The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
November 16, 2006

Richard D. North asks, how do we civilise the white working class? Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain - Gillian Evans

Posted by Richard D. North

Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain
by Gillian Evans
Pp. 256. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006
Hardback, 50

Gillian Evans, an anthropologist, and her book on working class educational failure have sparked a debate about race, class and culture. Here, Richard D North discusses the issues. North does so fresh from a BBC Radio 4 You & Yours debate with Evans and the Tories' underclass guru, Iain Duncan-Smith whose report is also just out.

Here's a curious book. Laurie Taylor, on his Thinking Allowed show on Radio 4, said it was "finely observed" or something to that effect, and funny with it. (I could find little to laugh over.) The Guardian has run a couple of pieces by Gillian Evans, presumably approvingly, though there was apparently a good deal of reader outrage. (Ms Evans is middle class, but has lived on a council estate: she's been accused of voyeuristic slumming.)

Andrew Gimson in the Telegraph, perhaps sensing that he was in tricky territory granted his own readership, lauded her thesis on the basis that we ought to understand the working class need for us to create civilising outlets for their violent tribalism. And he doesn't like the middle-class obsession with its own children to the exclusion of a wider social involvement. He's complaining, with some justice, about two very different failures to socialise.

In a minute, we'll come to the argument Evans makes when she's writing for the Guardian and speaking on Radio 4. First, though, we ought to look at her book, which says rather different things.

Gillian Evans's production is almost more interesting for what it says about her than for what she says about the working class children and their schooling. Too personal to be academic, too much a narrative to be analytical, but too anxious to explain to be a good story, it's an irritating mish-mash which isn't fifty quids-worth of anything in particular. (This is, by the way, the kind of book which tells us that "blindin'" means brilliant, and that "Pakis" means Pakistanis: what planet does Gillian Evans think we're on? Hers?) There's a good novel or memoir trying to get out of this bad thesis.

She is at least wholly unselfconscious about her own behaviour. She spent 10 years on a Bermondsey estate, many of them with "my mind elsewhere", visiting greener or more cultured bits of London. And then, in 1999 and early in 2000, the estate was her research topic as well. Bit by bit, partly to help with her field research, she attempts to become "common" as she learns from her new non-posh friends to call it. Naturally this downward mobility shocks the working class children she has be-befriended, probably (though Gillian doesn't seem to spot this) because they were glad at last to have an acquaintance within the middle class, and thus a route to improvement, and didn't admire someone who threw away advantage. She is allowed to observe two families in situ only because she helps scions of the households with their reading. So even innocent anthropologists have some uses.

Evans is a typically virginal academic type: everything about the real world seems to come as a surprise to her. This is weird since her partner and the father of her children (girls) is a working class musician of Nigerian extraction, which presumably at least put her under the spotlight. We learn this stuff in dribs and drabs. She seems to have left the estate a few years ago, and indeed all her research is woefully antique by now. The school she reports on was mostly non-white, and a dumping-ground for trouble-makers from half south London. Though she's keen on everyone else's social position, her own is sketchy even though she intrudes herself so much into the narrative. But that's anthropologists for you, I guess.

All this proximity to the strange incoherent unruly white tribe brings her nothing new and not much nice to tell us. Her subjects either are or are related to pretty bad sorts. We are told of women's sisters who cut down garden fences and neighbours' trees, and one new friend batters down a front door in pursuit of a good argument. If this was reality TV, we'd be agog. Evans says there are all sort of working class people on a continuum from "common-as-shit", through "common-as-muck" to plain common.

Lurking in the background is an old-fashioned ideal of a respectable working class, but it is in a way the unstated burden of the book to say that respectability is no longer on anyone's agenda. Common people keep their flats clean and their children flashy, and are proud in a vague, conflicted and perverse way of their neighbourhood. (Gillian's are the only venetian blinds, and "none too clean" in a sea of blindin' nets.) The common are nice and even amazingly loving to their own families.

Beyond that, they seem useless: bigoted, gobby and chippy. Go on - you plough through this book and say any different. Without meaning to be, Evans is really rather good on the sheer brainless nastiness of the nether regions of the disaffected white working class. She seems to be showing us - but doesn't properly discuss - the Charles Murray sort of view that the old, respectable working class has mostly now transmuted into Mondeo and 4X4 Pickup man, leaving behind it the old messed up underclass, trapped and increasingly interbred.

