Ethnographic study: Why the education system fails white working-class children
"Our politicians are so obsessed by race that they have forgotten the importance of class", writes Daily Telegraph journalist Andrew Gimson and points to a new book by anthropologist Gillian Evans called Educational Failure and Working-Class White Children in Britain.
Evans conducted fieldwork in families of boys who were highly disruptive at school. Among other things, she documents the importance of class and institutional class prejudices.
In an essay in The Guardian (that provoced many reactions), she writes:
"It's them and us, that's 'ow it's always been, that's 'ow it'll always be," [informant] Anita laments. "We are the backbone of the nation and no one gives a fuck about us." Reacting against dominance, then, working-class pride creates the means for dignity; common people fight back defensively with their own values and so being common entails an inverse snobbery.
The importance of this understanding from the point of view of education is as follows: if it is true, as I suggest it is, that the school, as a formal institution of the state, has come to represent and embody posh people's values, and make legitimate their way of being in the world, then it is also true to say that common children, like Sharon's younger daughter, will encounter the formal, "proper", "posh" atmosphere of the school as if it were a foreign country.
(...) At school, and in life, middle-class people behave as though they are doing working-class people a favour, teaching them how to live a "proper" life and then wondering why it doesn't work. They are not prepared for working-class people's resistance to this process, a resistance born of a defiant pride about the value of common life.
Her fieldwork exploded several myths, f.ex. "Problem children at school are problem children in the home" or "Education is not highly rated amongst the working classes".
During my research, the teachers in the underperforming primary school I studied didn't focus on institutional failures and how those failures were affecting the chances of working-class children (...). The teachers were convinced that the most disruptive of the boys came from "problem families", and that was all that mattered.
(...) To my surprise, I discovered that these boys (...) were "as good as gold" at home.
Under the strict discipline of his parents, Tom [one of the boys] was "under manners". I also discovered that Tom's sister, who was three years younger than him, was doing brilliantly at school; she was a star achiever and a "teacher's pet". This fact threw a spanner in the works and suggested that "problem families" cannot, in any simple way, be blamed for children's educational failure.
Tom's "problem" had to do with "street culture" (and we may add its lacking recognition by the middle class school system?):
[I]n seeking the freedom of the street (...) he encountered gangs of older boys who rule the closely-defined territories of the street with ruthless intimidation and violence. A young boy must, then, quickly learn to withstand intimidation and, in time, learn how to be intimidating and even to enjoy violence himself.
In this way, a young boy quickly develops a reputation of his own in relation to a particular "turf" or area and it is in the failing school, where adult authority is weak, that a boy like Tom gets to use the territory of the school as a relatively safe place to work out and to extend his influence among peers. His developing reputation makes it impossible for him to be "good" and to be seen to be doing well, learning effectively at school.
(...) [T]he more problems there are at home, the more likely a boy is to seek the freedom of the street and the company of peers to escape the stresses at home that working class or what they call "common" life places on his parents.
But why has she focused on white children, she was asked by black friends:
I explained that most of the attention in Britain is on the failure of black boys, but when the statistics are examined, white working-class boys are, in some boroughs, doing worst of all and in terms of national averages are faring only slightly better than black boys. This information caused surprise.
I suggested that part of the problem when we talk about black boys in Britain is that we tend to focus on their race, their ethnicity and their cultural background. (...) When we look at the failure of working-class white boys, however, what is emphasised about them is their social class position.
This means the opportunity is lost to consider whether those black and white boys who are failing are doing so because of reasons to do with them being similarly working class, and that perhaps the prejudice they experience at school is first and foremost an institutional class prejudice. By default, this means black people don't have a social class position and white people don't have an ethnic or cultural background, they are simply from the working, middle or upper classes.
>> read her first article "Common Ground" (The Guardian, 4.10.06)
>> read her second article "Bottom of their class" (The Guardian, 11.10.06)
Patrick Butler sums up:
The article, after all, was about that most British and volatile of subjects: social class. The tone of many responses might be summarised thus: how dare a middle-class person write about working-class people?
People were offended that Evans's reference to "common" people was "patronising" (though this was her Bermondsey subject Sharon's classification, not hers); her reference to Bermondsey's white working-class people as a "tribe" was deemed offensive (yet this was precisely the word her subjects used to describe themselves - as in "the last white tribe in London").
It was felt demeaning that her subjects' words were spelt phonetically - and yet what better way, in this context, to transmit the authentic, charismatic power of the spoken word (and, equally, how patronising, were we to have standardised the spelling throughout).
Gillian Evans answers: "I suggest that it is this admission of the feeling of "knowing best" that has most angered people", and adds:
People's difficulty with my work and the SocietyGuardian article, is that it breaks a taboo. Taboos exist to protect sacred ideals. In this case the sacred ideal is as follows: people in Britain are equal, the Empire is over: social class is dead. My work breaks that taboo by reminding people that social class is alive and well and deeply felt. Hence the strong reaction to it. People who break taboos must be punished because no one wants to confront the truth of what's really going on beneath the ideal.