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