Jump to content
The Education Forum

Education and the Working Class

John Simkin

Recommended Posts

Article by Philip Beadle in last week's Guardian:

What's the most you've ever paid for a book? I'll bet not too many have stumped up more than the £50 it costs to purchase a copy of Gillian Evans's Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain. Furthermore, I'll bet, had you done so, you wouldn't have left your copy in the boozer, having to skulk back to Amazon, spitting, to buy a replacement.

Evans took her fair share of abuse when the book was published for having had the temerity to raise this issue at the same time as admitting that she was middle class. Many of the letters, when boiled down to their essence, were parables of the fact that the writers' grandfathers used to live in a cardboard box and lick the road clean with their tongues. There were countless accusations of class tourism, and not too many expressions of gratitude for pushing this issue further up the agenda.

The importance of the issue raised in Evans's book is the stuff of the remedial maths lesson: if the largest cultural group in the country is utterly disenfranchised by the education system, the effect on national averages is necessarily going to be catastrophic. The bottom line of Blairism is the national average, and the drag that white working-class kids' results place on these averages should mean that, ideological concerns aside, engaging them should be the very highest priority.

Yet the only solution many are able to form is a cry for the return of the grammar-school system, which wrote off the majority of working-class kids at the age of 11. Why, aside from building academies on estates and fiddling catchment areas so they are filled with middle-class children from other areas, has there been so little action on this longest standing of national crises? Is it perhaps that anyone brave enough, as Evans has been, to point out that white working-class kids need and deserve specifically targeted input fears being tarred a racist? Perhaps. Is it that the school is a middle-class institution and that many teachers simply do not understand the culture of the children they teach? Perhaps also.

Whatever the reason, there is no evidence to suggest that governments have the will to solve this. All the way back in 1990, Chris Woodhead, in prescient mood, flagged this disengagement as catastrophic: "The failure of white working-class boys is one of the most disturbing problems we face within the whole education system."

There seem, at long last, to be rumblings towards action. Woodhead's observations have finally filtered down to the operational wing of the institution he once led. (It only took 17 years.) Ofsted is making specific checks on how schools cater for white working-class boys.

These are the words of an Ofsted spokesperson, by way of explanation: "Before section five inspections, inspectors analyse the school's self-evaluation form and performance data, and identify issues to be investigated. The achievement of white British boys might be identified as such an issue if it varies significantly from that of other groups of pupils." Also: "In 2007-08, Ofsted plans to undertake an additional exercise to identify case studies of good practice in promoting the achievement of white working-class boys."

This collection of case studies, in response to the statement of intent in last year's white paper, can be taken either as evidence that the tectonic plates are finally cracking, or that the wheels of regulatory authorities run so slowly as to be near impotent. They will eventually result in a report, which you will probably not have time to read.

Last year, Richard Stainton, of the National Union of Teachers' education unit, asked me to present some training on this issue. After an initial session in which we broke down the issue into 15 specific barriers to achievement, the delegates went back to their schools and started to do something about it. When you ask a teacher to do something towards remedying a large-scale social issue, a strange thing happens. Instead of debating it for 50 years, eventually coming up with a list of reasons why something can't be done, they just do it.

Launcelot primary, on the vast and predominantly white Downham estate in Lewisham, for instance. The headteacher, Chris Childs, understands the reality of working-class kids who, as Evans suggests, "encounter the formal, proper, posh atmosphere of the school as if it were a foreign country".

He does so by paying explicit respect to working-class culture, not loading the kids with middle-class aspirations. There are displays in which role models are not in the form of film stars and football players, but people from the local community who have remained true to working-class traditions and values. And these people are invited into the school, so that these values are maintained.

Childs explains: "We want to be able to help our pupils to break free of limitations, so that they feel they can take some part in bringing about change, and have higher and realistic aspirations for the future. These are class-related and very real issues, which are rarely acknowledged by the powers that be."

It is in places like Launcelot school, and in teachers like Childs and his team, that the solution to this age-old issue lies. Not in the slow-motion impotence of the wheels of state. The classless society is a myth, and it is the responsibility of teachers and schools to bring the subject of class back into the classroom; to inform kids of their place, so that they might get angry, might re-engage and, in doing so, do something about improving their own chances. It is only teachers who can bring about change, because as the old adage goes: "If you want something doing well, you do it yourself."


Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 3 weeks later...

Thanks for this article, John. It gave me food for thought. Although we do not suffer from the class system to the extent you do in Britain, it still remains a problem to engage working class kids. We tend to find more difficulties with girls as there is still a reasonable job market for unskilled boys but none for girls whose main aim then is to get pregnant in time to receive the first welfare payment before they have to deal with the govts attempts to keep them in further education or futile job searching. We have some good programs starting for re-engaging teenage mothers in our senior secondary colleges (which are Yr 11/12 separate from high schools) but it all takes time and lots of money. The writer is absolutely right in saying that teachers know how to address these issues, they just aren't given enough resources to do it.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in

Sign In Now
  • Create New...