Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration: Educating White Working-class Boys

Examining the learner identities of white working-class boys in the United Kingdom

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 is considered to be one of the lowest performing in terms of educational attainment.  The persistence of white working-class underachievement was also noted widely in the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills [OFSTED] (2014) annual report for the 2012-2013 academic year, where a poverty of low expectations was linked to ‘stubbornly low outcomes that show little sign of improvement’ (p. 1).  Furthermore, the white working-class were portrayed as devoid of aspiration: “white young people have lower educational aspirations than most other ethnic groups” (Department for Children, 2008).

As an educational ethnographer, who employs equity-based frameworks to explore the interplay of identity, culture, and schooling, I have a particular interest in these so-called ‘stubborn’ outcomes.  When I first began working professionally 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).  This experience – which was well beyond the scope of run-of-the-mill urban education challenges – taught me important first-hand lessons about disengagement, cultural deprivation, and the provision of education in British society.  This also coincided with a time when I was getting hooked on Bourdieu’s theories of class and habitus, which gave me the necessary vocabulary to articulate what I was seeing on a day to day basis.

I went on to teach in and around London for nine years, primarily in white working-class heavy schools with high levels of disaffection.  Such experiences led me to spend a year researching the educational experiences and aspirations of 23 white working-class boys through a Bourdieusian framework, in order to better understand how they came to understand the educational provision provided.  Many of these young men negotiated their identities in schools, which were largely inadequate in terms of teaching and learning yet – paradoxically – were institutions which were all about raising aspiration.  This was a time when educational policy documents often promoted an idea of aspiration that was highly neoliberal, self-serving, competitive, and only interested in self-advancement.  Such a rhetoric permeated classrooms over the course of this study.

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 the phenomenon both historically and contextually.  As I studied the habitus of these young men, I became interested in how these boys constructed counternarratives of ‘value’ and ‘respectability’ to the de-valuing neoliberal aspiration rhetoric of their schooling.  The evidence strongly indicated the boys internalized their academic failure and were reflexively aware of the cards they had been dealt in life.  More fascinatingly, in the construction of identities of ‘value,’ they drew on historic working-class dispositions of ‘loyalty to self’ rooted in their conceptions of social class and a traditional working-class masculinity.

About the author: 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.

Works Cited:

OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) (2014) Early years annual report 2012/13. Online at: http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/earlyyearsannualreport1213

Communities and Local Government/Department for Children, S. a. F. (2008) Aspiration and Attainment amongst young people in deprived communities. London, Cabinet Office, 1–63.

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About tasayouth

Blog of the Australian Sociological Association's Youth Thematic Group
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