Race, class and mobility

Learning to labour in London, Manchester and Morecambe

Young Black student working at computer in library

Project leader: Dr Amit Singh

Dates: September 2023 to September 2026

Funded by: Leverhulme Trust

Policymakers, journalists and academics have increasingly focused on ‘left behind’ and ‘let down’ White working-class boys, who are said to be ‘underperforming’ in schools and are amongst the least likely to attend university. The recent government select committee report on White working-class boys foregrounded ‘placed based disparities’, specifically mapping educational underachievement onto White working-class boys living in coastal towns and former industrial locations in the North who are contrasted with supposedly high-achieving ethnic minorities in London. Such accounts fail to see racialised minorities as classed, diminishing the significance of racism and ignoring how Black and Asian working-class boys might experience place-based and race-based discrimination. Additionally, the attainment of all working-class girls is erased amidst this specific focus on White boys.

Seeking to complicate these divisive and unhelpful narratives, my project explores how working-class pupils (boys and girls) in formal education in London, Manchester and Morecambe imagine their future transitions from college into higher education and/or the labour market. The project uses semi-structured interviews and observation to examine the social and cultural factors that mediate experiences of education and transitions into work, exploring what routes out of college students think are available to them and how said routes are informed by race, place and gender.

In doing so, the research builds upon Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour (1977), which explored how White working-class ‘lads’ did not value education, in part because they were well equipped to gain decently paid working-class jobs through pre-established networks and the establishment of working-class wherewithal that could be translated from school to shop floor. Yet, Willis did not explore how non-White pupils might be excluded from such routes into work. While there have been significant demographic and economic changes since the 1970s, as reflected in the increase in White working-class boys now eligible for free school meals, these developments, coupled with the resurgent policy and media focus on the educational performance of White working-class boys, call for a new, more expansive study that explores race, place, class and gendered inequalities. In staking this approach, the research foregrounds how experiences of education and employment are structured by race, place and gender, to offer new insights into theorising social im/mobility, which is key for offering better outcomes for all students.