The underachievement of white working-class schoolchildren in the UK continues to be a subject of contentious debate.
It is well-documented that white working-class pupils do less well and suffer low social mobility, when compared to other ethnic groups of similar class backgrounds. Their deprivation is characterised by poor attendance, low parental expectations, feelings of marginalisation, low literacy levels, and a lack of targeted support to help break cycles of poverty and disadvantage. In the context of the UK’s highly stratified school system, the white working classes are often characterised as unmotivated and unambitious.
But in my experience as an educator, I have seen how high levels of “disaffection” towards education are the result of the continual struggles white working-class children face.
It has become increasingly difficult for these young people to establish a so-called “good life” while being measured against a very particular concept of success. In my own ethnographic research in south London I explored the collision of aspiration and identity, and found white working-class boys struggling to reconcile their own aspirations with their socio-economic positions and limited cultural and economic resources.
Similarly, in my interviews with working-class parents, it was consistently clear that they wanted the best for their children – but also that they were often hesitant about the best course of action and how to marshal resources strategically to stack the cards in their children’s favour.
Clearly, while white working-class children certainly suffer from an achievement gap, a lack of “aspiration” in the broadest sense is not the problem. The fact is that any discussion of what aspiration “should” look like demands attention to political and social context.
What aspiration really means
Aspiration has been high up the social agenda for some time and particularly for the coalition government. In November 2010, the secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, called for the UK to become an “aspiration nation”, with schools restored to their role as “engines of social mobility” – providing every child with “the knowledge, skills and aspirations they need to fulfil their potential”. The then shadow education secretary, Andy Burnham, echoed these calls, addressing the Labour party conference with the mantra, “aspiration, aspiration, aspiration”.
Meanwhile, in their responses to the riots of July 2011, policy makers cited a deeply embedded culture of low aspiration and academic underachievement as a significant cause of antisocial behaviour – an explanation advanced under the previous government as well.
But simply put, this is a very particular explanation of how “aspiration” is shaped, and how it in turn shapes behaviour. After a long period in which Britain’s education policies have been governed by a neoliberal focus on individual achievement and getting into university, the so-called “aspiration problem” has become increasingly individualised.
Even as the pressing problem of white working-class achievement has been clearly identified, policy makers have failed to recognise the powerful contexts which shape students’ identities. Instead they have stuck with a model of aspiration that focuses on what is “wrong” with students themselves. The result is that we deem working-class students deficient and morally lacking unless their sense of self matches some very specific measures – for which exam results and professional performance are our principal proxies.
Schools still regard middle-class forms of aspiration very highly. In understanding aspiration, it is essential to address how white working-class students, like any others, construct their own values and establish a “good life” within various constraints and against wider societal expectations.
On the government’s current measure of aspiration, working-class pupils are judged as having “bought in” or “bought out”, depending on whether or not they accept the socially mobile middle-class aspirations the educational, economic and political systems prescribe. As I found in the course of my own fieldwork, these ideas – where to study, what to do, where and how to live – are often in extreme tension with students’ own concepts of aspiration.
The net effects of this tension have, of course, been on the radar for some time. Many have recognised, for instance, the phenomenon of “tall poppy syndrome”, where certain institutions, such as post-compulsory education, are seen as “not for the likes of us”. But the point is that what we too often describe as an individual “failure to aspire” is largely the product of our blanket enforcement of particular aspirations – and our damning judgement of those who don’t measure up.
On our current measures, the underachievement of the working-classes will continue as long as they are denied sufficient access to those resources (tutoring, extra support, enriching cultural activities) which would allow parents to invest further in their children’s development. But even if such resources were available, their use would demand the confidence and entitlement that middle-class parents and students possess in spades. For as long as we continue to stigmatise working-class aspirations and goals, we are working to undermine that confidence.
In short, the central government’s failure to recognise that this particular population has specific needs that are not being met by the school system must be addressed. But to address it explicitly would be to forensically examine the ways we think about “class”, “disadvantage” and “achievement” – all dangerous subjects in British politics.
Photograph by Chris Devers