next day. Straight away I need to start thinking about what needs to be done,
meals, washing up, cleaning, ironing and on top of that the spellings and the reading -
Other working class mothers were also likely to stress the physical and practical care aspects of
supporting schooling - the emphasis was on sorting out clothing, making packed lunches, the
trials and tribulations of getting children out of bed and into school on time - the practical
maintenance work of involvement in schooling (Smith and Griffiths 1990):
I'm trying to get him to be more independent, but I suppose behind that I've organised
everything. It all has to be organised for him so for instance his clothes are always laid
out in the same place for him ready to put on. I've got a list in the kitchen of the things
he needs for school and what day he needs to take what in.
(Carol, working class mother)
It was mainly working class mothers who spelt out the details of the practical maintenance work
involved in supporting schooling. Middle class mothers stressed other aspects of support in their
interviews which nearly always stopped short of 'doing the dishes'. Here the emphasis was
more on the academic: helping with curriculum assignments, doing maths cards with children,
helping with vocabulary, giving support with essay writing etc. Laura is an extreme example
because whenever I asked her about practical activities she invariably responded by describing a
You asked me about breakfast that's when I'll go over his spellings but it's hard to
squeeze in. You see all three of my children learn the violin by the Suzuki method in the
morning. They have to listen to the tape so at breakfast the cello tape goes on so that's
when they have their practice time. (Laura, middle class mother)
Here the practical maintenance work disappears behind a middle class emphasis on educational
and cultural support work in the home. What was striking was that for a significant number of
these middle class mothers in both research projects there were no boundaries between home
and paid work. A significant number of the middle class women worked in the education sector
of the labour market as university lecturers, teachers, educational psychologists, advisors and
educational administrators. Consequently, educational work in the home with their children was
an extension of their paid work in the labour market.
There was a similar extension of paid work for many of the working class women, However, it
operated in a very different way and without the returns of educational and cultural capital that
the middle class mothers input generated. Many worked in the service sector or in servicing
jobs. They were employed as cleaners, care workers, shop assistants, child minders, dinner
ladies and waitresses. Here too a close correlation could be seen between the types of activities
women engaged in the labour market and the activities they emphasised as important in relation
to their involvement in their children's schooling. This is not to say that working class women
did not engage in academic work, they did. Similarly, middle class mothers undertook practical
maintenance work. Rather, there was a difference of emphasis with mothers seeming to stress
what they were familiar and comfortable with. This differential emphasis was supported and
reinforced by a further gendered paid labour carried out in the homes of a majority of the
middle class mothers (Gregson and Lowe 1995; Anderson 2000). Over 60% of the middle class
mothers had cleaners, au pairs, nannies or a combination of the three. Coincidentally, one of the
working class mothers in the second research project turned out to be the cleaner of one of the
middle class mothers that I interviewed. While she complained that she never had time to hear
her daughter read, her employer timetabled a half hour reading slot with her son every evening.
So middle class mothers' focus on academic work was facilitated by the paid domestic labour of
working class women in middle class homes. Maybe part of the reason why middle class
mothers did not stress the practical maintenance work of supporting children's schooling was
because for a considerable number of them it was other women's work not their own.
Conversely, many of the working class mothers resisted a construction of themselves as their
children’s teachers. Their ambivalence about assuming a teaching role was rooted in mothers'
differential access to dominant cultural capital and what women saw as appropriate educational
work for 'people like them' As I have argued earlier, this was linked to their paid work in the
labour market, and the skills and competencies they saw themselves as possessing. As a
consequence, despite all the time and energy mothers like Carla, Lisa and Cathy devoted to their
children's schooling, they could not compete with their middle class counterparts. I am not
trying to create a binary between working and middle class women but to describe a strong
tendency across the data for women to concentrate on utilising the skills and competencies they
have developed in the labour market when engaging in involvement in schooling in the home.
The working class women's transcripts were saturated with references to 'supporting' and
'helping out'. Carol articulated this most clearly but many of the working class women used the
terminology of support and servicing to describe their involvement in children's schooling:
I see my job as 'backing the teacher up'. I don’t see it as being my job to teach her. I
leave that to the teacher.
