The Educational Attainment of White Working Class


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A review of the available literature provides a wealth of research concerned with developing an understanding of White Working-Class low achievement. However, the term working class is indeed becoming hard to define therefore the category of social class is seen as outdated by many (Bennett, Savage, Silva, Warde, Gayo-cal & Wright, 2009). According to the Oxford dictionary, the term working class is defined as, “The social group consisting of people who are employed for wages, especially in manual or industrial work” (2015).

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Traditionally, categorisations of class are determined by parental occupation however, the most used measure of class in education is the free school meal data (FSM) which has been routinely collected since 1989 for indicating poverty . Consequently, more recently, authors have moved towards the concept of the (FSM) proxy for indicators of poverty which is associated with low achievement 2014 (P11) however, they recognise this is not always synonymous with working class. One may argue that FSM data only assesses one strand of data associated with class thus fails to take into account home life, parental occupation or one’s own view of class however, Gorard’s (2012) investigation into the strengths, quality and limitations of FSM data concluded that this data was better than the alternatives of using measures of Social Economic Status based on one’s neighbourhood.

Admittedly, local authority census data may be deemed to provide social class stratification more suitably. McCallum and Tuxford (1993) demonstrated through analysis of the 1991 census in relation to GCSE performance and social class, suggesting a strong positive correlation between performance at GCSE and social class and home ownership, and negatively against other factors such as unemployment, deprivation and over- crowding. A study conducted in Lambeth lends support to their findings, revealing that regardless of ethnicity, pupils from more advantaged social backgrounds performed better and social class, educational qualifications, unemployment and social deprivation were strongly linked to school performance (Demie and McCallum, 2001). Furthermore, evidence suggests that the performance gap between schools serving areas of deprivation and schools serving more affluent areas has increased significantly creating inequality in achievements. Subsequent studies by McCallum in 2001 and 2007 highlight strong links between achievements and social class, concluding the importance of using census data to explore the effects of social class on educational performance. However, it is difficult to gauge the reliability of this study as participant data nor the selection process are specified. Indeed, the study highlights poverty and housing issues as factors that play a role in underachievement (Demie,2014) however, poverty and housing issues may affect any working-class family of any culture thus these may not be unique factors of the white British. Interestingly, the study highlighted the concerns of being overshadowed by middle-class peers as an emotional barrier to learning and this impacted upon parental engagement consequently, this study suggests the lack of parental engagement and low aspirations as a dominating factor in underachievement. Moreover, the headteachers interviewed expressed concern between the schools high aspirations and the parents low aspirations arguably, these aspirations may be deemed as low by the school but could in fact just be different as there is no criteria to gauge this on. Similarly, the Cabinet Office, 2011: Department for Education, 2010 highlight ‘aspiration’ as something that needs to be addressed and improved amongst the working-class or disadvantaged to raise its youth’s educational attainment. However, Stahl (2012) argues, ‘ The current course of aspiration means that pupils are judged as having bought in or out, depending on whether or not they accept socially middle-class aspirations the educational system prescribes, which often exists in tension with their own concept of aspiration’ (P.9).

Stahl identified through class observations, semi-structured interviews and focus groups that white working class pupils ‘acted like something they were not, showed contentedness with being average and had negative attitudes towards the competitiveness of school status’. He concludes that pupils were not lacking in aspiration but had different aspirations and the disaffection observed was actually the pupils trying to negotiate a sense of self in a dominant educational system concurring with Rothon, Arephin, Klineberg, Cattell, & Stansfield’s (2011) explanation that the relationship is a difference in aspiration, moreover, those deemed underachieving were capable of engagement and success when partaking in creative, practical activities that fit with their sense of self . A teacher led enquiry led by Nuttall and Doherty (2014) agrees with Stahls work by drawing on the findings of Johnson and Selle (2010), concluding that white working-class pupils continue to underachieve because educators continue to focus on school attainment. However, one may question the validity of this study as teachers may ‘unwittingly stigmatise low soci-economic status pupils’, moreover the data collection methods were not specified.

Much of the literature investigated looks at the links between aspiration and the children, parents and the school moreover the ethnicities and classes as many articles refer to this as an issue. However, only Stahl defines what aspiration is. Many of the studies looked into low socio-economic white pupils comparing them to other ethnicities and were deficit focused, looking into what was wrong with the pupils or their families thus little evidence could be found to showcase high attainment from white working class pupils therefore one cannot begin to learn from the achievements and understand what works well.

Much of the literature explored used either a purely quantitative method of data analysis or a purely qualitative method exploring views and opinions thus depth and accuracy of measurement that would have been evident through a mixed method approach have been missed.

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