Using informal pedagogy to oppress themselves and each other: Critical pedagogy, schooling and 11-14 year old London boys

Critical pedagogy must engage with informal pedagogy because the results of schooling are not solely the effects of teaching and the hidden curriculum but also of the negotiations of the complex social relations in which students are involved. The notion of critical pedagogy is an attractive vision but little has been written on how to put the ideas into practice. Therefore the idea of constructing identities in communities of learning and communities of practice is explored. The starting point for this theory is that learning is a social activity and comes from participating in daily life. School is not just about education; rather, it is also intertwined with the negotiation of complex social relations. School is not only about getting new experiences but also about constructing identity and if critical pedagogy is to succeed it must recognize this.

Ann Phoenix, Faculty of Social Sciences, Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA, UK. E-mail a.a.phoenix@open.ac.uk

At a time when schooling and lifelong education are on political agenda in many countries, the question of whether or not education can be viewed as a critical force is timely. This is particularly the case since some concerns about education stem from inequalities in attainment and in social positioning that are antithetical to the ideals of critical pedagogy. It is possible to argue that widespread educational inequalities demonstrate the need for, and importance of, critical pedagogy and that it is the absence of critical pedagogy that allows inequalities to flourish. For this to be the case, however, inequalities would have to result from factors that are amenable to improvement if the tenets of critical pedagogy are followed.

This article uses a study of 11-14 year old London boys to consider whether critical pedagogy can be said to be emancipatory and productive of equality in education. It argues that

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for this to be the case, critical pedagogy would have to engage with informal pedagogy, since it is not only formal pedagogy and its concomitant hidden curriculum that affect attainment and social positioning within schools. Instead, children and young people are active agents who construct social positions for each other in ways that have an impact on educational attainment. Schools are, therefore, not just about education but also about negotiating complex social relations. As a result, solutions to problems associated with boys' attainment are complex and cannot be reduced to technical solutions.

The first part of the article briefly presents a picture of current inequalities in school attainment in Britain (where the research that informs this article was conducted) since this constitutes the context in which critical pedagogy can be emancipatory. It then discusses the aims of critical pedagogy before demonstrating how boys' everyday social relations militate against critical pedagogical intervention as it is currently formulated in relation to masculinities in general and to the racialisation of masculinities.

Current inequalities in British education

The British education system is similar to those in other countries in (re)producing educational inequalities. Social class, gender and ethnicity have long been recognised to differentiate educational attainment (Bryan, Dadzie & Scafe, 1985; Weis & Fine, 1993). There are currently no national school educational statistics available on 'race' and ethnicity. A survey of 25 British local education authorities (LEAs) conducted by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted, 1999) found that the performance of all minoritised ethnic groups is improving. However, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Black Caribbean and Gypsy Traveller children attain poorly at the national examinations taken usually at 16 years (GCSE). Gypsy Traveller children's performance is the worst, and the performance of black Caribbean pupils starts well in primary schools but shows a marked decline in secondary schools. In general, Ofsted found that girls from minoritised groups attain more highly than boys do. Gillborn and Mirza (2000) found enormous local variation in attainment levels by ethnicity.

Although gender and education has recently become an issue of enormous popular concern to some journalists and commentators as boys' school attainment in relation to girls has worsened, Gillborn and Mirza (2000) argue that gender accounts for less of the difference in educational attainment than does ethnicity and that social class has the most strongly marked impact. Equally importantly, they point out that 'race', ethnicity and social class intersect - everybody has a position on each:

The analysis reveals new inequalities: showing that Black pupils from relatively advantaged backgrounds are little better placed, as a group, than white peers from manual backgrounds ... In contrast to the disproportionate media attention, our data shows gender to be a less problematic issue than the significant disadvantage of 'race', and the even greater inequality of class ... it is important not to fall into the trap of simply arguing between various inequalities. All pupils have a gender, class and ethnic identity - the factors do not operate in isolation. (p. 21; original emphasis)
In 1997 the gap between boys and girls attaining five or more higher grade passes was nine percentage points. The difference between managerial/professional and unskilled manual was 49 percentage points. (p. 23)
The data highlight a particular disadvantage experienced by Pakistani/Bangladeshi and African-Caribbean pupils. Here the girls attain rather higher than their male peers but the gender gap

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within their groups is insufficient to close the pronounced inequality of attainment associated with their ethnic group as a whole. (p. 24)

Inequalities in attainment and inequalities in teacher expectations and responses

Such findings indicate that 'race', gender, social class and attainment are complicated, dynamic processes. They also show that both ethnicity and 'race' are simultaneously important since different ethnic groups from within the same racialised group fare differently. It follows that explanations for these results also have to be multi-faceted and nuanced. Furthermore, there is evidence that some teachers are behaving in a way that is far from egalitarian. Various studies indicate the prevalence of racism in schools (see review by Gillborn & Gipps, 1996). Some teachers have been found to treat black and Asian students in stereotypic or hostile ways and/or to assume that they have behaviour problems (Connolly, 1998; Griffin, 1985; Lees, 1986; Mac an Ghaill, 1988; Ogilvy, Boath, Cheyne, Jahoda & Schaffer, 1990, 1992; Sewell, 1997; Sonuga-Barke, Minocha, Taylor & Sandberg, 1993; Wright, 1992).

