Tag Archive for culture

Pathways-ED: They learn to labour while we labour to learn


If I had heard it only once I might have simply believed that I had misheard but, no, I heard it a second time. It is apparently the case it was reported that in the UK, and this is what I heard: “poor white children” are now the “worst performing ethnic group in UK schools.”

This is somewhat astonishing in a number of ways. First, is the state of being “poor” sufficient to mark you out as an “ethnic group”?  A “social class” yes.  And it is true that often the picture of education achievement is one that does show concentrations of ethnicities in different parts of the achievement picture.  But usually an ethnic group is represented in achievement data at various points.  There will certainly be white students who are right up at the top of the achievement ladder and many others on each and every rung.  But have the “poor white” marked themselves out as being culturally different, ethnically different?

In the UK as in most Anglo-Saxon education systems the white children have had the lion’s share of achievement and success but there have always been some from that group who have had little success.  Similarly the fact that another ethnicity is over-represented in the lower end of the achievement statistics has never meant that none of that group ever makes it to the levels of excellent achievement.

But perhaps the combination of being white and poor in the UK has now created the conditions for educational failure that outweigh being poor and from any other group.  This is quite remarkable if it is true and it should serve as a warning to other Anglo-Saxon countries.

In the 1970s Dr Cluny MacPherson developed the argument that we had in New Zealand at that time clear signs that an “eth-class” was developing and this was based on the view that a cluster of combined characteristics including poverty and ethnicity were marking groups out from others.  There were certainly the signs of such groups forming in New Zealand at that time.  But I don’t think I have heard the term since the 1970s – perhaps I move in the wrong circles!  Is this the phenomenon that is seemingly appearing in the UK?

Or perhaps it is the flowering of a trend documented in 1977 by the sociologist Paul Willis in his book Learning to Labour.  His study has shown that a certain group of boys deliberately rejected the trappings of school success in order to claim as a badge of honour their right to replicate the plight of the working classes.  So mediocre school success would be the norm, jobs if they could get one would be in industrial settings, they adopted speech patterns and habits, and so on.

The “lads” in this group had developed an “oppositional culture” wherein in the interest of “having a laff” they would oppose the requirements of the school and all that went with being good students and gaining educational success.  At the time I read this as being a description of something that was peculiarly English and which I had seen in the east end schools that my work had taken me to.  But now I wonder as I see instances much closer to home where opposition for opposition’s sake seems to motivate some students, usually boys.

I came across some support for this that suggests that this might not be as fanciful as it first seems with the following appearing in an essay on Willis[1]:

In his article Stroppy Individuals or Oppositional Cultures in Schools Today?, Rikowski (2006) raises the issue of whether there are oppositional classroom cultures today or just badly-behaved individuals.  He highlights that although single disruptive pupils in classrooms are a problem, predominantly head teachers are still worried about gangs and therefore ‘cultures’ rather than individuals.  Rikowski supports the view that Willis’ study is relevant to modern education.  He advocates using the methods and insights of Willis to make sense of what is going on in our schools today (Rikowski, 2006).

Making sense of what is going on in our schools is a constant challenge and perhaps there are some insights in seeing a sociological explanation for the disenchantment of some students and some of our boys.


[1]James Thomson (2007)     An essay written for EDU3004 ‘Education, Culture & Society’, Education Studies, School of Education, University of Northampton

Talk-ED: Expressing ourselves in public


It is an interesting discussion that has arisen on the use of haka in general and Ka mate! Ka mate! In particular.

Valerie Adams was first to throw in the debate expressing in her recent book consternation at the actions of the Olympic Team Leader Dave Currie in unleashing a haka at 2am in the night after her victory causing some disturbance to other athletes. Her view was that it was over the top, well past a reasonable hour of the night and something of a habit that Currie had developed – the planned spontaneous haka.

That led to some interesting comment from a sports writer wondering why the All Blacks persisted with the Te Rauparaha haka rather than using the one specially written for them – Kapa o pango. This then led to a general discussion of the propensity for the haka Ka mate! Ka mate! to be done to death at the drop of a hat in versions that ranged from the moving to the grotesque, in settings that ranged from the appropriate to the absurdly inappropriate, and in styles that ranged from the respectful to the total disgusting sham.

The point was made that many schools grace sporting occasions with a haka that belongs to the school (especially the boy’s school) and that many rugby teams in the regions start and / or finish the big game with one of their haka.

The Ka mate! Ka mate! haka has become de rigueur to the current generation and one wonders why the keenness to “perform” it increases with the hour of the night and the extent of the carousing that has preceded it.  Men in black tie gear have been seen to strip off at a formal event and give all that they have got (and often all that they know). I have seen grown men in formal places and in other countries feel that such a display was something of an obligation. It is not pretty and they should all return home and wonder about the respect they are showing to a cultural event and artefact that defines New Zealand Aotearoa.

It is hard to imagine a comparable insult that could be visited upon the Pakeha.

The challenge to do something about this will only be met by what we do in schools with the oncoming generation. They learn lots of things in school and can certainly learn a haka or three. But the real difficulty is that when we are asked to behave as if we come from one country, a group of people drawn from different places has to have a default position – and the haka emerges.

What can we do to provide to young New Zealanders the means of cultural and country expression that can unite us in a public show of unity in performance?

The Australians have “Waltzing Matilda”, the English a whole sack of old numbers – “Land of Hope and Glory”, “Jerusalem” – the Scots have many a ditty and even more when the uisge (40%) flows. But what do we have?

Perhaps we should agree on ten waiata that all New Zealanders will know and be able to sing with beauty and skill. Then late at night in some foreign place, a group of New Zealanders could come together and appropriately, gracefully and correctly express wonderful sentiments and emotions in song.

Perhaps more attention could be paid to the context in which haka are appropriate, the grace and skill of the haka when performed well (c.f. Sir Apirana Ngata leading the haka in front of the wharenui at Waitangi in 1940), or go to any cultural festival such as the schools’ Polyfest, or Te Matatini.

There has to be more to us as a people than the denigration of culture and “Ten Guitars”!