The focus of this paper are white working class young people. Normally, and especially in official education documents, they have come to be referred to with a range of labels which focus on their disadvantaged circumstances. However, I have decided to use the term ‘working class’ which I believe is much more positive. As will become clear, it is also necessary to stress the racial identity of these young people in order to distinguish them from other working class young people. This does not mean that they don’t have anything in common with others of their social class. Far from it.
Like others (Demie and Lewis (2010), Mongon and Chapman (2008)), I have used the term ‘working class’ to refer to those young people whose families qualify for free school meals (FSM).
It is not my purpose to discuss, in detail, the term ‘working class’ here. That has been done much more ably by others. By far the most comprehensive discussion on this was by EP Thompson (1963) and which has come to inform much of the subsequent debate on the subject of social class. In his book, Thompson talks of class happening “when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs… Class consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas, and institutional forms”. Others (Dennis et al 1956, Jackson 1968, Collins 2004 and Evans 2007) have also provided their own focus on the subject. In due course I shall make reference to some of their works.
The aim of the paper is to raise awareness amongst education practitioners and policy makers in relation to socio economic disadvantage generally and the specific needs of the white working class young people in particular. Mongon and Chapman (2008) point to the paucity of literature with a direct white working class focus. Gray (2001) quoted in Whitty points out that ” .. we don’t really know how much more difficult it is for schools serving disadvantaged communities to improve because much of the improvement research has ignored this dimension- that it is more difficult, however, seems unquestionable”.
Reay D: 2006 states that this is a much needed area, given the demise of sociology from education courses. She points out that in spite of there being a moral panic over underachieving boys, “most of today’s teacher trainees have not heard of Paul Willis’ ‘Learning to Labour (1977).
Gazeley and Dunne (2005) have also stressed the need for increased understanding of social class by teachers. They found that “teachers often did not feel comfortable talking about the social class of pupils”. People who participated in their research said that there should be input in teacher training courses on social class:
“Those who have developed some ‘social class awareness’ are likely to be more inclusive and tolerant practitioners and less likely to make assumptions based on their own experiences”.
“Further work needs to address the deficit views held by many teachers and student teachers/trainees about working class pupils and their homes.”
“Promoting more positive and diverse images of working class pupils and families would help to raise expectations and promote change”.
Frankel in the TES 2009 points out that it is necessary for practitioners to have a degree of cultural knowledge in order to empathise with the “baggage of many working class pupils”. She quotes the author Gillian Evans saying: “A well-educated middle class person who knows nothing about working class life is not a well-educated person at all”. Reay draws attention to the wider context and points out that social class continues to haunt the English education system; “the area of educational inequality on which education policy has had virtually no impact” (2006).
The DCSF 2009 also stress the importance of staff to be knowledgeable about their working class pupils in their daily context and spell out the kind of knowledge which is necessary. “To be effective when working in schools in deprived communities, staff need to be particularly attuned to the pupils’ experiences outside school. Staff pupil relationships need to be based on mutual respect. This means that to be effective and successful staff need to:
• understand the nature of the locality the children live in;
• empathise with the local community and its values; and
• be aware of the barriers to achievement but not to allow these to lower expectations” (2009)
This is further reinforced in the DES document which outlines the headteacher standards (2004), under the section, ‘’Strengthening Community’: “Schools exist in a distinctive social context, which has a direct impact on what happens inside the school. School leadership should commit to engaging with the internal and external school community to secure equity and entitlement”.
At a general community and societal level there is also a need for greater attention to be paid to the situation of the white working class. With a particular focus on three neighbourhoods within Birmingham, a recent report from the Barrow Cadbury Trust has made a similar plea to policy makers: “…there remain disadvantaged neighbourhoods with a largely white British population, typically suburban areas with much social rented housing. These are often overlooked in discussion of poverty in Birmingham” (Fenton et al 2009).
My hope is that this paper will help to shape the necessary policy and bring about positive change in education outcome for those disadvantaged by social class, especially the white working class. I would also hope that the paper would enable the wider community to have a little more empathy with and respect for those working in our challenging schools.
As for working class young people from other ethnic groups, the “common starting point” for discussion on their underachievement is usually their ethnicity (Fenton et al 2009). However, it is likely their social class is a more significant cause of the problem. This point was well made by Haque and Bell (2001) when they stated: “It is worth noting that when we breakdown the demographic profiles of minority ethnic groups (by parental occupations, parental education type of housing, length of stay in Britain etc) we find that educational achievements and qualifications largely reflect the social class and recency of immigration of minority ethnic families in Britain”. This paper could, therefore, make a contribution to the situation of ethnic minority underachieving young people too especially if the starting point for educational policy development was to shift from ethnicity to social class.
What follows is a series of headings as statements. These are substantiated with reference to published information from government and other authoritative sources. The paper concludes with a series of recommendations; much of this also draws on others’ contribution.
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