Support for the idea that some teachers socially construct black pupils as likely to pose behavioural problems is provided by an Ofsted (1996) report on exclusions from secondary schools (11-18 years). The evidence reviewed in the report indicates that white pupils who are excluded from school are more likely to have experienced trauma and to have below-average achievement. They are generally excluded for being verbally abusive to their teachers. Black pupils who were excluded, however, were more likely to have above-average achievement and to have been excluded for challenging their teachers' judgements.

Of course some children from all ethnic groups do present problem behaviours. For black children, this is exacerbated if they consider that teachers have been racist to them and there is evidence that black boys are particularly likely to react badly to this (Mac an Ghaill, 1988; Sewell, 1997). From her study including over 900 children in four comprehensive schools in Oxfordshire, Hurrell (1995) argues that pupils' behaviour is likely to have an important impact on how teachers treat them. Based on her findings, she suggests that ethnicity and social class play only a small part in teachers' reactions to students, although she did find that girls tended to be treated more leniently than boys were. This interpretation raises the question of what may be causing different, and even difficult, behaviour. For example, Osler, Street, Lall and Vincent (2002) found that sometimes black girls were excluded for physically retaliating against verbal racist bullying. While physical retaliation is not to be condoned, the reasons for its occurrence need attention in any consideration of inequalities in education.

Whether or not behaviour does differ between ethnic groups, Gillborn (1990) found that teachers' expectations that children of African Caribbean origin automatically constituted disciplinary problems led to the possibility of escalating conflicts and poor relations. Frosh, Phoenix and Pattman (2002) found that many 11 to 14-year-old boys considered that teachers treated boys and girls, black and white children unfairly different. Both these studies indicate that teachers and children are agents whose racialised and gendered constructions arise from, and have an impact on, what happens in classrooms.

Of course not all teachers construct parents and children from minoritised ethnic groups as problematic. Gillborn (1995) studied three secondary schools in different parts of Britain. In two of these schools, at least one-half of the pupils were from South Asian

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backgrounds and the third, while predominantly white, drew about 15% of their students from minoritised ethnic groups. These schools were committed to anti-racist policies, and various members of staff had put a lot of work into developing anti-racist strategies. In doing so, they had managed to gain support from white parents. Nevertheless, Gillborn (1995, p. 183) suggests that:

Of particular concern is the way that a small minority of teachers express generalized views that depict African Caribbean students (as a group) as a greater threat to their authority.

Critical pedagogy to address inequalities

The findings from such studies certainly create a space for the more egalitarian approach that would be expected from critical pedagogy. According to Giroux (1994, p. 30), critical pedagogy:

takes as a central concern the issue of power in the teaching and learning context. It focuses on how and in whose interests knowledge is produced and 'passed on' and views the ideal aims of education as emancipatory... signals how questions of audience, voice, power, and evaluation actively work to construct particular relations between teachers and students, institutions and society, and classrooms and communities... Pedagogy in the critical sense illuminates the relationship among knowledge, authority, and power.

In the context of the racialised, gendered and social class inequities discussed above, this formulation is welcome, stressing as it does emancipation and the necessity of disrupting inequitable power relations and of viewing education as not only a matter for classrooms, but also for society. Antonia Darder (1995, p. 319) amplifies this conceptualisation of critical pedagogy:

[The] fundamental commitment of critical educators is to empower the powerless and transform those conditions which perpetuate human injustice and inequity ... This purpose is inextricably linked to the fulfilment of what Paulo Freire (1970) defines as our «vocation» - to be truly humanized social agents in the world. Hence, a major function of critical pedagogy is to critique, expose, and challenge the 'manner' in which schools impact upon the political and cultural life of students. Teachers must recognize how schools unite knowledge and power and how through this function they can work to influence or thwart the formation of critically thinking and socially active individuals.
Unlike traditional perspectives of education that claim to be neutral and apolitical, critical pedagogy views all education theory as intimately linked to ideologies shaped by power, politics, history and culture. Given this view, schooling functions as a terrain of ongoing struggle over what will be accepted as legitimate knowledge and culture. In accordance with this notion, a critical pedagogy must seriously address the concept of cultural politics by both legitimising and challenging cultural experiences that comprise the histories and social realities that in turn comprise the forms and boundaries that give meaning to student lives.

