The reality about the white working-class. Is outrage helping?

Amanda Spielman has been ruffling a few feathers with her comments at the Festival of Education recently:
“We are having to grapple with the unhappy fact that many local, working-class communities have felt the full brunt of economic dislocation in recent years, and, perhaps as a result, can lack the aspiration and drive seen in many migrant communities.”

And the response from many has been quite a reactive one:

Sadly, Amanda is right. And our resentment of what she said, towards the organisation she leads, or our anger at the wider social injustice doesn’t help to change the reality for people from these backgrounds.

Our armchair outrage is simply just that.

We are offended and annoyed because of our biases without ever really seeing the situation for what it is. How many airing their views live in the communities of which are being spoken about? Are we having the debate around the people who our words affect without actually hearing their voices? And would we like what we heard if they had a say?

I’ve written about why I think we’re failing the disadvantaged here, here and here but that’s not for this post.

Yes aspiration is low in many white-working class areas because communities are more isolated from schools (and other institutions which were historically considered hubs of the community) than they’ve ever been but not because of Ofsted or them being “exam factories”. Schools now represent the establishment, other aspects of community institutions (like churches, pubs and libraries) are a dying breed so people become more isolated and lose their sense of belonging. And our view of aspiration from a position of concerned comfort is very different from those living and breathing the reality.

We know what’s best for them.

So who is volunteering to come and live on the council estate where my mum lives to help build a sense of belonging, raise aspiration and show white working-class communities like this that education is what’s best for them? Who is going to want to work in the local secondary school that is struggling to recruit and retain teachers not because of its Ofsted report or poor exam results (although neither are great) but simply because the town has very little to offer people with qualifications and aspirations of a better life?

Well it’s all gone quiet over here.

No volunteers?

Yet we’re happy to criticise Amanda Spielman for telling it like it is.

The issue here is that we look at a headline, confirm our own biases and jump straight into outrage. Well done keyboard warriors, you’ve done precisely zero to help. This is where our righteous indignation is damaging.

Wigan is the neighbouring town to St Helens, two very alike working-class communities with similar issues. Though they look familiar on paper, I wouldn’t try to apply my experience of teaching in a neighbouring town to leadership of a school in Wigan without at first getting to understand the place itself. And I wouldn’t even try to insult the expertise of colleagues in parts of real deprivation like Blackpool by telling them how to do their jobs because the reality for people in these coastal towns is much more of a bleak affair. In many instances these are white-working class ghettos where there is mistrust for authority of any kind and a comfort in familiarity.

So thank you but I don’t want to hear you using headlines to peddle your own personal bias unless your outrage is going to convert into action. The only way we’ll ever break the cycle of deprivation and low-aspiration is by winning hearts and minds, by understanding exactly what the issues facing an individual community are and by getting involved; by investing in it long-term.

If not, then please don’t pretend to care and don’t use the latest headline to do it.

8 thoughts on “The reality about the white working-class. Is outrage helping?

  1. Nelson B

    While I agree that many of the places you mention are indeed being deprived, I have a problem with label ‘white working-class’. And that is why I think you and Spielman both need to reassess the consequences of the language you use. Working-class depravity is the issue. This deprivation happens all across the country in working class areas. Once we start alienated different racial groups we allow others to infer that ‘otherness’ is perhaps to blame. Terms like ‘black on black violence’ are equally problematic. These terms start to divert from the real issues and start dividing up working class demographics unnecessarily.


    1. I agree with your point. To not acknowledge the social and educational inequity felt by all working class would be a fundamental flaw. Additionally to subdivide and suggest one group is worse off than another doesn’t help. That wasn’t the point I was trying to make. The reality is that groups/communities do have different causes for their deprivation and differing attitudes towards the various authorities they come into contact with. I agree that we shouldn’t subdivide the working-classes in addressing the problem but we need to acknowledge and understand communities if we’re going to support social mobility and raising aspirations. It needs bespoke approaches that aren’t afraid of being personalised because of a minefield of political correctness. More damage is done by people who are outraged turning it into a race issue or it’s a northern issue etc. We should have the discussion despite the discomfort if we want to solve things. How many people who feel aggrieved have actually been to St Helens or similar and can understand the community I’m describing? Because the factors influencing the circumstances of people in towns like this will be very different from those in inner-city manchester (less than 15 miles away) so it’s important to ask why.


  2. Nelson B

    I totally agree there are a lot of uncomfortable discussions to be had to get to the bottom of the problems. And I totally agree that each of the groups/communities will have context dependent issues that are complex to unpick and probably unique to that group/community, so we need to be talking to people from those groups/communities to help figure what is going on. But in order to have this discussion properly, I think we need to focus exactly on those issues and not something like ‘whiteness’ which will only detract from the real causes. St Helens’s problems are likely to be unique to ST Helens and whiteness won’t be. The socioeconomic or geopolitical factors will be more important to investigate IMHO.


    1. We agree on so much here and I do think that you’re right. However, the demographic of places like St Helens is majoritively white working-class so this is a factor. Having been a part of this community, it is an influencing factor which needs addressing for all sorts of reasons (not just aspiration) and not talking about it is like ignoring the elephant in the room. The whole point of the post is to leave our own biases and outrages at the door when we look at a headline because brushing the issues under the carpet is counter-productive. It’s hard because first and foremostly this is a working-class problem, not a white working-working class or a female working class etc. but interventions and approaches need to be bespoke for groups and communities with unique identities. Wigan is almost the same demographic as St Helens but applying the same approaches won’t work so it’s more about understanding the people within it. Therefore these conversations must be had. I hope that makes some kind of sense?


  3. Nelson B

    It makes lots of sense – but the difference between Wigan and St Helens ins’t likely to be the colour of their skin. Focusing on whiteness makes the bespoke approaches you mention less bespoke as its such a broad brush.


    1. It is a factor though. Perhaps not in St Helens and Wigan but if we look at St Helens in relation to Bolton or either in relation to Manchester. It’s hard to explain unless you experience it. London is a transient population and has a much more multi-cultural make up so I can understand why people react in this way but it is something that can’t be ignored. The fact that we’re wrangling about this is precisely the point. It doesn’t help the people who we’re talking about. Come and stay a week at my mum’s house and you’ll see what I mean. The experience will explain it much better than I could.


  4. Nelson B

    Are you suggesting that teachers in St Helens (who are probably all white) are treating white students differently, and that teachers in Manchester don’t? Again, I don’t think whiteness is the issue and is only stopping us addressing the real issues.
    If its hard to explain unless you experience it, how will we ever get an explanation? People’s experiences are unique, subjective and anecdotal which is why we need experts in social redevelopment to engage with communities.
    And thank you very much for the invite to your mum’s. While I would love to go, I don’t see how my family would let me go or what good it would do for the community there.
    We agree almost entirely so lets hope this discussion will be of some use.


    1. No teachers wouldn’t treat students differently but the mentality of different communities are different. Well the invite is always there.
      “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”


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