This is surely the class that Iain Duncan Smith's work agonises over for his Tory party commission. He comes, by the way, to what look like sensible conclusions. Fretting about the underclass, he says:

... poor children from Chinese and Indian backgrounds, where family structures are strong and learning is highly valued, outscore so dramatically children from homes where these values are often missing suggests that culture not ethnicity or cash is the key to educational achievement.
That is, family culture is a far closer determinant of educational failure than being "an ethnic" or working class.

Had Evans said that, it wouldn't be new either, but it would help explain the much-reported unpleasantness of many estates. But we are dreadfully stuck: she describes a culture so awful that it reinforces one's feeling that it ought to be allowed to die, but doesn't opine one way or another about it.

Evans says the common-as-shit don't get the point of formal education at all, except as something they've got to go along with or get into trouble. That was ever thus. And then she says that outside the home there is a violent jungle (including in school) and that kids have to be tough and even disruptive in order to be cool. Nothing very new in that granted that we've been discussing the modern nastiness of sink estates and sink schools for 20 years.

She says teachers (including working class teachers) think that underclass families produce kids who can't get on at school. Everyone but Evans agrees that this is key. She says this view misses the picture that the families may not be so much messed-up as out of sync with formal schooling. This isn't new: it's an ancient trope that working class families value the family over learning.

In any case, she is inconsistent. She is also keen on the view that the "majority" of working class parents value education though they may not be very good at preparing children for it, but then adds that "many" working class children, and especially girls, do quite well. She makes a play that family chaos can't sufficiently explain male failure, because girls from "bad" families (or non-families) often do pretty well. Thus she blithely ignores not merely the heart of her own case but the hugely well-advertised maleness of her supposedly class problem, as agonised over by Bea Campbell and Angela Phillips
in the "what's wrong with boys?" literature, and its newer - and very important - variant, the "what's wrong with black boys?" literature from David Matthews and Tony Sewell.

She discusses the age-old requirement for boys to be rough, but not the Gimson issue of how to institutionalise roughness. Bring back Baden-Powell and his Scout movement aimed at young hooligans, I say. But as Gimson implies: that would require a renewal of middle class bossiness. We could bring back grammar schools with their understanding that the public school is rather good for young people. Or secondary moderns with their understanding that vocations (that is, trades) suit some people. And round and round we go.

But then we remember that Evans is only writing about primary schools: her subjects were 10 years old (indeed her research is so old that its main value might now be for follow-up studies). It requires serious ineptitude in the teaching industry to fail to manage such tykes, and we can hope that Evans' findings would not hold today. Ofsted says, anyway, that we do know how to solve the problem: good teachers in disciplined schools.

I have said that Evans can't be interesting on class because she can't or won't decide which bits of it are a good or a bad thing. But she does record her deep alienation from their mores. This isn't an intellectual approach, but it is refreshingly un-PC. She is also good on the way a common-as-muck woman, Anita, helps her understand what it is to be common-as-shit, and how to manage her peculiar and temporary assimilation with her new tribe. Evans' writing has the genuine merit that it conveys her own sense of shock at the folly and inadequacy of mothers who can't be bothered to sit with their children and at least try to read books.

This is a book which will be as much talked-about as it is read (she should be so lucky) and in her media appearances Evans says her main thesis is about maleness, race and class, whilst in the book she writes mostly about white working class children of both genders with little reference to race. Here's the idea she is promoting in the media (as she wrote in the Guardian).:

.... when we talk about black boys in Britain ... we tend to focus on their race, their ethnicity and their cultural background. And their failure inevitably throws light on the difficulties created for them by institutional racism. When we look at the failure of working-class white boys, however, what is emphasised about them is their social class position. This means the opportunity is lost to consider whether those black and white boys who are failing are doing so because of reasons to do with them being similarly working class, and that perhaps the prejudice they experience at school is first and foremost an institutional class prejudice. By default, this means black people don't have a social class position and white people don't have an ethnic or cultural background, they are simply from the working, middle or upper classes.
This is dense and confused stuff. She seems to be asking us to think of black and immigrant male educational failure as a matter of class even when there are bits of race mixed-in. She seems, in the interests of symmetry, to be trying to persuade us that the white males fail because they come from a tribe (just another disadvantaged minority), so can be thought of almost racially (and, incidentally, anthropologically). The muddle is this: in the degree to which she succeeds in making us believe that white males ought to be seen as ethnics (as a vanishing white tribe), it undermines Evans' own thesis that we're ignoring a class dimension.

