How white working-class boys engage with the rhetoric of social mobility

How white working-class boys engage with the rhetoric of social mobility

Garth Stahl (University of South Australia)

In the United Kingdom, it is widely documented both in academic circles and in the popular press that white working-class children consistently underperform at school and are less likely to attend university. However, white working-class disengagement from education is symptomatic of much larger issues with the UK education system. While white working-class underachievement remains a cause for concern, it must be noted that across the UK ‘nearly half of young people still do not achieve five good GCSEs at school. More still do not reach that standard in English and mathematics. And one in twenty leave without a single GCSE pass’ (Department for Education and Skills, 2003: 6).

The result of such widespread disaffection has been a growing push in the UK to create schools that are ‘engines of social mobility providing every child with the knowledge, skills and aspirations they need to fulfil their potential’ (Cabinet Office, 2011: 36). A recent White Paper entitled The Importance of Teaching (Department of Education, 2010: 29) asserts, ‘Good teachers instil an ethos where aspiration is the best reason for children to avoid harmful behavior,’ equating aspiration with a simple antidote to complex problems.

Social immobility?
In order to understand social mobility, we must consider how groups, which are often labeled as socially immobile, engage with the persistent rhetoric of social mobility and aspiration. There exists a simplistic policy rhetoric which portrays certain low rates of post-16 participation in education or training, particularly for working-class and some minority ethnic young people, as indicative of a ‘poverty of aspirations‘. This is woefully incorrect. In understanding the aspirations of working-class youth, we must consider both the complex identity work around becoming socially mobile, as well as the identity work of constituting oneself as valuable when one resists doxic notions of social mobility.

We know aspirations are a complex phenomenon as young people engage with a variety of identity negotiations. All students make sense of their own social positioning and assets in relation to the discourses of aspiration they are exposed to in schooling and wider society. Identity is a complex value-laden process in which young people are ‘working on, generating, and maintaining a sense of meaning and self-worth at an interface between their inner life and the social context in which they live. Identity is the manifestation of this dynamic, never-ending negotiation’ (Hattam and Smyth, 2003: 382). My interest is in how aspiration manifests and how working-class young people – specifically white working-class boys – come to understand the neoliberal expectation of social mobility. Such experiences led me to spend a year researching the educational aspirations of 23 white working-class boys in South London (ages 14-16) in order to better understand how they came to understand themselves in relation to the rhetoric of social mobility.

The rhetoric of aspiration in schooling
Schooling often promotes an idea of aspiration that was highly neoliberal, self-serving, competitive, and only interested in self-advancement. During the Gove-era the school cultures, in my study adopted discourses, of ‘learn equals earn,’ where the pupils had to gain grades in order to be seen as valuable. Where classroom discourses in this study focused heavily on engaging in competition for credentials, jobs or income such discourses served in direct contrast to the boys familial lives which were grounded in family responsibility, emotional commitment, social ties and collective responsibility for the vulnerable.

The data collection for this study occurred immediately following the financial crisis of 2007–2008 and during the July 2011 riots in London, Manchester and Birmingham. Both events shaped discourses around employment, benefit culture and anti-social behavior. It should be noted the young men in my study exist in urban spaces which are continually pathologised as ‘“unfit” and undesirable’ (Archer et al., 2010) or ‘rubbish’ and ‘shit’ (Lucey and Reay, 2002). Therefore, the intermeshing of ‘place’, ‘legitimacy’ and ‘respectability’ are considered to be crucial components of both social and learner identity construction. It has become increasingly difficult for these young males to establish a so-called ‘good life’ within an era of high neoliberalism (Stahl, 2012). Many of these young men constructed their identities in schools which were largely inadequate in terms of teaching and learning yet – paradoxically – were robust in preaching the ‘raising aspiration’ agenda of attending university which was always sold as a route to long-term economic viability.

Constructing themselves as value: An egalitarian
Faced with a robust rhetoric of social mobility and career advancement, many of the boys identified with their working-class dispositions and projected an egalitarian outlook. Egalitarianism is founded upon a serendipitous disposition towards ‘what will be, will be’, ‘making do’ or ‘waiting and seeing’. With egalitarianism, there are strong echoes here of traditional working-class dispositions toward historic, solidarist, communal values. Egalitarianism, like ‘tall poppy syndrome,’ is defined through a desire to ‘fit in’ where everyone has an ‘equal say in the world’ and where ‘no one is better than anyone else’ or ‘above their station.’ The boys often articulated their desire to disassociate themselves from being classified as aspirational subjects; interestingly, such disassociations came from their conceptions of their own social class and masculine identities. Such articulations were infused with many contradictions regarding financial return, social mobility, class inferiority and ambivalence. Egalitarianism allowed them to constitute themselves as ‘having value’ in the hegemonic neoliberal discourses of ‘best’ and ‘worst’ where they are often devalued.

Through the use of visual methodology, I found these young men to be very aware of social class and their positionality. When examining images associated with university, the majority of my participants were fascinated by middle-class and upper-class boys, but equally unsettled by the foreignness of their dramatically different lifestyles. The boys articulated they were not ‘able to relate to it’ revealing how the boys see this middle- and upper-class lifestyle as a place that could bring about feelings of inferiority. While most sociological research tends to focus on the pathologisation of the working classes by middle classes, the boys’ responses indicates they have the capacity to pathologise the ‘snob’ middle classes who they characterise as entitled, self-centred and uncaring.  Such pathologisations inform conceptions of their own aspiration.

While there has been a recent Parliamentary Inquiry (2014) into the underachievement of white working-class children, in terms of targeted strategies, to counter-act social and financial disadvantage and increase social mobility, there is still much to be done. Working-class students understand the social mobility rhetoric; they also understand how much of it is beyond their reach. As a result they come to find ways to constitute themselves as valuable individuals within limited opportunity structures.

Cabinet Office (2011) Opening doors, breaking barriers: A strategy for social mobility. London: The Cabinet Office, Her Majesty’s Government.
Department for Education (2010) The importance of teaching: The schools white paper 2010. London: 24 November.
Hattam, R. and Smyth, J. (2003) ‘Not everyone has a perfect life’: Becoming some- body without school. Pedagogy, Culture and Society, 11(3), 379–398.
Lucey, H. and Reay, D. (2002) Carrying the beacon of excellence: Social class differ- entiation and anxiety at a time of transition. Journal of Education Policy, 17(3), 321–336.
Stahl, G., 2012. “Aspiration and a Good Life among White Working-Class Boys in London.” Journal of Qualitative and Ethnographic Research 7(1): 8-19.


Garth Stahl is a Lecturer in Literacy and Sociology at University of South Australia. He is a theorist of sociology of education. His research interests lie on the nexus of neoliberalism and socio-cultural studies of education, identity, equity/inequality and social change. Currently, his research projects and publications encompass theoretical and empirical studies of learner identities, gender and youth, sociology of schooling in a neoliberal age, gendered subjectivities, equity and difference, and educational reform. His book, Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration: Educating White Working-class Boys, is available from Routledge.