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A Qualitative Study of Gender and Class Negotiations of White Working-Class Boys and their Educational Experience

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The disaffection of white working-class boys has been a major concern in the British education system since the 18th century. While the quality and provision of education for the working-classes has increased disaffection remains a persistent – and alarming – problem for educators and policy makers. Although the work in the area is diverse in terms of theoretical perspectives (Marxist, Foucauldian, psychological, etc), methodologies (participant observation, interviews, focus groups, etc) and foci (literacy, subcultures, laddish behaviour, hegemonic masculinity) my research will concentrate on the heterogeneity of white working-class boys educational experience in a high-achieving secondary school in London in which white working-class boys are consistently the lowest performing group. Specifically, what can we learn from white working-class boys’ educational experiences and attitudes today? What does their experience tell us about white working-class education failure? In the gendered and classed identity construction of white working-class boys, what makes them engage or disengage with education and with learning? The study includes close analysis of where identity formation is a barrier to academic engagement. Utilizing an ethnographic approach, a combination of methodologies was used: classroom observation, one-on-one semi-structured interviews (in which participants commented on video-recordings of themselves in lesson) and focus groups. Data from the cohort of fifteen participants – identified through FSM (Free School Meals) status – was analysed using Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, field, agency, structure and capital. The findings show the diversity of white working-class boys’ experiences. Through my dialogues with participants, I was able to see how the peer group contributed to identity construction and how attributes consistently associated with white working-class boys – such as arrogance, idleness, rebellion – were largely facades masking high levels of anxiety over a lack of power. Additionally, through my qualitative approach I saw that while white working-class boys were the lowest performing ethnic group, they were still doing quite well, “getting on,” working to “maintain command of their own lives” (ibid), whether it was socially or academically.

This talk is part of the FERSA Lunchtime Sessions series.

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