Learning to Labour by Paul Willis – Summary and Evaluation of Research Methods

Participant Observation in the Context of Education

Given the practical and ethical problems of conducting participant observation in a school setting, there are only a handful of such studies which have been carried out in the UK, and these are mainly historical, done a long time ago. They are, nonetheless interesting as examples of research. Below I consider one classic participant observation study in the context of education – Paul Willis‘  Learning to Labour (1977)

Learning to labour

learning-to-labourLearning to Labour by Paul Willis (1977) is an ethnographic study of twelve working class ‘lads’ from a school in Birmingham conducted between 1972 and 1975. He spent a total of 18 months observing the lads in school and then a further 6 months following them into work. The study aimed to uncover the question of how and why “working class kids get working class jobs” (1977: 1) using a wide range of qualitative research methodologies from interviews, group discussions to participant observation, aiming to understand participants’ actions from the participants’ point of view in everyday contexts.

Sampling

Willis concentrated on a particular boy’s group in a non-selective secondary school in the Midlands, who called themselves ‘lads’. They were all white, although the school also contained many pupils from West Indian and Asian backgrounds. The school population was approximately 600, and the school was predominantly working class in intake. He states that the main reasons why he selected this school was because it was the typical type of school attended by working class pupils.

Data Collection

Willis attended all school classes, options (leisure activities) and career classes which took place at various times. He also spoke to parents of the 12 ‘lads’, senior masters of the school, and main junior teachers as well as careers officers in contact with the concerned ‘lads’. He also followed these 12 ‘lads’ into work for 6 months. NB He also made extensive use of unstructured interviews, but here we’re focusing on the observation aspects.

Participant observation allowed Willis to immerse himself into the social settings of the lads and gave him the opportunity to ask the lads (typically open) questions about their behaviour that day or the night before, encouraging them to explain themselves in their own words…which included detailed accounts of the lads fighting, getting into trouble with teachers, bunking lessons, setting off fire extinguishers for fun and vandalising a coach on a school trip.

Findings

One of Willis’ most important findings was that the lads were completely uninterested in school – they saw the whole point of school as ‘having a laff’ rather than trying to get qualifications. Their approach to school was to survive it, to do as little work as possible, and to have as much fun as possible by pushing the boundaries of authority and bunking as much as they could. The reason they didn’t value education is because they anticipated getting factory jobs which didn’t require any formal qualifications. They saw school as a ‘bit cissy’ and for middle class kids.

Willis does not include an account of how he approached the ‘lads’ and built rapport with them. However considering the responses of the ‘lads’ during discussions and interviews, seeing that the ‘lads’ openly talk about their views and experiences and allow access to work at a later stage of the research, Willis seems to have built rapport effectively.

For more details the findings of this study see the Neo-Marxism section of the ‘Perspectives on Education Hand-Out’

Practical Issues with Learning to Labour

The research was very time consuming – 2 years of research and then a further 2 years to write up the results.

It would be very difficult to repeat this research today given that it would be harder to gain access to schools (also see reliability)

Funding would also probably be out of the question today given the time taken and small sample size.

Ethical Issues with Learning to Labour

An ethical strength of the research is that it is giving the lads a voice – these are lads who are normally ‘talked about’ as problems, and don’t effectively have a voice.

An ethical weakness is that Willis witnessed the lads getting into fights, their Racism and Homophobia, as well as them vandalising school property but did nothing about it.

A second ethical weakness is the issue of confidentiality – with such a small sample size, it would be relatively easy for people who knew them to guess which lads Willis had been focussing on

Theoretical Issues with Learning to Labour

Validity is widely regarded as being excellent because of the unstructured, open ended nature of the research allowing Willis to sensitively push the lads into giving in-depth explanations of their world view.

Critics have tried to argue that the fact he was obviously a researcher, and an adult, may have meant the lads played up, but he counters this by saying that no one can put on act for 2 years, at some point you have to relax and be yourself.

Something which may undermined the validity is Willis’ interpretation of the data – he could have selected aspects of the immense amount of data he had to support his biased opinion of the boys.

Representativeness is poor – because the sample size is only 12, and they are only white boys.

Reliability is low – It is very difficult to repeat this research for the reasons mentioned under practical factors.

 Related Posts

You might also like this summary of more recent research on why the white working classes continue to underachieve in education.

