Underachievement by white working class children is symptomatic of larger issues plaguing the UK education system

Underachievement by white working class children is symptomatic of larger issues plaguing the UK education system

From The London School of Economics 

In the UK, it is widely documented both in academic circles and in the popular press that white working-class children consistently do quite poorly at school. Garth Stahl questions the phenomenon of white working-class underperformance, and attempts to show how a neoliberal governance of education does very little to raise attainment and aspiration of this particular ethnic group.

As evidenced by the Parliamentary hearing on the Underperformance of White Working Class Children in February 2014, the phenomenon of white working-class disengagement from education continues to be a subject of concern and controversial debate in the United Kingdom. The persistence of white working-class underachievement was also noted widely in the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (OFSTED, 2014) annual report for the 2012-2013 academic year, where a poverty of low expectations was linked to ‘stubbornly low outcomes that show little sign of improvement’ (p. 1).

As an educational ethnographer, who employs equity-based frameworks to examine the interplay of identity, culture, and schooling, I have a particular interest in these so-called ‘stubborn’ outcomes. I also worked as an educator in predominantly white working-class and boy heavy schools in London for nine years. During this time, I spent a year researching the educational experiences and aspirations of 23 white working-class boys in order to better understand how they came to understand the educational provision provided.

Many of these young men negotiated their identities in schools which were largely inadequate in terms of teaching and learning. Through my study it became apparent that, in order to understand the low academic achievement of the white working-class, it is imperative to examine the phenomenon both historically and contextually.

Neoliberal educational practices frame the problem

Neoliberalism, as a form of governance, privileges a de-regulated market which requires its citizens to enter into a competition for precious resources in order to secure their own advantage. The neoliberal agenda within education involves a high level of accountability through league tables and exam scores, which create a culture performativity amongst students and teachers.

The UK education sector has been beset by a neoliberal agenda, which continually frames how teaching, learning and equity manifest. The student experience has been increasingly shaped by certain neoliberal reforms which shape the provision of education on offer to working-class families, namely marketization of education, severe reduction in finances, inadequate teacher training and recruitment, for profit exam-boards, etc.

During the Michael Gove era, educational policy documents often promoted an idea of aspiration that was highly neoliberal, self-serving, competitive, and only interested in self-advancement. It should be noted that, within these documents, the white working-class are portrayed as devoid of aspiration: “white young people have lower educational aspirations than most other ethnic groups” (Department for Children, 2008). It’s as if aspiration is something you either possess or do not. I consider the act of ‘aspiring’ a negotiation; a continual process of desire, reflexivity, defense mechanisms and guarding against shame as one comes to understand the cards he or she have been dealt in life and how to strategically play them.

Aspiration, of course, is highly influenced by dominant neoliberal ideologies, which govern school cultures and privilege a version of the aspirational self that is competitive, self-serving and adept at navigating potential risk. As the young men in my study came to navigate their schooling and the labels placed upon them, they found ways to constitute themselves as ‘subjects of value’ though it is a process that involves daily reaffirmation.

Schools – in a haze of anxiety around accountability – embrace any trend going, in order to meet the neoliberal demands of what is commonly referred to the ‘A-C economy’ of exam pass rates. As expected, such a push toward gaining good test results introduces a pessimism and labeling concerning students’ ability and potential. My research on white working-class boys’ engagements with education found them to be largely victims of ‘education rationing’ or what has been termed bureaucratic, institutional, and classroom ‘educational triage’, where some students who embody certain desirable characteristics are saved, while many students are written off from the moment they enter the school building.

Within an era of neoliberalism where schools are evaluated according to exam pass rates, schools have found it easier and advantageous to separate out students who may not be the desired clientele and who struggle with learning. While this is all quite depressing, to make matters worse, the boys in my study are well aware of how they are labeled in educational environments, the poor quality of education they are receiving, and also the constraints of their social class position. Furthermore, they were adept at discussing how their current constraints were in contrast to the rhetoric of achievement and social mobility.

