Thursday, 21 June 2018

On Working Class Aspiration

"Working class communities lack aspiration!", so says Amanda Spielman, the Chief Inspector of schools for England. Arguing that working class communities generally have borne the brunt of the economic crisis, she also notes schools that serve their children face additional challenges around teacher recruitment and retention, fewer academy sponsors and fewer networks of support that schools in more affluent areas can typically tap into. Class location and geographic location makes life harder for working class kids, which dampens aspiration and, by extension, fosters fatalism. Her predecessor, Michael Wilshaw, contrasted this with children from immigrant backgrounds, suggesting they value education more and have more supportive home environments.

There are a few interrelated issues worth teasing out here. One is a legacy issue of working class communities, one relates to changes in working class culture, and the other is about the character of aspirations and how to achieve them. Taking legacies first, there are many parts of the country, including jolly old Stoke-on-Trent, where a suspicion of formal education is deep rooted. For generations, young women and men coming of age in Stoke didn't need qualifications to get on. With local pot banks, primary industry and factory work in plentiful supply since the beginning of the industrial revolution, there have always been jobs. The cliche of leaving school on the Friday and starting work on the Monday persist because it was true, and this was the experience of millions of school leavers. Education, meanwhile, was the annoying bit you had to go through before you could start earning. Indeed, I can remember a twinge of envy when one of the lads at my school left early for a job in the local chippy. No homework, no exams, and money in his pocket - what's not to like? Formal education was superfluous to the lives and hopes of millions, and it still is. Remember, NEETs don't officially exist since the government decreed all school leavers should be in work, further education or training. School gate to factory gate has gone, but there are plenty of low paid "training" places available and from there a career of overly exploitative and precarious work awaits. Strictly speaking, you can get by on the job market without qualifications but the standard of living is low and the incomes that allowed workers of the near past to get on the property ladder are just not available.

The second issue has to do with the collapse of working class culture generally. Despite the anti-intellectualist traditions of the British national character, structurally reproduced in the Labour Party and labour movement, this existed in tension with a strand of working class intellectualism. The Penguins and, to a lesser extent, Gollancz books of the interwar and post-war years found a working class audience receptive to debates in science, history, sociology, the arts and more. Later on, the crises of the 1970s and 80s still found millions paying close attention to current affairs and informing themselves about it. The culture of self-education, at least in its traditional working class forms, were finally buried as Thatcher's bulldozers forcibly pushed the labour movement and the idea of a working class politics to the fringes. Oddly, the clobbering working class education received coincided with the fetishising of formal education in schools and of training at work as the key to "social mobility". True, there is a new kind of organic, spontaneous self-improvement that is gathering steam, but is independent from and carries little of the working class self-education movements of the past. The old collective intellectual property of class is gone, and the new one is at an early period of its formation.

Third concerns the issue of aspiration, or rather the idea working class kids and their families lack it. There are, of course, significant definitional issues around aspiration and all too often politicians define it in the terms they find congenial. Typically in terms of casting off one's working class background and becoming some sort of professional or successful business person is pretty standard. Putting those debates to one side, if we define aspiration conventionally as a nice house (or, given the times we live in, just a house), ideal/good job, car, life partner, debt freedom, and an interesting and fulfilling life, most kids want and aspire to these sorts of things. As Heather Mendick and her colleagues outline in their Celebrity, Aspiration and Contemporary Youth, wanting better things, having an idea about the sort of life they would like to lead has never been a problem. The issue is the avenues have closed down for the realisation of aspirations. If you are a working class kid who wants to make music, only more affluent schools retain fully funded music departments, and so there is little opportunity at your high school or academy. If you are a working class kid thinking about a sports career, your school might not have the facilities or coaching support that can help you along your way. Arts, creative subjects, programming and IT, and underfunding of careers' support in many schools, on top of unstable school environments and a merry-go-round of teaching staff means a great deal of talent goes unrealised. The fascination many youngsters apparently have for celebrity culture serves, in this instance, as a narrative and ideological resource, as a way of framing their own issues and identities in the context of an educational culture that has more or less discarded them. An engagement with celebrity culture is a symptom of frustrated aspirations, not its cause. The problem is inequality.

New Labour half-understood this. Indeed, so do the Tories. Both affirm equality of opportunity and, theoretically at least, accept that people on the sharp end of class inequalities require extra resources to level the playing field and compete with the better off. The difference between the two is Labour under Blair and Brown did pony up the cash, while Dave and May talk the talk while defunding the support. Restoring this is a start, but can only lead to frustrated hopes unless the purpose of education and work is fundamentally changed. Frustrated aspirations and fatalism isn't a working class problem, it's a capitalism problem.


Speedy said...

There was more social mobility in the mid-Seventies than in the mid-Noughties under New Labour. Social mobility has, in fact reversed - isn't it worse than the 1950s?

Would you blame this reverse only Thatcher? Thatcher may have started the ball rolling, but it was New Labour that pulled the ladder up from under it - Mandelson's "greed is good" really legitimised the every one for themselves culture.

When I was a working class kid in the 70s, local middle class people like architects and lawyers sent their kids to (my) comprehensive school and were influential in the area. Now they send them to private school and don't give a shit. I wonder how much of this has to do not only with changes in working class culture but middle class culture?

Dialectician1 said...

Although I agree with your main conclusion that it’s capitalism (stupid), there are a number of points worth considering:

1. Working class fatalism is not new. Read ‘Learning To Labour’ by Paul Willis. Written in the 1970s, Willis shows in his study that the working class boys’ attitude to school work is realistic. They know that the (capitalist) system works against them and that working hard - at a school that has given up on them - is a waste of time. They know they are destined to do manual work and the middle class have got it all stitched up!

2. British anti-intellectualism is not a class thing. We (as a nation) seem to be proud of our no-nonsense pragmatism and proudly stand against all that European fluffy theory nonsense. In fact as Selina Todd shows, historically, the working class have always had high aspirations. (Six myths of Social Mobility)

3. We need to stop blaming the working class for a broken system of social mobility. Read Bourdieu. The system not supposed to work. The elite will always concoct the system of resource distribution to suit themselves. Let’s call it ‘culture capital’, shall we? Moreover, as Mike Savage shows, the educated young of today now find themselves in a more precarious situation that many in the manual working class. And with a massive burden of debt to pay for attending the ‘wrong’ university outside of the ‘golden triangle’.

4. Why do we identify the ‘white’ working class as a separate ethnic group? This is identity politics gone bonkers and plays into the hands of the racists. NB. In the past, Heads of Ofsted have also blamed interbreeding on the Isle of Wight for poor working class performance!

5. Education is for enlightenment, liberation & social justice, not a crude process for filtering people into the top jobs!

Sue r said...

I think you are ignoring the fact that immigrant children often perform exceptionally well. From my own experience I would say that their families invest Very heavily in their children becoming surgeons, judges etc. the other day I was reading about a black woman who gave up her career as a stockbroker to become a songwriter. Her background was working class/petty bourgeoise. The point s that immigrants generally have no wish to replace capitalism they merely wish to gain greater benefits. On a more pragmatic level, the children are TOLD what career they will enter and the entire family will invest in the projected future. I thinkyouwill find that British families have a more lasses-faire attitude to their children's academic achievements, based of course, partly on the knowledge that they can never win.