Darder's formulation is exemplary in recognising differences between learners and that critical pedagogy requires ongoing ideological struggle about what is accepted as legitimate knowledge. Critical pedagogy thus constructs clear ideals for schools to aim for. Predominant among these is that schools as critical pedagogic sites should: aim to be emancipatory; critique power relations; provide ways of reclaiming power and identity, including those of difference (e.g. 'race', gender, class, and ethnicity); treat cultural histories as important and view classrooms as sites for the production of new, critical, knowledge grounded in students' own experiences and practices. While most people

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would agree with these ideals at first glance, there are some difficulties with the formulation of critical pedagogy that call into question its ability to produce egalitarian relations or outcomes.

Difficulties with the concept of critical pedagogy

While the goals of critical pedagogy are commendably utopian, it is difficult to see how they can be put into practice. Various researchers and commentators (who do not necessarily call themselves critical pedagogues) have helpfully elaborated aspects that are central to critical pedagogy (see Darder, Torres & Baltodano, 2002). In Teaching to Transgress, for example, bell hooks, suggests that:

Teaching is a performative act... To embrace the performative aspect of teaching we are compelled to engage «audience», to consider issues of reciprocity. Teachers are not performers in the traditional sense of the word in that our work is not meant to be a spectacle. Yet it is meant to serve as a catalyst that calls everyone to become more and more engaged, to become active participants in learning.' (hooks, 1994, p. 11)
The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom. (hooks, 1994, p. 207)

This focus on encouraging active and more equal participation in learning and on imagining new ways to bridge constructed social divisions is commonly advocated by those who take up the issues raised in critical pedagogy. Nussbaum (1997), for example, advocates a liberal arts education that allows learners to «cultivate their humanity» by learning critical thinking and reflexivity as well as empathy with people from other cultures. Fine, Weis, Centrie and Roberts (2000) and Fine (1993) have also paid attention to the «savage inequalities» in US education. They suggests that we simultaneously need to provide images of public schools that are functioning in democratic ways in order to encourage others to visualise such schools for all children:

We certainly need to do more than write sweet, inspiring praise about the very public schools we know to be contributing to a massive assault on urban children, adolescents, and their families. Braiding critical theory with documentation of «what is», theorists, researchers, writers, practitioners, and activists need to name educational atrocities, but at the same time offer rich democratic images of public schools. We all know such public schools; can we provoke readers toward imagining such engagement for all children, teachers and parents? The impoverishment of the public imagination for educational democracy is perhaps the most deadening success of the last twelve years of hegemony by the Right. But this absence should frame our work for re-engaging the public imagination for democratic educational possibilities. (Fine, 1993; original emphasis)

Helpful as these publications are, more work is needed to specify how these ideas can be put into practice by educators who do not already have a vision of how to do so. Furthermore, there is evidence that we need to understand the practices in particular schools in order to transgress those that Fine (1993) suggests constitute a «massive assault on urban children». There is no universal solution for all schools (e.g. Skelton, 2001).

Additional problems arise from the combination of the language of humanism with the language of politics. Humanism has been

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much critiqued for what many have argued is its universalizing of the values and experiences of white, western, heterosexual, middle-class males, and the negation of the experiences of anyone who does not fit into this category. It, therefore, empowers some people at the expense of others and so serves to maintain the political status quo, rather than offering democratic possibilities (Henriques, Hollway, Urwin, Venn & Walkerdine, 1984). It is, therefore, very easy for suggestions that power relations should be made central to critical pedagogy to be tokenistic and to fail to deal with multiple, intersecting differences and complex power relations.

The notion of 'empowerment' became enormously popular in the last century as a way to give power to people who are relatively powerless. However, it has also been subjected to critique on the grounds that it is only possible if those doing the empowering are relatively more powerful than those to be empowered and so can decide which groups should be empowered and in which ways. Groups and communities rarely decide these issues for themselves and are sometimes disempowered by being treated as if they have no agency or competence. In such cases, unequal power relations are reinforced and the constraints on, and concerns of, the less powerful may not be addressed.

A further set of problems concerns the focus of critical pedagogy, which treats pedagogy as formal, focused on what teachers can do (even as it encourages the active participation of students) and on making changes to the curriculum to stimulate critical thinking and democracy. This focus fails to acknowledge that teachers can help students to engage in critical thinking and change the curriculum to facilitate this, but that students can still (re)produce unequal power relations while being able to think critically. Technical solutions involving teaching practices and curriculum change may, therefore, be important, but are clearly not sufficient to fulfilling the aims of critical pedagogy.

