Book of the week

19th May 2000 at 01:00
FAILING WORKING-CLASS GIRLS. By Gillian Plummer. Trentham Books, pound;14.95

If education really does offer freedom to children, then all its benefits should be available to all children. Yet in our society some significant groups still miss out.

Social class, gender and ethnicity are some of the factors commonly identified as affecting achievement. Gillian Plummer's powerful study of working-class girls brings two of these factors together.

During the 1970s, many schemes encouraged girls to aim high, including focused projects that tried to persuade girls to study science and engineering - subjects taken at university mainly by boys.

To some extent these policies succeeded - girls now achieve better exam results than boys, from primary school up to GCSE, A-level and university.

Although Failing Working-Class Girls is a retrospective account by women of their childhood in school and at home, it is nonetheless a reminder that many girls from poor families are still struggling against the odds.

The author takes an unusual approach to the construction of this book - and she carries it off. Many books on gender issues are either historical and sociological in perspective, or describe empirical work, such as interviews or lesson observations. This book does both. The first part gives an orthodox academic analysis of the issues and evidence, while the second is biographical and autobiographical, featuring a more informal account of interviews set alongside the author's own experiences.

Many of the descriptions of alienation, humiliation and rejection, and clashes of cultural values, echo those in other books about working-class children, such as Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden's 1968 account of life in a grammar school, Education and the Working-Class. Their "Marburton College" pupils found they were not appreciated for being themselves, one boy pointing out that it was no use being a dab hand at snooker if school sport was all about team games.

Plummer's women informants also felt out of place at school. They were not expected to think independently, or indeed, in some cases, to think at all. low expectations are a killer in education, and only the exceptionally robust are able to escape their suffocating grip. In the first part of her book, Plummer lists terms of abuse used to put down children from the families of manual workers - "thickies", "toerags", "woodentops", "grots", "dregs", "divvies", "plodders", "doughnuts", "no hopers", "nutcases".

All her informants worked in education(only one had not been a teacher), so they were able to analyse teacher-pupil relationships from both sides. She also lists the many D-words used to categorise children from working-class homes - "deprived", "disturbed", "disaffected", "disadvantaged", from "dysfunctional" and "demoralised" families with "deficits".

This two-tiered education system reflects the tradition of preparing working-class girls for a life in service, while their middle-class counterparts were trained to be good wives who would not let their consorts down at dinner parties. Poor skivvies learned to prepare the food which the posh would so elegantly consume. Working-class girls did cookery and sewing at school; middle-class girls had the sort of liberal education that would spark decent dinner-table chat.

The stories in the chapters on family, parents and schooling in part two are not told in a sentimental way, but many are moving accounts nonetheless. In some families, poverty brought premature death or debilitating illness to breadwinners at key moments in a girl's development. Some parents and teachers had ambitions for their girls, but too many seemed to have low expectations - there was fear about "getting above your station". One woman tells of being placed in a lower stream at a grammar school. This turned her success at passing the 11-plus into failure. "So I was stupid. I didn't relate to the secondary (modern) school where all my other mates were, I related to where I was in the structure."

The legacy of these limited and limiting aspirations is that the girls themselves, even as women, are left feeling surprised that they can pass exams or get into college. Even the author, whose successful PhD forms the substance of this book, confesses to doubts and hesitations. Fortunately, she has had the courage to shake them off and opt for a bold format, combining scholarship and personal experience.

In her final chapter, she considers some of the current initiatives aimed at improving opportunities for the disadvantaged, arguing that programmes imposed from above are unlikely to succeed unless they are rooted in the communities they are supposed to benefit. In recent times, the achievements of boys have come under scrutiny and there is understandable concern about those who do less well than they might. Gillian Plummer's perceptive account of working-class girls reminds us that all children need the best, not just those groups currently in vogue.

Ted Wragg is professor of education at the University of Exeter

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