Exploring the Experience of Poverty in the UK

This post provides some qualitative sources of data which explore what it’s like to be poor in Britain today, follows on from a previous post on ‘defining and measuring material deprivation in the UK’ .

One of the things you need to look at for the AS Education module is the extent to which material deprivation is responsible for educational underachievement. While statistics give you an overview of the extent of poverty, and a little bit of information of the kind of things poor people can’t afford, they don’t give you much a feeling of what it’s like to actually live in poverty.

To get a feeling for day to day challenges of living in poverty you need more qualitative sources, and ‘thankfully’ we are blessed with a number of recent documentaries which look at the experience of living with material deprivation in the UK.

Watch the documentary sources below and then answer the questions/ contribute to the discussions below. The videos have all been selected because they focus on material deprivation and education in some way.

Source One – Poor Kids (BBC – 2011) – Mainly focusing on younger children

Poverty – Britain’s Hungry Children (Channel 4 Report, 2013) – Cites research drawn from 2500 food diaries kept by children in the UK – Some of whom live on less than half of the recommended calories. Also highlights the importance of lunch clubs to feed hungry children.

Finally watch this video – This shows you a case study of one girl from a poor background who actually made it into the best school in the area, against the odds. It’s a bit slow, but later on it gives an insight into the struggle her mum faces to raise enough cash to meet the ‘hidden costs’ of education (she has to resort to a ‘pay day loan’).

Questions/ tasks for discussion:

Q1: Draw an ‘ageline’ (like a timeline, I may have just invented the word) showing how material deprivation affects 3 year olds to 18 year olds in different ways.

Q2: From a broadly Marxist Perspective, the effects of material deprivation on children are structural, or objective if you like. Being brought up in poverty and having a poorer diet, and living in lower quality housing effectively cause poor children to do less well in education. This means that, all other (non material) things being equal (same school, same intelligence, same motivation etc) a poor kid will always do worse than a rich kid. Do you agree? Be prepared to explain your answer.

Related Posts

The effects of material deprivation on education

Class Differences in Education – The Role of In school factors

 

This post looks as how in school processes such as teacher- pupil relationships, subcultures, banding and streaming and the Hidden Curriculum all relate to class differences in education

1. Teacher pupil relationships

Howard Becker: Labelling and the Ideal Pupil – In the 1970s, Howard Becker argued that middle class teachers have an idea of an ‘ideal pupil’ that is middle class. This pupil speaks in elaborated speech code, is polite, and smartly dressed, He argued that middle class teachers are likely view middle class pupils more positively than working class pupils irrespective of their intelligence.

Rosenthal and Jacobsen argued that positive teacher labelling can lead to a self fulfilling prophecy in which the student believes the label given to them and the label becomes true in practise.

2. Pupil Subcultures

Willis’ (1977) research involved visiting one school and observing and interviewing 12 working class rebellious boys about their attitude to school during their last 18 months at school and during their first few months at work. Willis described the friendship between these 12 boys (or the lads) as a counter-school culture. Their value system was opposed to that of the school. They Lads attached no value to academic work, more to ‘having a laff’ because they thought that their future work roles in factories would not require them to have qualifications. They saw school as irrelevant.

Mac an Ghail’s study of Parnell School (1994) – Found that there was a greater variety of working class subcultures that Willis’ research suggested. He found three types of subculture

  1. The Macho Lads – just like Willis’ Lads
  2. The Academic Achievers – these were working class kids who were doing well and tended to come from the upper end of the working classes
  3. The New Enterprisers – these focused on vocational subjects and were interested in business and technology – were still concerned with success rather than rejecting school.
  4. Class and gender- Boys from different class backgrounds experience school differently

Working class boys are generally under pressure to express traditional anti-school masculinities

Middle class boys are more likely to try hard at school, expressing their masculinity through being competitive in examinations

However, middle class boys still feel some pressure to be seen to not be making an effort in school.

3. The organization of teaching and learning

Banding and Streaming disadvantages the working classes and some minority groups – Stephen Ball (1980s) found that following comprehensivisation working class children were more likely to be put into lower sets

Bourdieu argues that schools are middle class environments full of teachers with middle class values and tastes

It has been argued that the absence of working class teachers with their distinct accents and dialects means that teachers fail to relate to working class children

Cultural Capital and Social class differences in educational achievement

cultural capital refers to the skills, knowledge, attitudes and tastes through which typically middle class parents are able to give their children an advantage in life compared to working class children.

