At the chalkface: The boys at the back

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

I never really taught those “boys at the back”. They tolerated me. We had a benign truce. They larked about and went back to their culture. We must no longer deny it – but I’m rather afraid we will.

The boys at the back are larking about, winding you up, giving you migraine, disrupting the class and expending their sometimes Neanderthal, sometimes sharp wit on anything but their studies. Spreading the Damage. They know it. They’ve been doing it forever.

So we don’t really need yet another study by the Sutton Trust to tell us that the working class, especially the boys, is failing all ends up. We know. It’s why middle class parents pull their children out, why schools cleanse the 11th years, and probably the most common reason why teachers quit. Your liberal nerves are shot.

Such an intractable problem needs more than another dull report.

Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable: The Experience of Class is far better. It’s a necessary, brilliant, if depressing book, full of sad, trenchant, and unsentimental insight. Hanley is working class herself and writes from real, uncomfortable experience about “the lads at the back of the class-room”. She knew them, though she was never “with them”. She got out. She knows the price these larks exact: “The cost of one of them saying, ‘come on lads, we can have a laff outside of school, we’re here to learn so we don’t have to do jobs we hate later on’, would have been too much for any one of them to stand.”

A crucial insight.

It’s so difficult to lose face, to leave the tribe. Why should they? It’s all they’ve got. Deny their culture? And then what? Morph into the “middle class”? Impossible. Why would they put themselves through such a profound cultural wrench? And if they worked hard they might well have their whole culture on their case.

So, many throw their lives away. They know it, though they won’t admit it. Their defences are up, their front is up. They know there is no future. It’s just not true that good exams results will get them better or any jobs anymore. They’re taken. Class is still fate – and then some. So, powerless, they wreck lessons and wish, unconsciously or not, to drag the whole class down with them. Hence Brexit. Hence Trump. Hence anguished, handwringing liberal chatter puzzling about the woeful attitudes of the ill-educated poor.
Well, you could educate them.

But it is in the interests of powerful people to keep these boys supposedly “thick”. “There is a subtle collusion shared by both left and right to maintain the solidity of this structure, while continuing to deny it,” observes Hanley uncomfortably.

I never really taught those “boys at the back”. They tolerated me. We had a benign truce. They larked about and went back to their culture. We must no longer deny it – but I’m rather afraid we will.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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