Why white working-class pupils fail at school (Guardian letters, 08 04 2016).
Industrialisation, notably mining, shipping and steelworks, produced gender-segregated paid employment for working-class men, which shaped a culture of working-class masculinity dependent on those all-male working environments. Sons followed fathers. When those industries shrunk or collapsed, it wasn’t just jobs and livelihoods that were lost, but manly dignity, status and power; and for working-class sons, fathers as role models were fatefully diminished. The break up of industrial working-class masculinity as a site of both economic and gender ‘certainty’, would mean many men would never recover, and families and communities would suffer under the pressure, not just of economic deprivation, but ensuing shame, social stigma and psychological crisis.
Yet, as five Guardian letters (08 04 2016) show, personal testimony and political analysis generally ignore the consequences of de-industrialisation for working-class men and their sons, in terms of their ‘damaged’ masculinity. The gender-neutral language used, of “kids”, “children”, “youth”, “pupils”, masks the fact that the concern is about the ‘failure’ of working-class boys. This stance also glosses over why education, and especially H.E., was not seen as particularly relevant to white working-class aspirations, lives and communities.
In ‘Playlist’ (09 04 2016) reader Ruth Harvey cheerfully remembers “the anarchic theme” of her childhood, ‘Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) by Pink Floyd, and quotes the key lines: “We don’t need no education / We don’t need no thought control”, which roars out a distinctly hostile view of education as a system. For white working-class boys and their parents, formal education can present itself as difference, as rupture, even as attack on working-class values and culture, and there may be scant support for a boy’s masculine identity and diverse aspirations.
By contrast, poet Andrew Motion’s personal testimony (09 04 2016), as a working-class boy from a family with no time for books, tells of how his inspirational English teacher, Peter Way (1924-2016), facilitated his reading and writing, and more: “In certain ways he gave me my life” (Andrew Motion, ‘My hero’. 09 04 2016). Human rights lawyer, and former directpr of public prosecutions, now shadow home office minister, Keir Starmer, values his working-class background. His Labour-supporting parents “gave him his values and his socialist name”, and “the lessons imbibed at home have never left him”. (Saturday interview: “If we don’t capture the ambitions of a generation, it won’t matter who’s leading us”, 09 04 2016). These are two examples of adults acting as a catalyst for a working-class boy’s learning , personal development and professional ambition.
Without gender awareness and feminist analysis, the underachieving of white working-class boys will remain a ‘mystery’, or be ‘explained’ as a result of an area’s “poor gene pool” (John Gaskin letter). Whereas, for privately educated boys, whatever else it does, education constitutes social continuity and an intensive training in elite masculinity / manliness, framed in terms of an inherited entitlement to ‘succeed’, to become powerful in their chosen field. David Kynaston‘s letter (09 04 2016) notes: “You devote an editorial to social mobility (08 04 2016), yet those two crucial words ‘private education’ are absent from your analysis. A serious left-of-centre paper cannot go on ducking the issue”.
But for The Guardian to critically confront the role and consequence of private education for boys (and society) requires auto/biographical self reflexivity on the part of its own journalists, as well as engagement with the academic and political testimony and analysis of diverse other men, as well as feminists. Ducking the issue counts as evidence, but adds nothing, intellectually or politically, to the public conversation needed to increase understanding and political will, and take action to halt the underachievement of white working-class boys.
In 2016, privately educated boys appear to be off limits as a serious gender and social class issue, as much as state-educated working-class boys.
val walsh / 09 04 2016