Cultural Capital refers to the skills and knowledge middle class parents have that they can use to give their children an advantage in the education system.

A closely related concept is Social Capital – which is the support and information provided by contacts and social networks which can be converted into educational success and material rewards.

cultural capital

Three ways in which middle class parents use their cultural capital

  1. Middle class parents are better educated and are more able to help their children with homework
  2. Middle class parents are more skilled in researching schools
  3. Middle class parents teach their children the value of deferred gratification

Two ways in which middle class parents use their social capital

  1. They speak to parents of children who already attend the best schools
  2. They are more likely to know professionals who work in the best schools

Supporting evidence for the importance of cultural capital in education

Diane Reay (1988) – Mothers make cultural capital work for their children. Her research is based on the mothers of 33 children at two London primary schools. The mothers of working class children worked just as hard as the middle class mothers. But the cultural capital of the MC mothers gave their children an advantage.

Middle Class Mothers had more educational qualifications and more information about how the educational system operated. They used this cultural capital to help their children with homework, bolstering their confidence and sorting out their problems with teachers.

Stephen Ball argues that government policies of choice and competition place the middle class at an advantage. Ball refers to middle class parents as ‘skilled choosers’. Compared to working class parents (disconnected choosers) they are more comfortable with dealing with public institutions like schools, they are more used to extracting and assessing information. They use social networks to talk to parents whose children are attending the schools on offer and they are more used to dealing with and negotiating with administrators and teachers. As a result, if entry to a school is limited, they are more likely to gain a place for their child.

The school/ parent alliance: Middle class parents want middle class schools and schools want middle class pupils. In general the schools with more middle class students have better results.. Schools see middle class students as easy to teach and likely to perform well. They will maintain the schools position in the league tables and its status in the education market. 

Analysis point

For the sociologists in this section, the cause of lower class failure is the very existence of inequality itself in society and differences in power held by the working and middle classes.

The role of Cultural Capital – Evaluations

Cultural capital has proved difficult to operationalise and measure

However, more and more research suggests this is important in explaining middle class success and working class failure

Helps to explain why the Middle classes always do better despite compensatory education

Related Posts

The effect of cultural deprivation on education

Cultural Deprivation theory holds that some groups, such as the lower social classes, have inferior norms, values, skills and knowledge which prevent them from achieving in education. Inferior language skills, and the fact that working class parents do not value education are largely to blame for working class underachievement, rather than material deprivation.

You might also hear ‘cultural deprivation’ theory referred to as ‘working class subculture theory’ – which is something of a throwback to the 1950s. Personally I don’t like the term, and so just use cultural deprivation theory, it’s a bit more modern!

Cultural Deprivation and education

All of the studies below suggest that working class cultures are deficient and that working class children are deprived as a result. These explanations thus put the blame for working class underachievement on the working class families themselves. In these explanations, working class parents basically teach their children norms and values that do not equip them for education in later life.

Five ways in which cultural deprivation can disadvantage children in education   

  1. Working class parents may show a lack of interest in their children’s education
  2. Lower class parents are less able to help their children with homework
  3. Lower class children are more likely to speak in a restricted speech code. Rather than the elaborated speech code- Basil Bernstein argued this.
  4. Working class children are more concerned with Immediate Gratification rather than deferred gratificationBarry Sugarman argued this.
  5. The underclass has a higher than average percentage of single parent families. Melanie Philips argued this.

Supporting evidence for cultural deprivation theory

Connor et al (2001) conducted focus group interviews with 230 students from 4 different FE colleges from a range of class backgrounds, some of whom had chosen to go to university and some who had not chosen to go to University. The main findings were that working class pupils are discouraged from going to university for three main reasons:

  • Firstly, such candidates want ‘immediate gratification’. They want to earn money and be independent at an earlier age. This is because they are aware of their parents having struggled for money and wish to avoid debt themselves
  • Secondly, they realise that their parents cannot afford to support them during Higher Education and did not like the possibility of them getting into debt
  • Thirdly, they have less confidence in their ability to succeed in HE.

Research by Leon Fenstein found that low income was related to the restricted speech code. His research revealed that children of working-class parents tend to be more passive; less engaged in the world around them and have a more limited vocabulary. Children from middle-class households had a wider vocabulary, better understanding of how to talk to other people and were more skilled at manipulating objects.

These studies actually show that cultural and material deprivation are related

Evaluations of cultural deprivation theory

  • If we look at ethnicity and gender differences in achievement – to triangulate, it does seem that cultural factors play a role!
  • It seems that it isn’t just cultural deprivation but also material deprivation that explains underachievement
  • Marxists would argue that cultural deprivation theorists blame the working class parents for the underachievement of their children whereas these parents are really the victims of an unequal society in which schools are run by the middle classes for the middle classes.

Related Posts 

The effects of material deprivation on education

The effects of cultural capital on educational achievement

Related External Posts – Useful 

Earlham’s Pages – do their usual ‘overwhelming for anyone but an A* students whose interested in Sociology approach’ (personally I like it though, then again I’m several levels above both of those criteria) – lots of contemporary links at the top (no summaries) and then a useful overview of ‘class subcultures’ below.

Factors influencing class based differences in educational achievement – probably written by a student but it’s quite a useful summary!

Related External Posts – Not so Useful 

The History Learning Site’s material is shockingly out of date – maybe useful for the history, but not so much for our contemporary era.

 

 

 

 

The Effects of Material Deprivation on Education

Material deprivation can be defined as the inability to afford basic resources and services such as sufficient food and heating. Material deprivation generally has a negative effect on educational achievement.

Material Deprivation and Educational Achievement

Gibson and Asthana (1999) pointed out that there is a correlation between low household income and poor educational performance. There are a number of ways in which poverty can negatively affect the educational performance of children. For example –

  1. Higher levels of sickness in poorer homes may mean more absence from school and falling behind with lessons
  2. Less able to afford ‘hidden costs’ of free state education: books and toys are not bought, and computers are not available in the home
  3. Tuition fees and loans would be a greater source of anxiety to those from poorer backgrounds.
  4. Poorer parents are less likely to have access to pre-school or nursery facilities.
  5. Young people from poorer families are more likely to have part-time jobs, such as paper rounds, baby sitting or shop work, creating a conflict between the competing demands of study and paid work.

Supporting evidence for the importance of material deprivation

  • Stephen Ball (2005) points out how the introduction of marketisation means that those who have more money have a greater choice of state schools because of selection by mortgage
  • Conner et al (2001) and Forsyth and Furlong (2003) both found that the introduction of tuition fees in HE puts working class children off going to university because of fear of debt
  • Leon Fenstein (2003) found that low income is related to low cognitive reasoning skills amongst children as young as two years old
  • The existence of private schools means the wealthy can afford a better education. Children from private schools are over-represented in the best universities

Evaluations of the role of material deprivation

  • To say that poverty causes poor educational performance is too deterministic as some students from poor backgrounds do well. Because of this, one must be cautious and rather than say there is a causal relationship between these two variables as the question suggests, it would be more accurate to say that poverty disadvantages working class students and makes it more difficult for them to succeed.
  • There are other differences between classes that may lead to working class underachievement. For example, those from working class backgrounds are not just materially deprived, they are also culturally deprived.
  • The Cultural Capital of the middle classes also advantages them in education.
  • In practise it is difficult to separate out material deprivation from these other factors.

Related Posts

The Effects of Cultural Deprivation on Education

The Extent of Material Deprivation in the UK

Evaluating the extent of material deprivation in the UK

 

 

The reproduction of class inequality in education

This video explores the role of social and cultural in the process of the reproduction of class inequality.

https://emb.d.tube/#!/revisesociology/dpf4yejg

This video shows a hypothetical dialogue in which two middle class parents discuss how they might translate their material and cultural capital into educational advantage for their offspring, thereby reproducing class inequality.

material capital is basically money and resources,

cultural capital refers to the store of skills and knowledges middle class parents might have which give their children an advantage in life over working class children.

The reproduction of class inequality through education may be defined as the process whereby middle class children succeed in education and go on to get well-paid middle class jobs, and vice versa for working class children. As a result class inequality is carried on across the generations.

This was one of the first educational videos I ever uploaded to YouTube, but since the company decided to demonetize my account I am deleting everything from YouTube and bringing it to Dtube – a decetralised, blockchain based social media platform – get on the chain, I say!

 

 

Related Posts

Cultural Capital and Education – Extended Version