‘It has become my nightmare’

A group of psychologists came together at a recent webinar to discuss the British Psychological Society’s #MakeIt10 campaign, to have social class included as the 10th protected characteristic under the Equality Act. The webinar also saw the launch of new guidance on using community psychology approaches to reduce the impact of inequality. Ella Rhodes reports.

Although the psychological evidence base which considers social class is relatively scant, a British Psychological Society Senate-voted campaign has been working to pull it together across four areas – education, health and healthcare, business and industry, and communities and housing. Head of Psychology at Leeds Beckett University, Dr Bridgette Rickett, is leading #MakeIt10 along with colleagues Dr Matthew Easterbrook (University of Sussex), Professor Paula Reavey (London South Bank University), Dr Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington (LSE), Dr Carl Walker (University of Brighton) and Dr Maxine Woolhouse (Leeds Beckett University). Their reports were due to be published in June. 

Rickett said she hoped this work would lead to people having the same legal protections as those with other protected characteristics, and encourage the systematic measurement of social gaps and ceilings. She said the group was also planning a series of seminars to stimulate psychological and interdisciplinary research in this area – Rickett said the UK was well behind other countries in examining psychological aspects of social class, and was hoping to create a coalition of likeminded organisations to support and share the group’s work. 

When discussing social class, people often point out the difficulty in defining it, Rickett said. ‘We think it’s clear what social class is: the evidence suggests that we know the difference between people based on class and we judge accordingly. In terms of our understanding of social class, we thought long and hard about this and what we were going to use as a working definition. We see social class as a category which people are socialised into, which affords different amounts of economic, cultural and social capital. People often talk about class in terms of economics and of course that’s crucial and real for people day to day, but there’s also conferred cultural and social capital, which carries with it power or a lack of power in certain contexts.’ 

Dr Matthew Easterbrook has been examining the impact of social class in education and Rickett shared some of his work ahead of the group’s report being published. Easterbrook has used free school meal eligibility as a proxy measurement for social class, and found that these children lag behind their peers by the equivalent of five months of learning on starting primary school. By the end of primary school this gap rises to nine months, and by the time children start their GCSEs it’s 18 months. Children on free school meals are also four times more likely to be suspended from school and five times more likely to be permanently expelled. 

Rickett explained that if discrimination on the basis of social class was against the law, then schools would need to measure social class using more standardised and comparable methods; they could look more closely at the intersectional impacts of class, race and gender; and increase awareness of social class among school staff.  

Rickett also shared some of Dr Maxine Woolhouse’s work on the role of social class and inequality in health, which has a larger evidence base than education. There is strong evidence that class determines health disparities, she said, and inequality reduces healthy and absolute life expectancies for lower and working class people. Research has found that perceived social class affects diagnostics and treatment pathways, leads to different treatment recommendations, more paternalistic maternity care, and even assumptions of individual blame in asthma treatment. 

What would success look like for the #MakeIt10? As well as the inclusion of social class as a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, Rickett said that during the campaign she hoped to showcase the impact of psychologically-informed evidence to improve policy and make meaningful change for people and their communities. Goals are for the BPS to be established as a best practice organisation in capturing data on class and to use that to improve its own diversity and opportunity, and to build long-term partnerships and coalitions to achieve impact beyond the campaign. 

Clinical and Community psychologist, and outgoing chair of the BPS Community Psychology Section, Dr Carl Harris, shared some of the insights from community psychology which are relevant for tackling the impact of inequality. Harris pointed out that community psychology is very different across countries and contexts, but shares many of the same principles. These include considering individuals in terms of their own context or how they develop within a given context and interact with it. A particularly important part of community psychology, Harris added, were values such as empowerment, liberation and social justice.

Harris pointed to Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological systems theory which situates the individual at the centre of numerous contexts which surround a person, including the microsystem which includes friends and family, the exosystem, including the influence of the media and laws, and the macrosystem which includes the economy, dominant ideologies and culture. Harris said that when we consider the Bronfenbrenner Ecological Systems Theory the macrosystem could also include inequality and the impact of social class. He showed a graph which demonstrated the relationship between mental health problems and inequality – countries which have higher income inequality also have higher rates of diagnosed mental illnesses.  While it is difficult to make changes to these larger macrosystems, Harris said, community psychology could help psychologists to intervene in people’s lives beyond the individual. 

Sally Zlotowitz, a Clinical and Community Psychologist and CEO of the charity Art Against Knives, was joined by Aysen Dennis – a housing activist who is part of the Aylesbury Estate Campaign. This estate has been undergoing regeneration for 20 years, resulting in a great deal of uncertainty for the estate’s social housing tenants.

Zlotowitz started by asking Dennis, who has lived in the Aylesbury Estate for 22 years, what type of housing-based oppression she had been subject to. She explained that during council meetings to discuss the future of the estate, working class voices were never heard. 

Speaking of the impact on her mental health, Dennis said: ‘It has become my nightmare… If we think about our community, BAME community, they don’t want to get involved with the local authorities, some of them don’t speak the language… they know that they’ve been always ignored, discriminated, and this is affecting their mental health.’ 

Dennis spoke of the demolition of Heygate estate, which now includes around 3,000 flats including 82 council flats. She explained in the playground of this development children from the council flats are not allowed to use the playground. ‘This is openly discriminating people because of our class, just being working class people you get humiliated and discriminated.’ 

Dennis said that, as an activist, one of her aims was to pass on important information to fellow people in the community to help empower them and inform them. She said her community in Aylesbury had been ‘incredibly colourful… Different colours, different music, everything is so colourful… but what are they trying to do? Maybe put some colour on the outside but internally all grey suited people, there is no colour at all.’ 

Zlotowitz finished by suggesting ways for psychologists to include social and economic justice in their own work. She suggested getting involved in policy campaigns through organisations such as the BPS, joining collective groups such as Psychologists for Social Change, and using psychological skills and knowledge to get involved in broader civil action to tackle inequality. 

- Read the campaign reports via www.bps.org.uk/our-campaigns/tackling-social-class-inequalities

BPS guidance on using community psychology to reduce inequality.

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