In contrast, the middle class mothers used a far more directive language in which they could be
seen to be 'taking control', exercising initiative, and 'laying down the rules':
I had to really push to get things done. Richard was having problems and I wanted him
assessed but school couldn't really see the problems so I had to keep on going in, talk to
the teacher, go and see the Headteacher. If I hadn't kept on going in nothing would have
happened. I had to make them see there was a problem and do something about it.
(Jane, middle class mother)
I spent hours talking to the Headteacher and she wasn't doing anything so I went to the
Borough authority and asked for support. The Head didn't like it but they sent someone
and she assessed him. That's why he has a special support teacher because I got him
assessed. It was recognised as a school assessment because even though I initiated it, it
was done through the school. (Lilian, middle class mother)
In all of this we can see the importance of temporality and spatiality that Glucksmann (2000)
emphasises in her concept of 'the total social organisation of labour'. Work in very different
times and places impacts on contemporary mothers' work in support of schooling in the
domestic sphere. But there is a further issue about the work this work does. There is a
sedimentation of levels of privilege; an accumulation of advantage/disadvantage from work in
other times and places - the contemporary labour market as well as the homes these mothers
grew up in.
Complementing, compensating or modifying: differing roles in relation to schooling
Similar class differences to the ones that I have described in relation to the work of
parental involvement were also evident in the roles mothers adopted towards schooling.
While the largest group of mothers, predominantly the working class women,
conceptualised their relationship to schooling as one of complementing the education
their children received, a further group, in particular middle-class mothers, saw their
role as a compensatory one. Other mothers, also predominantly middle-class, spoke
about their efforts to modify the school provision. These three roles were by no means
mutually exclusive. Middle-class mothers moved in and out of different positions with
regard to schooling. They could do 'the supportive work' but also, at times, saw a need
for being directive and 'taking charge'. For these women 'supporting the teacher' could
rapidly transmute into 'being the teacher'. Manju employed a tutor for her daughter but
also took on a teaching role in the home:
Education starts at home, starts from her time after school actually. She is in year
five now and I feel she has to do some serious work at home because she hasn't
covered a lot of the stuff at school. I find I'm having to compensate despite the
fact that according to the school she's doing quite well.
Similarly, Claire sent Sophie to Kumon Maths classes and oversaw her practice every
evening, as well as setting Sophie additional educational work:
We go over the Kumon maths techniques every evening, that takes about half an
hour. But then I've been worrying about her writing standards so I've been setting
her essay writing so we can concentrate on writing techniques, grammar, spelling,
punctuation, all that sort of stuff
Parental involvement is gendered, it is also powerfully classed. Mothers were investing time
and energy in the types of school support that 'came naturally'. And for working class mothers
neither taking control when there are educational problems nor intense academic drilling and
emphasis on high status cultural activities came naturally. I am not arguing that it came
naturally to all the middle class mothers, there is an issue of degree here. But academic work
was far more likely to be 'what people like us did' for the middle class mothers than it was for
working class mothers. Economic capital also had a contributory and compounding impact, and
not just in relation to the ability to pay for domestic help. A few of the middle class families I
interviewed were spending over £100 a week on private tuition and cultural activities such as
music and drama for their child - more than some of the working class lone mothers on benefit
were getting in total to live on. However, the norm among the middle class families was to pay
for at least one out of school activity, while a sizeable minority paid for their child to attend two
Being able to afford culturally and educationally enriching activities added to middle
class educational advantage. Many of the middle class parents had themselves done very
well at school and this educational success translated into self confidence and a sense of
entitlement in relation to parental involvement. So cultural capital is powerfully
implicated in mothers’ ability to successfully support their children’s schooling.
Financial resources, the requisite skills and competencies, confidence in relation to the
educational system, a previously history of being supported educationally in the home,
educational knowledge and information about schooling all had a bearing on the extent to
which mothers felt empowered to intervene in their child’s educational trajectory and the
confidence with which they embarked on such action. For Angie, a white, working class
lone mother, whose account stresses over and over again the importance of education, her
personal feelings of incompetence and lack of confidence mitigated against her
embarking on any action with a sense of efficacy:
I have tried, I really have. I knew I should be playing a role in getting Darren
to read but I wasn’t qualified. Therefore it put extra pressure on me because I
was no good at reading myself, it was too important for me to handle and I’d
get very upset and angry at Darren.
