Don't rush back to kitchen, mum

By now even the hardest working mother with school age children has heard about Monday's Panorama programme which blamed working mothers for the educational failure of their offspring. Hugely hyped, it was hard to ignore. Its contention that academic performance has been affected by the absence of the mother taps into a deep feeling of guilt, shared by many working mothers. Rather than taking a programme like this at face value and rushing back to the kitchen, it is wiser to see it as a symptom of underlying social anxieties about boys' poor attainment.

This becomes clear from the evidence presented in the programme. It was not devoted to a serious review of research but consisted of anecdotal interviews. These were intermingled with the impressions of a headteacher and film of a children's hotel. Two academic studies were discussed and both, presented as supportive of the main contention of the programme, were open to utterly different interpretations, ones which did not support the claims of Panorama at all. In the US study the only one of the two findings that was statistically significant was based upon teacher perception of children's study habits. It was claimed that teachers perceived the study habits of children with working mothers to be significantly worse than those with mothers at home. In the Barking and Dagenham study conducted by the University of North London, the programme conceded that the performance of girls was essentially the same whatever the mothers' status. It was only boys' performance which declined when the mother worked full-time, not part-time.

It is at this point that one sees clearly the underlying moral agenda. While it is clear that these boys lack parental supervision, this failure is laid exclusively at the door of absent mothers. Even when the mothers were at home and boys' performance was poor, this was explained by economic factors.

So when all of this information is correctly analysed, what do we find that proves the programme's contention that the presence of the mother is crucial to her child's academic success? Not very much. Indeed the programme itself hints at a much more potent and credible reason for academic success and failure. This is the question of class, the great unmentionable of nineties educational debates.

The question of class, at least in Britain, is undoubtedly the main predictive and explanatory factor of academic success or failure, much more than any question of parental presence or absence, something the programme itself tacitly admits in its presentation of the Barking and Dagenham findings. All of which makes you wonder what is being measured and indeed what is being proved, especially when it is clear that the absence of mothers has no apparent effect on the performance of working-class children - boys or girls - or on middle-class girls.

What is the programme about if it isn't about the presence or absence of mothers? It is essentially about the underachievement of boys. This issue has arisen at a time of labour-market transition, when male manual work is disappearing and is being replaced by feminised service industries. Society appears to be splitting into work-rich and work- poor. Those in work, including almost all the people shown in the programme, especially of the professional kind, are working much longer hours than a few years ago. It is in this context that pressure on parents produces anxiety. It is also here that boys' performance becomes of increased concern.

No longer can boys leave school to do well-paid manual work which does not need literacy and numeracy skills. If they are to stand any chance in service industries, they must speak well and dress nicely or risk earning Pounds 1.50 per hour or nothing.

This has produced a huge crisis in especially working-class masculinity in which school failure, exclusions and rising crime rates are all linked together. I believe that these are the anxieties that the programme taps into and the fact that once again blame for this is laid at the door of mothers obscures the opportunity to find a real and appropriate solution.

Valerie Walkerdine is professor of psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She has conducted longitudinal research on girls and their families and schools and is currently researching boys' underachievement

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