Why do white working-class boys shun university?

Dr Garth Stahl of the university of South Australia, writing in the Guardian, says that boys from white working-class backgrounds often opt for a middle ground of neither failing or succeeding in order that they are thought of as ‘ordinary’ by their peers

… Earlier this month, the government imposed new rules on universities, requiring them to work more closely with schools in poorer areas to target underrepresented populations, specifically white working-class boys.

… Despite the government’s insistence that schools become “engines of social mobility”…aspiration is a complex phenomenon. In understanding how working-class young people construct their aspirations, we must consider the complex identity work around becoming socially mobile, which is influenced by school, family and neighbourhood…

During my time teaching in South London…I spent a year researching the educational aspirations of 23 white working-class boys (aged 14-16) across three London schools, to explore how they came to understand themselves as aspirational subjects. These young men, who largely lived on council estates and all qualified for free school meals, were of mixed academic ability…

Yet the boys’ aspirations often involved wanting to do well academically, but not too well. One participant, George, said: “I do want to be someone that stands out but I don’t want to at the same time … I want people to see me as a smart person, but I don’t want to be like someone who’s embarrassing.”

Another participant, Tom, highlighted the identity work involved in being a good student in a disadvantaged school, along with the importance of peer acceptance: “I wouldn’t want people to know I’m doing the best. Not teachers, obviously. But I wouldn’t want them telling everyone I’m the best and rubbing it in their face. I’d keep it personal.”

The boys were attracted to a middling position – neither failing or succeeding – and being thought of as “ordinary” by their peers. Yet their schools often promoted an idea of aspiration that was competitive and self-serving…

The boys in my study were very aware of social class… Many of the boys characterised the middle- and upper-classes as entitled, self-serving and uncaring. Such views informed their aspirations around higher education, leading them to feel that prestigious institutions could bring about feelings of inferiority…

More at Why do white working-class boys shun university?


See also Garth’s previous guest post for this site: The educational aspirations of white working class boys – 5 things I have learnt and 5 things we need to do


So how can schools help break this desire not to stand out by doing well?

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