Attempting to modify the school’s offer also had unpredictable and upsetting
I always found if I went to the classteacher, she’d take it very personal and think I
was attacking her. I wasn’t. I was just bringing it to her attention in case she
didn’t know, you know, that in my opinion he’s not progressing. The way I see
him and from what I expect of him I don’t see the progress. But I’d say ‘I’m not
saying that it’s because you’re not teaching my son. I do realise you have a class
of thirty and you’re only one person and you do so much and you’re expected to
do a lot of other things because the National Curriculum expects so much of you.
I do understand about that. But what can I do about his reading?” But when I did
go to the classteachers I think they took it too personal and felt I was attacking
them when really it was that it is so important I couldn’t let it go.
It is important to reiterate that there exists a significant minority of parents whose own negative
experiences of schooling makes involvement in their children's schooling difficult, even painful
(McNamara et al 2000). Working class mothers invariably cited the pitfalls, dangers and
misunderstandings they encountered in their own education. Working-class mothers who feel ill-
equipped to engage in repair work in the home and lack financial resources are reliant on the school
to get the job done. For Josie, in particular, the school had come to be perceived as ‘the last and only
resort’. Her personal history of immigration, working-class background and academic failure
resulted in a sense that there were no other options:
When I went to see his teacher I was pretty upset about Leigh not reading and it may have
come across like ‘how come Leigh’s not reading. If you aren’t hearing him read what are you
doing then?’I was maybe coming across like that but what I meant was can he possibly have
some extra time. Can someone hear (sic), for God’s sake, give him some extra reading and
let him get on because it’s making my life harder. I was getting so anxious about him not
reading cos I couldn’t really help him. I’d get upset and frustrated and it wasn’t doing Leigh
any good because if he can’t read what was happening. (Josie).
Within the sphere of parental involvement, a potent cocktail of personal educational history,
labour market position, paid domestic labour support or its absence, and the skills and
competencies developed both inside and outside of the labour market generate powerful
reproductive tendencies that shape the relationship between class groupings and education.
Women were mostly reproducing their classed position in the labour market in their educational
work in the home and this work contributed to and intensified educational inequalities. The
ways in which inequalities are exacerbated by the intensification of parental involvement in
schooling are made clear in Maria's words:
You need parental involvement, You need parents to be able to complement what you
are doing but that's all it should be. It shouldn't be any more. You see not all parents can
do it. Not all parents speak English, not all parents read and write so how can they help
their children at home. They're at a disadvantage anyway so when they come to school
they've got to have the help there. You should be able to say to the teacher "Look I can't
do it. You're qualified, can you do something about it?' without the teacher getting all
upset. There's a lot of parents who can't, just can't do it.
Supporting children's schooling was an easier process if mothers had access to material
and cultural resources and the opportunity to develop educational skills and
competencies. Women need to feel confident about tackling educational work in the
home and to have access to material resources to support such work. Without these other
essential ingredients of cultural capital, the time of mothers like Angie, Maria and Josie
did not count to anything like the same extent as that of the more privileged women. Yet,
it is mothers like Maria, Josie and Angie who are being targeted under current
educational initiatives despite the fact that they are the mothers with the fewest resources
with which to meet government demands for parental involvement.
The work of social reproduction is located in the interlinking of the domestic sphere with
public institutions. The self production of class collectivities (Wacquant 1991: 52) goes
on in the home and is predominantly the work of mothers. Mothers, not fathers, are the
target of policy moves to improve home-school relationships, while the redistribution of
responsibility for education away from schools and towards parents (Mayall 2002) has
disproportionately increased the work load of women in relation to that of male partners.
