Differential educational achievement.

Differential educational achievement: the relevance of a politics of identity, a politics of education.

keywords: education, social class, racism.

The study reported by Jessica Shepherd (The Guardian, 03 09 2010) that social class affects white pupil’s exam results more than those of ethnic minorities felt familiar.

A recent pilot study by a local student researcher, which produced two autobiographical narratives based on individual interviews with two young women, both single parents and of same age, but from different social class and ethnic backgrounds (one white working-class, one BAME), revealed sharp aspirational differences, attitudes to education and educational achievement. What stood out was what seemed to be a correlation between being brought up black in Liverpool; being aware of racism, being subject to racism; having the concept; and a level of social and political consciousness in the young woman brought up around middle class values and expectations. She was articulate and fluent in interview, with plenty to say.

By contrast, the young woman who had grown up in a white working-class family and social environment, did not initially grasp the concept of ‘social class’, but once it was explained, she started to deploy it in her narrative. This lack of self-identity and social awareness had left her unequiped / ill-equiped to understand her own social positioning and the society around her. Indeed she showed little interest. So compared to the young black woman, she manifested a passivity, a sense of subjection, of being at the mercy of events.

This difference may be understood as either having a politics of identity or not. This is crucial to our understanding of education and its purpose, as Freire and others, including feminists, have argued. In my own earlier interviews with white women from working-class backgrounds, who went through higher education, there is an echo of this ‘absence’ or awkwardness. [i] Looking back , as women with a politics of being and education, they spoke of their sense as children and young women, that ‘education and class are mixed up’, that it is ‘like a collision’ (working class and education). They had complex relations with feminism, including early reluctance and resistance. Yet it was feminist writing, research and theory that later enabled them to properly understand their identities and social positioning in ways that were empowering. These opportunities have now been largely withdrawn.

‘Education’, formal or otherwise, is not enough; and is not neutral or technical, or about the absorption of ‘facts’ and figures. Children and young people must be able to find themselves in and through their educational experiences. Education is a political as well as cultural process. Our school system, by styling itself as ‘apolitical’ in its methods and purpose, not only teaches a lie, but betrays most of its pupils and students. Unlike certain other European countries, we have never really wanted all children to have the chance to soar, no matter what their class background. As a ‘developed’ and affluent country, this has been our dismal and lethal failure.

val walsh / 06 09 2010


[i]  See Val Walsh (2007) From tangle to web: women’s life histories and feminist process. Pamela Cotterill, Sue Jackson & Gayle Letherby (eds) Challenges and Negotiations for Women in Higher Education. The Netherlands, Springer: 73-93.

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