Problems with white working class boys plague UK school system

By Garth Stahl

In the United Kingdom, it is widely documented both in academic circles and in the popular press that white working-class children consistently underperform at school. Today this ethnic group in the UK is considered to be one of the lowest performing in educational attainment. The underperformance of boys, especially of boys from marginalized backgrounds, has also been of concern here in Australia as seen with recent policies such as Boys: Getting it Right (2002).

Specifically in the UK there has been concern about the underachievement of white working-class boys and their lack of aspiration for many years. According to the UK’s Department for Children in 2008, “white young people have lower educational aspirations than most other ethnic groups”.

When I first began working as a teacher in England in 2002, I taught at a ‘failing’ school in Essex with a low level of teaching and learning (a school that has now been closed). I went on to teach in and around London for nine years, primarily in white working-class schools with high levels of disaffection. Throughout my professional and academic experience, I have been fortunate enough to engage with white working-class boys in a variety of different roles and contexts either as a volunteer, a teacher, an administrator, a friend or a resource; each role has increased my understanding of their identity construction and relationship to education.

These experiences taught me important first-hand lessons about disengagement, cultural deprivation and the provision of education in British society.

They also led me to spend a year researching the educational aspirations of 23 white working-class boys in South London (ages 14-16) in order to better understand how they saw themselves in relation to the educational provision provided. 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 what is happening in their lives now and to see what has happened to similar boys in the past.

The central questions which informed the research were:

  • What shapes the aspirations of these young men?
  • How do these young men comprehend their own disadvantage?
  • How do these boys make sense of expectations surrounding social mobility?
  • What factors contribute to them ‘buying into’ education or ‘buying out’ of education?
  • How does the system set them up to fail?

Many of these young men grew up in schools which were largely inadequate in terms of teaching and learning yet – paradoxically – were robust in preaching the ‘raising aspiration’ agenda. This agenda was so embedded in the politics of the time, the Michael Gove-era. It was a time when educational policy documents often promoted an idea of aspiration that was self-serving, competitive, and only interested in self-advancement.

Competition for credentials, jobs or income taught by schools at the time were in direct contrast to the boys’ family lives which were grounded in emotional commitment, social ties and collective responsibility for the vulnerable. A similar type of competition in schooling can be seen in Australia today where NAPLAN league tables and HSC league tables are produced and there is much talk about which schools ‘top’ the tables, which schools are ‘losers’ and identifying the most ‘successful’ students.

As a researcher, I was continuously drawn to the fascinating disjuncture between the values and aspiration for the boys coming from their schools and the values of their families, where helping each other and loyalty was paramount. I could also see the difference between the reality and the rhetoric.

As I studied these young men, I became interested in how the boys saw themselves. They liked to ‘fit in’ in’ and be ‘loyal to oneself’. Their ideal world was one where everyone has an ‘equal say in the world’ and where ‘no one is better than anyone else’ or ‘above their station.’ The boys often articulated their desire to disassociate themselves from being classified as aspirational subjects. This often came from the way they saw themselves as working class and their ideas of how males should behave.

Their ideal egalitarian world where everyone can be equal is, as I see it, a falsehood they increasingly buy into as they understand the cards they have been dealt in life and internalize their own future academic failure. I explore more of this thread in my academic paper.

I wish I could say the historic persistence of white working-class underachievement, and the ominous implication of these trends on the long-term life chances, not to mention the ramifications for UK society in general, has led to a growing chorus that something must be done to intervene. However, while there was a Parliamentary Inquiry in 2014, the general response from UK politicians has been simplistic and preachy. Nothing much, in practical terms, has been done.

Of course, working-class underperformance in schooling is symptomatic of larger systemic issues of inequality in the UK. There may be no easy answers or solutions to the problem but what worries me is the great silences. Specifically, how can we improve school quality for white working class boys?

As I see it we need to urgently counteract social and material disadvantage for white working class boys that arises from their disengagement with schooling, not just in the UK but elsewhere in western societies. It is a problem that will affect everyone in the long term, both socially and economically.

Garth Stahl copy

Garth 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.



2 thoughts on “Problems with white working class boys plague UK school system

  1. Stahl’s perspective appears to advocate the importance of structure and therefore perpetuates a traditional point of view in relation to the learning outcomes of white, working-class boys. Counter to this is of course the influence of individual agency which is the antithesis of Stahl’s argument. My own research supports the notion of intergenerational discontinuity. The biographical data generated in my narrative study revealed little evidence that the white, baby-boomer, male participants’ working-class identities constrained their beliefs about or sense of their own academic potential. Interpersonal relationships experienced within an individual’s unique communities of practice were shown to be of greater influence on the participants’ academic achievement than the implied common socializing effects of a working-class habitus. My study therefore emphasized the agency of the individual because the educational outcomes of the participants, rather than being dependent on the inferred lack of cultural proficiencies normally associated with the working class, were influenced to a much larger extent by an individual’s attitude. The majority of the participants adopted positive attitudes towards schooling (culturally converged) and as a consequence tended to be educationally successful. Equally when a participant decided not to culturally accommodate, his formal educational achievements were less obvious.

  2. john whelen says:

    Hi Garth, good to see you are establishing such a persuasive narrative in the face of such entrenched neoliberal dogma about how to deal with all involved with education, or as I would like to say, with schooling. My recent thinking has been directed towards the discourse of care in relation to schooling. I think it will open up a fertile discursive arena within which to challenge neoliberalism.

    Congratulations in finally having the book published!

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