The last twenty years has seen the transformation of women's domestic labour to include
extensive educational work in the home. As I have tried to demonstrate through data from
two research studies on home school relationships, in the sphere of parental involvement,
the division between the public and the private has started to collapse in on itself. For a
majority of mothers in both studies there is a continuation rather than a separation of their
paid work with work in support of their children's schooling. This is not to posit any
causal link. Rather, women's waged work generated particular tendencies in relation to
the nature of their involvement in children's schooling. The type of paid work they
undertook did not determine the sort of involvement they had but it did help to explain
what were largely class patterns of involvement.
However, what is key is the work that this mainly maternal work does. The research
studies, discussed above, of mothers’ work in support of children’s education within the
state system suggests a very different relationship between women and social class from
orthodox perspectives which view their activities as largely peripheral. Over twenty
years ago Basil Bernstein suggested that changes in the composition of the middle classes
were transforming the mother "into a crucial preparing agent of cultural reproduction
who provides access to symbolic forms and shapes the dispositions of her children so
they are better able to exploit the possibilities of public education" (Bernstein 1975: 131).
The mothers in both these studies, in particular middle-class mothers, are at the front line
of social reproduction, heavily investing in terms of time and mental and emotional
labour. Mothers have a different relationship to the generation of cultural capital and,
concomitantly, social class than fathers. It is mothers who are making cultural capital
work for their children. And it is they, more than men, who appear to be the agents of
social class reproduction. In particular, mothering work bridges the gap between family
social class and children's performance in the classroom. Maternal practices demonstrate
that class is much more than materiality (Reay 1997). It is played out, not only in
mothers' activities in support of children's schooling, but also in women's attitudes,
assumptions and levels of entitlement in relation to their children's education. It is
mothers who are the arbiters of taste (Bourdieu 1986) and the home based educators of
their children. And the work they do as mothers is often more important than the work
they do in the labour market in maintaining social hierarchy and the class inequalities that
Class practices are historically specific. At the beginning of the twenty first century class
processes within families are integrally linked to the operations of the wider
marketplace. An analysis which conceptualises mothering work as strategically located in
relation to schooling systems allows for an understanding of mothering work as social
reproduction in action. Within a capitalist society in which market forces are ascendent
(Hutton 1995; Jordan, Redley and James 1994), ‘acting in their child’s best interests’
inevitably means middle class mothers are simultaneously acting against the interests of
the children of other, less privileged, mothers. As I have pointed out earlier, this is not to
blame middle class mothers but rather to see all mothers as caught up in educational
markets which operate on the (il)logic of ‘to her who has yet more shall be given’.
Educational success becomes a function of social, cultural and material advantages in
which mothers' caring within the family is transmuted by the operations of the wider
marketplace to serve its competitive, self interested individualistic ethos. Mothers'
practical maintenance, educational and emotional work underpins the workings of
educational markets contributing to a culture of winners and losers within which one
child's academic success is at the expense of other children's failure.
Theorising such social inequalities has become increasingly problematic within a
contemporary educational marketplace underpinned by a rhetoric of classlessness.
Current discourses of classlessness perpetrate the fantasy that ungendered parents only
have to make the right choices for their children for educational success to automatically
follow. As the words of the women in both research studies illustrate, the reality is far
more complex. It is one in which gender, 'race' and class continue to make significant
differences. In Britain class infuses everyday practices and social interactions. As Beck
It is evident in speech...in the sharp class divisions between residential
areas.....in types of education, in clothing and in everything that can be
included under the concept of 'lifestyle' (Beck 1992: 102)
Implicit within the concept of 'a classless society' are more equitable social relations and enhanced
mobility. However, despite all the talk of classlessness and increased social mobility, in 2003
British class differentials in educational attainment remain the same as they were fifty years ago
(Blanden and Gregg 2004; Stewart 2005). Parental, and in particular, mothers' involvement in
children's schooling contributes to the maintenance of this inequitable status quo. This is not the
same as asserting that reducing parental involvement will result in the reduction of educational
inequalities. Rather, I would argue, that within the contemporary individualistic, competitive,
educational marketplace with its rhetoric of 'doing the best for your own child', the middle classes
will always utilise their economic and cultural resources to ensure the continued reproduction of
their children's educational advantage and it is mothers who are at the front line, ensuring the hard
work of reproduction gets done.
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