The core of Evans' beef is that there is "institutional class prejudice". This risks all the nonsense that got shipped in with "institutionalised racial prejudice", and some new stuff too. Evans thinks that teachers sometimes think that disruptive working class boys are stupid, and sometimes that they're nasty. That is, that working class genes or up-bringing are up the spout. Contrary to that, Evans insists that primary schools don't understand that formal (middle-class) education doesn't allow working class boys to participate properly. She is useless at discussing where this leads us. She doesn't tell us what a common school would be like.

What's more, there is an ocean of discussion, and some useful policy, concentrating on improving schools so that they are better at engaging the working class young, black or white, male or female. Success doesn't seem to come from addressing some supposed "institutional class prejudice" or abandoning ideals of formal education (as Evans may want). On the contrary, it seems to do with re-asserting the discipline and esprit de corps within schools which has always made them a haven from lower working class chaos and upper working class intellectual indolence.

There is a further real lacuna in Evans' thesis. She doesn't ask how different is male working class educational failure from the general (classless) male educational failure. Nor does she ask how different is that from the general multi-gender, multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-class educational failure. That's to say, there is a massive educational failure wherever you look, and boys are at the sharper end of it, and white and black working class boys at the very tip. Universities and employers mourn the absence of the Three-Rs and anything like a historical understanding in every strata of society, let alone a generalised reluctance to concentrate. Aren't almost all young people now afflicted by a self-esteem which is at once over-inflated and prone to sudden bursting?

One might well argue that the people - especially boys - at the bottom of the heap merely suffer the most from a generalised collapse of authority and adulthood in those who bring them up, or teach or govern them. (I think IDS thinks this.) So the problem may well be open to class analysis, but only in spotting the degrees of difficulty the young face in a continuum from economic and social advantage down on through to a rather desperate scene amongst the lowest orders. From top to bottom of society, though, the young face a severe lack of structure and a corrosive cynicism.

Oddly, I am drawn to part of Evans' thesis: the bit she soft-pedals. In short, I like anthropology. Unlike her, I think class is dead, at least in the sense that one used to be fairly well able to assume things about a person once one knew where their parents went to school. Now this applies only to the very top and bottom of society. At its most brutal and most significant, class captured the idea that large chunks of everyone's identity were not merely inherited, but compulsorily so. Immigrants may import a class system of their own, but almost be definition they don't fit into old British stratifications in the same way as people who have lived within them (and broken through them) for generations.

You may say that Evans is within her rights to discuss a sink school in class terms because it is a last redoubt of the old class world. We would listen to that, if we thought she could show us how her view helps us. However, class analysis hasn't given Evans a fulcrum she can use to propose solutions to the problems we all see in sink schools.

Granted that class analysis hasn't helped us, we might as well disparage Evans' attempt to revivify a notion whose death is more interesting. Class has little power as an idea once almost everything it captured has been consigned to history. It used, crucially, to be about rather similar habits of respectability, maintained within very different economic circumstances. It used to capture real if absurd ideas about the "quality" of people, and the rather valuable deference owed to superiors. Now, people of every income and education level claim to be working class, and the old middle class version of respectability is almost as dead as the old working class version of it. Deference is dead. Class used to be about contrasting but strong ideas about disciple: now ill-discipline is normal.

What's more, class relations were used to describe (they chronically over-described) a trench warfare in which there was an unchanging economic war between people who belonged by birth to one or other of the opposed groups. That defining principle is well gone.

All sorts of good things have been happening, and plenty of bad, too, and many of them arise from the demise of old class attitudes.

But we want an organising principle, surely? We must be able to categorise, somehow. We want to generalise and stereotype, otherwise we can't speak. Evans' occasional emphasis on tribalism has a certain charm. The media tribe, the football tribe, the military tribe, the gay tribes, the South London Young Contemptibles: there's some fun and value to be had in seeing the world in these terms. Tribes can be and usually are more fluid than classes. One can, for instance, become a Goth in about an hour and stay one for as long as one wants. Provided we use tribe to capture the idea of identities which are often voluntary as well as sometimes inherited, we may have a tool which is more interesting than class has become or perhaps ever was.

To be a little too neat about it, Gillian Evans' book would have been better if it had been more anthropological and less sociological. That's to say, if it had been more about tribes and less about class. That would have allowed us to discuss the identities people choose, even if we know we are also lumbered with our parents' baggage.

And of course we face the problem we started with: how to civilise the estates in which little working class boys have somehow to live when they're not in weak families or weak schools.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

I disagree. Being a working class male, elaborating on this would be beneath my dignity. In any event, thank you for trying to 'civilise' me; however, I need to ask you to kindly stop doing it. Thank you.

Posted by: bob at January 12, 2008 02:36 PM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement