Friday, 22 June 2007

Why do poor boys fail?

Every morning about 7.30 I’m woken up by my radio alarm clock, and some mornings there are things on the news that just stop you going back to sleep — England losing to Australia in Adelaide in 2006, the death of Princess Diana, the discovery of an alien civilization (actually I must have dreamed that one).

This morning, it was the announcement of research findings from the Joseph Rowntree foundation that poor white boys are the worst achievers in English schools. However, what prevented me going back to sleep (this discovery is, after all, hardly dramatic) was the constant references to ‘poverty’.

What is it, I found myself asking, that can’t be afforded for these boys that makes them fail? After all, poverty is about lack of resources, isn’t it? If you are poor, there are things you don’t have, things you can’t afford, resources you can’t access. So what is missing from these boys lives? Is it a lack of books, or equipment such as calculators? Is it a lack of access to computers? Is it the quality of the teachers or the buildings in the areas in which they live and study? Is it that there is nowhere to study at home?

All these problems might by the result of poverty, and all of them would affect a child’s achievement. But are they the real problem?

Put it another way: if I observed these boys for a couple of days, if I were able to interview them and watch their behaviour in and out of school, what would I find? Would I find them frustrated by having too few books? Would they complain to me that they couldn’t get on the internet to complete their homework? Would they fret about the lack of equipment in their science labs?

To take another approach, what would the teachers complain about? Would they observe that these boys couldn’t study because they were getting up early to earn some money and help out the family? Would they point to boys who couldn’t afford musical instruments or PE kit to develop their talent? Would they show me out-of-date text books dilapidated by generations of students?

Does the reader think I am being perverse and cynical? In some parts of the world, this is surely exactly what I would find. What I am asking is whether it is what I would find in the areas of the UK where this study has been carried out.

Maybe I would. What makes me doubt it, though, is the very simplicity of the report’s findings.

The report identifies three ‘variables’ — three things which can change from case to case and which are correlated with poor performance at school: poverty, skin colour and gender. Where we find all three, it seems we find an increased likelihood of academic failure.

However, as any researcher knows, a correlation is not necessarily a cause. During the 1980s it was (allegedly) found that you were more likely to die of AIDS if you owned a Macintosh computer, but nobody ever believed you could contract HIV from a Mac.

Similarly, a correlation between poverty, skin colour and gender on the one hand and academic failure on the other doesn’t, in itself, prove a causal connection of any kind whatsoever.

Take skin colour, for example, or to put it another way, ‘race’. Are researchers arguing that race causes academic failure? When H J Eysenck suggested this in the 1970s he was pilloried by the academic establishment. So there would need to be a compelling reason to reverse this opinion today in the case of white boys (especially since Eysenck suggested it was actually black people who ‘naturally’ did worse educationally).

Whatever the reason for the correlation with skin colour, then, it cannot be simply that academic failure is genetically inherited. In any case, what we have here is a correlation with three variables. There is also, secondly, the matter of gender. Once again we must ask, does the research suggest that academic failure is genetic — are boys less bright than s?

Here, there is some statistical evidence which suggests that some boys will be disadvantaged by their genetic inheritance. Whilst, statistically, there are more very bright boys than s, there are also (if we can put it this way) more not-very-bright boys than s. And yet this wouldn’t seem to be enough to explain the latest findings, nor does it explain the correlation with the third factor: poverty.

But here we have a problem, because it depends what you mean by ‘poverty’. Some people may be surprised by the official definition on the Rowntree Foundations own website:

“The poverty line is 60 per cent of median income level – where the median is the level of income after direct taxes and benefits, adjusted for household size, such that half the population is above the level and half below it. This definition is a standard that changes as median income levels change; it is a measure of relative poverty.”

Poverty, notice, is always relative. It is not, in this country, a measure of absolute resources. Therefore it does not matter how much people have, there will always be ‘poverty’. Indeed, the poverty line shifts as the economy improves (see here), so that Jesus’ words become inescapable: the poor you will always have with you, no matter how much better off they become in each generation.

Identifying educational failure as correlating with ‘poverty’ therefore becomes misleading. We are back to our earlier question: poverty in terms of what? But we must also ask what it is about this ‘poverty’ which, in combination with race and gender, leads to academic failure within a system that does not result in the same level of failure amongst people who are equally ‘poor’, but of a different gender and race.

When we pose the question in this way, however, and given what we also know about the official definition of poverty (namely that it is all relative), there is a strong suspicion that actual material deprivation is of little real relevance. What we have here is not the lack of resources but the prevalence of a culture — the culture of white boys from one part of the socio-economic spectrum.

Moreover, my guess is that the quickest way to improve the academic performance of these boys would be not to increase the disposable assets available to themselves and their families but to decrease their contact with others of their own kind.

What’s more, I reckon this suggestion could be proved. I would bet a pound to a penny that white boys from poor backgrounds who are doing well at school are somewhat isolated from their peers, somewhat looked down on, maybe even somewhat bullied.

Not, of course, that in their case social isolation causes their (relative) success. Rather, my guess would be that in order to succeed they have had to isolate themselves. Like Martha’s sister Mary, they have chosen what is better. If I am right, then perhaps if researchers could find some way to capitalise on that phenomenon they could save us all some money and save a future generation from further failure.

Revd John P Richardson
22 June 2007


  1. I do have a difficulty with the brow-beating over poverty in the UK. As a relative definition is used the solution to poverty is both simple and absurd. Communism. If everyone earns exactly the same amount no one, by the relative definition, is poor.

    And we all know that there were no poor people in Communist countries....

    I look forward to the publication of this study in the Journal of Pointless Research, or its related title, Reports of Common Sense.


    John Foxe-Marx

  2. Yes, I share the same suspicions, having come top at school as a poor white boy who was raised in a religious home by a determined mother. We were as poor as could be and of working class background, but highly literate and all of us went to university.
    'Culture' is a multifarious term, covering family, religious, and other social values and practices. Money is only one factor and not usually the most influential.
    ISTM that working class Roman Catholic families have had the most success in transitioning into the middle classes - just as Jews did before. Political correctness and the refusal to recognise that religious affiliation usually carries with it some significant social capital prevents reports like this from joining the dots. The white working class are the most unchurched in England. Additionally, boys underachieve more in single parent families.

  3. I've been saying this for a while.

    Since being orgained I've worked in Peckham & Tranmere, both well inside the poorest 5% of the country. Yet there is wealth here my Grandparents in Glasgow & E London could only have dreamt about.

    So the problem is not cash flow, it is relational & cultural. Yet even the Church seems to think the answer is to address symptoms not the root cause.

  4. I think there is also something about teaching styles. There seems to be a change in teaching styles which girls have responded well to (although they were doing OK before) but boys don't. So increasingly boys & girls results move apart. Although I recognise that boys tend to dominate the ends of result tables and girls the middle.

  5. mie spelin isnit alwaes wat it shude bea.

    & I wasn't a poor white boy!

  6. A sad situation made even sadder by the knowledge that the British (largely white) working class has an impressive intellectual history. The life of the mind once mattered and thousands benefitted from workers' educational movements, mutual improvement societies, adult schools, libraries, Ruskin College, reading circles, drama groups, friendly societies, musical groups, brass bands and so on. So what went wrong?

    Well, I guess the loss of so many blue collar jobs over the last 30 or so years has played a big part. Coal, steel, shipbuilding, the docks, all the places that provided large-scale employment and allowed communities to grow up around them are gone. Not coincidentally these are mainly men's jobs and their loss has had long-term repercussions. The so-called 'working class' home where no-one has worked for two generations is far too common.

    Other factors, like the decline in respect for authority, also come into play. The biggest difference, however, I see between this generation and my own, is that there's no longer any love for learning and knowledge. And until it's definitely uncool to be ignorant, I doubt much will change.