Thinking contextually regarding equity

White working-class boys’ lack of academic attainment cannot be studied in a bubble. Typical explanations of why white working-class pupils in particular underachieve usually point to uninvolved parenting, the effects of poverty, low literacy, low aspiration, post-industrial generational unemployment, and the relative absence of targeted support. These are, of course, all significant factors and, as both and educator and researcher, I observed each one of these factors directly impacting the education of students.

However, there is no avoiding the fact that white working-class underachievement is symptomatic of a much larger social, cultural and economic inequality, which plagues the British education system, in which pupils’ performance has an extraordinarily strong positive association with social class. After all, while many of the white working-class, specifically boys, underperform academically according to national statistics, it must be noted that, according to the DfE, across the UK ‘nearly half of young people still do not achieve five good GCSEs at school. More still do not reach that standard in English and mathematics. And one in twenty leaves without a single GCSE pass’.

Despite the ongoing rhetoric of reform (and it is often merely rhetoric), the majority of the white working-class face tremendous barriers (social, financial, identity-based) as they navigate a system of entrenched inequality. Even for those who do achieve those precious grades and intend to pursue a university qualification, they will hardly have it easy – especially with the coalition government cutting financial support to families from poorer backgrounds, trebling university tuition fees, and failing to acknowledge the stagnant development of professional and managerial jobs. In such a society where the rhetoric and reality are so mismatched, student underachievement or disengagement, in its many diverse forms, can hardly be considered surprising.

Constituting ‘value’ in contexts of devaluation

As the recent report Underperformance of White Working Class Children sees it, compared to other ethnic groups, white working-class British children are less resilient in the face of poverty, deprivation, and low socio-economic status. After all, students of other ethnic backgrounds attending the same schools and experiencing the same poverty do perform marginally better on national exams. While this is contentious, a more nuanced view of aspiration and so-called resilience emerged from my own research.

The aspirations of the boys in my study were influenced heavily by their awareness of their disadvantaged socio-economic status and their perception of the quality of their education. In response, they often excluded themselves from the school’s neoliberal “aspirations” agenda of university entrance and social mobility. Such exclusion can perhaps be misconstrued as a lack of resilience. Internalising their potential academic failure, they preferred employment that was ‘respectable working-class’ such as trade work which they considered for “the likes of them” and where they would feel comfortable. My time spent with these white working-class boys, in an era of high-stakes testing and extreme pressure, showed me how fear and shame can haunt working-class relationships to education.

Within an era of pervasive neoliberalism, success becomes narrow and quantifiable. Certain conceptions of success become instilled in staff and students alike through discourse. In the pressure for exam grades, certain conceptions of success come to the forefront, and it becomes increasingly complicated for students to combine an identity of academic success with a traditional and respectable working-class identity. Throughout the research, the boys discussed how fear was a two-sided coin, a fear of failure and a fear of success, as the boys often spoke to me about wanting to be considered ‘good’ and ‘able’ but not ‘too good’. They clearly had a fear of academic failure and – given the quality of education available – that fear was entirely rational.

On the other hand, they also feared academic success. Good exam results would mean pressure to further their education, and to enter into areas that felt foreign, such as university, where they potentially would be made to feel uncomfortable and become subject to various risks. This fear left the boys I knew consciously fighting to guard and protect their self-worth against the dominant school culture, which threatened to stigmatise them whether they succeeded or not.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.

About the Author

Garth StahlGarth Stahl (@GarthStahl) is a Lecturer in Literacy and Sociology at University of South Australia. He is a theorist of sociology of education. His research interests lie on the nexus of neoliberalism and socio-cultural studies of education, identity, equity/inequality and social change. Currently, his research projects and publications encompass theoretical and empirical studies of learner identities, gender and youth, sociology of schooling in a neoliberal age, gendered subjectivities, equity and difference, and educational reform. Of particular interest to him is exploring counternarratives to neoliberalism around ‘value’ and ‘respectability’ for working-class youth. His book, entitled Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration: Educating White Working-class Boys is now available from Routledge.

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