Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain: Gillian Evans [2006]

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain: Gillian Evans [2006]


Gillian Evans is a social anthropologist who, having lived with her family on a Bermondsey council estate for 13 years, researched families and schools in the area in order analyse working class educational attainment in her study Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain [2006] which was based mainly on research undertaken in 1999-2000.  She recognised that although she had, as mentioned, lived in Bermondsey for 13 years, it might not be easy as a middle class person to secure acceptance by working class Bermondsey parents and children, but she seems to have been reasonably successful in this respect. She also states explicitly that, because she has studied only a small sample of parents and children. her study cannot be regarded as representative of Bermondsey working class people or of working class people in general, but she hopes that nevertheless her study would provide a basis for future more large scale research.

Gillian Evans is well aware of theories which suggests that social class differences in educational attainment can be explained by social class differences in inherited intelligence and /or by the cultural deprivation of the working class which leads them to adopt a fatalistic attitude to the possibilities of educational success and upward social mobility. However, she rejects these theories and states that the parents in here sample are in most cases keen for their children to achieve educational success and upward social mobility while at the same time retaining close connections with their working class community.

Instead, Gillian Evans suggests that although working class parents are ambitious for their children, they lack the resources to translate their ambitions into the practical help which will prepare their children for their first contact with the formal education system and facilitate their subsequent educational success.

Quotes from White Underachievement: TES: Steven Hastings 2006

Blaming parents is an easy way out for schools, says Gillian Evans.

"Attributing behavioural problems to poor parenting or poverty neatly excuses the school. Teachers usually think there must be something wrong with the child emotionally or psychologically, or that he or she must come from a bad family. Their response is either blame or pity, neither of which is helpful."

Dr Evans's research found that nearly all white working-class parents "wanted their children to do well and valued formal learning". She points out that blaming parents overlooks those children who are disruptive in school but "as good as gold" at home and fails to explain how one child in a family may do badly at school, while another does well. "Most working-class parents think education is important, but they see it as something that happens in school, not in the home," she says.


In this respect, it may be fair to say that although Gillian Evans does not refer to the Bourdieusian concepts of economic, social and cultural capital here explanation for relative working class educational underachievement has some similarities with that of Bourdieu.

Gillian Evans is also well placed to make comparisons between working class parents’ educational strategies which are well meaning but relatively ineffective and the educational strategies of middle class parents [ mainly mothers, of whom she believes herself to be fairly typical.]  Here she refers to the study of Leon Feinstein which pointed to the social class differences in educational progress which begin to develop even before children start school and to the ways in which middle class mothers prepare their children more effectively for the formal educational routines which they will encounter once they start school and continue to support them throughout their school careers. By comparison, according to Gillian Evans, many working class children usually start school with more limited numeracy and literacy schools, more limited attention spans, and more limited awareness of the actual enjoyment that education can bring.

She also argues that many working class children, even at an early age, may have experienced the impact of a working class street culture, which is vibrant, noisy and, enjoyable and occasionally violent but also incompatible with the formal school culture and hence likely to affect their educational prospects adversely. [ We can see some similarities here with the importance of the “Nike” culture emphasised a few years later by Louise Archer and her colleagues]. Even by the age of 9-10, some of the boys in Gillian Evans’ study are recognisable as younger variants of Paul Willis’ 15 year old “lads” whose immersion in street culture is highly likely to generate lack of interest, misbehaviour and relative educational failure.

 Once they are in school working class boys who are falling behind   may misbehave or claim school tasks are boring so as to hide the fact that they are finding the work difficult and /or be unwilling to ask for help for fear of losing “street credibility”. Gillian Evans notes also that the consistent misbehaviour of more raucous boys [ and some girls] also undermines the educational prospects of the quieter working class children who would like to learn but are prevented from doing so.

Gillian Evans carried out observations and discussion in one particular school in Bermondsey in 1999 -2000 which obviously cannot be regarded as representative of the current English education system as a whole which has changed very significantly since 1999- 2000 although significant social class differences in educational achievement do remain.

The pupils in the school are drawn primarily from working class backgrounds  and , as mentioned Gillian Evans believes thar although working class parents are keen for their children to do well, they cannot support their children very well in practical terms and in some cases may tend to believe that where their children are unsuccessful this may be due to an underlying lack of ability which is difficult to remedy which does suggest the existence of a fatalism which is not apparent in middle class parents.

The pupils are of varied abilities and temperaments but the ethos of the school is dominated by the behaviour of small number of dominant disruptive pupils [mainly boys]. Even the most effective teacher says that she must spend 80% of her time trying to get the children to behave in a way which will facilitate learning while for other teachers and especially for supply teachers classrooms can appear to be more or less chaotic. There seems to be no overall attempt to analyse the fundamental causes of misbehaviour and educational failure hence no real strategy is in place to rectify the situation

The key issues for Gillian Evans are that working class parents, although well-meaning cannot support their children with effective practical help. Although the children generally behave well at home, their involvement in street culture which prioritises macho style behaviour for boys and occasionally raucous and sometimes violent behaviour by some girls undermines their own leaning prospects and learning prospects of children who do want to learn. The pupils often cannot sit still and cannot concentrate on school tasks which they find both irrelevant and uninteresting and the school is itself poorly run, lacking in resources and without an overall strategy to deal with the problems that it faces.

How many pupils currently face such educational disadvantages? And what can be done about them?

For Further Information

Click here  for Gillian Evans’ Guardian article [from 2006]

Click here for Guardian readers responses and  here for Patrick Butler’s response to Gillian Evans’ article