University of South Australia education researcher Dr Garth Stahl says boys from low socio-economic backgrounds may be disengaging from school education, partly in response to wider prejudices about them that exist in the community and the poorly resourced schools they attend.
His research into what is causing boys from poor backgrounds to perform so badly in school is a key focus for his new book Identity, Neoliberalism and Education: Educating white working-class boys.
Dr Stahl tackles what is now a global issue of concern – the plummeting educational achievement of working class, white boys. He explores the issues around social class, notions of male identity and stereotypes, and challenges a system and society where working class boys are characterised as difficult and psychologically abnormal.
Through close research with white, working-class boys in South London, UK, Dr Stahl identified not only that they were stereotyped as unlikely to succeed, but that the boys were fully aware of their own disadvantage and the prejudices that characterised them as lower class, and were choosing to disengage.
“They felt they were playing a no-win game, caught between stigma and risk,” Dr Stahl says.
“They feared academic failure, but they also feared academic success because it may catapult them into a future where they would never feel truly comfortable or accepted.
“As poor, low social status boys, they believed they would never belong in an environment of success and privilege and that they didn’t want to be part of a group that enshrined that kind of inequality.
“For these boys the safest option was to try to get a job and create an identity aligned to defiant egalitarianism.
“Furthermore, they dis-identified with being ‘the best of the best’, instead articulating how they valued loyalty to peers and family. Egalitarianism was how they made themselves feel valuable in schools which de-valued them.
“It was also clear from my research, that calls for relatively superficial adjustments to the education system, such as longer teaching days or parachuting star teachers into disadvantaged schools, would not make inroads into what was a much broader and deeper social problem.”
Dr Stahl’s research undertaken between 2009 and 2010 stands as one of the few investigative research projects to examine the issues so deeply.
It focuses on qualitative research with 23 white working class boys in their final years of compulsory schooling. Dr. Stahl used a visual methodology to elicit responses concerning the boys’ ideas about gender and social class.
“What I have learned is that boys will create and constitute an identity and a values system for themselves, even within environments that devalue them,” Dr Stahl says.
“But that perception of being less valuable has an enduring influence on the kind of identity these boys create for themselves and their educational aspirations and outcomes.”
(Source: University of South Australia)