Constructing identities in communities of learning

The social institution in which children and young people have to spend the most time is school and young people have to negotiate the social relations that are produced by the educational context. In recent decades, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991), have argued that learning is not an individualistic process, that «has a beginning and an end; that it is best separated from the rest of our activities; and that it is the result of teaching» (Wenger 1998, p. 3). Instead, learning is social and comes from our experience of participating in daily life. Lave and Wenger developed a model of situated learning that proposes that learning involves a process of engagement in a community of practice. In this model, identity is central since learning involves changing identities, but, as Linehan and McCarthy (2001) demonstrate, the community of practice metaphor does not explain how the processes of developing identities in communities of practice occur.

Walkerdine (1988, 1997a) argues that such models assume that participants in the learning process behave in what are constructed as reasonable and rational ways and, as a result, they produce covert regulation, where learners are expected to learn to police themselves in the ways desired by the educators. Yet, learners may be regulating themselves in relation to social relations that do not involve the teacher and, as a result, may be disengaged from the educator's agenda. Linehan and McCarthy (2001, p. 146) argue that «as people engage in joint activity they not only appropriate but also create or reconstruct the context in which

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they participate» so that emotion, values and cognition all arise from personal histories and the socio-cultural context to produce relations of conflict and control.

Hodges (1998) uses the example of herself as a trainee teacher to demonstrate that participation in communities of practice requires the loss of some identities and the enabling of others. She was, for example, sometimes positioned in ways she found uncomfortable by expectations that she should do what her teacher-trainer required rather than siding with the children she was learning to teach. Multiple differences and the contradictions they produce, therefore, need to be considered in the context of the school and identities.

When it comes to studying in school, young people's social relations have an impact on what they can and cannot do in school, including in the classroom. This is evident in apparently voluntaristic divisions between young people that some adults consider to be trivial. For example, many young people choose to adopt particular clothes and music styles. However, studies of young people, style and consumption demonstrate that there are consequences to choice of style. Ardiss Storm-Mathiesen (1998) in Norway, for example, found that style affected young people's social position in relation to whether they were seen as leaders, followers or trying too hard - something that had an impact on their status among their peers. Similarly, Hanne Haavind and Mette Gulbrandsen found that style and behaviour also affected peer relations among 10-13 year olds in Oslo (Haavind, 2004).

In a study currently being done in Birmingham, Milton Keynes and Oxford in the United Kingdom on young people and consumption (involving the current author, Chris Griffin and two other colleagues) young people reflected on the place of style in their school social relations. In the first quote below, it is not necessary to understand what styles are signified by the names Kevs, Skater, Rockers and Sharons to get a sense that young people consider that choosing to belong to one, rather than another of these styles produces social identities that limit some social relations (particularly for boys) and enable others.

Girl (Year 12 group interview - 17 years - in Birmingham): The Kevs and Skaters don't mix really at school - the boys. But the girls do. 'Cos all the Sharons go with the Rocker type of skaters - because I've got friends who are really good friends with Sharons and they are skaters. And you don't hold it against them that they are Sharons and they are rockers.

In the quote that follows, the young woman indicates that it is not just a case of mixing or not mixing with people from different styles, but that some young people take it for granted that the clothes someone wears can lead to their being picked on.

Q: Do people get picked on if they are in the wrong group if you haven't got the right clothes on?

Girl (Year 12 group interview - 17 years - in Milton Keynes): Course you do, you get that at school because you get that even in working places now don't you?

Given the potential importance of style differences, it is not surprising that Anita Lynne (2000) found that teenagers on the streets of Oslo are very much aware of subtle differences in each other's clothes. This subtle awareness alerts us to the fact that choice, and maintenance, of style is not unthinking or uncritical (Widdicombe & Wooffitt, 1995). Children and young people are also frequently mindful of the family relogicalTitles available (Chin, 2001). Yet young people use these differences to regulate what they and others can do in school since they incorporate both power relations and emotional attachments that are not necessarily evident

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to teachers. In other words, their communities of practice involve relations of control around style that allow them the critical thinking favoured by critical pedagogy, but that may militate against critical pedagogic practice.

Critical pedagogy and the crisis in boys' educational attainment

With increasing concern being expressed in many countries about boys' educational attainment, it might be expected that critical pedagogy could play a part in improving boys' educational experiences and practices. This section of the article argues that the reasons for their current educational attainment is more complex than is allowed for in critical pedagogy.

In many countries, boys have come to public attention because they are gradually slipping behind girls in terms of the educational qualifications they achieve. Two decades ago, it was girls' educational under-performance that was identified as problematic in many of these countries; currently, however, commentators are concerned that many boys are at risk of social exclusion through poor educational performance. There is some doubt about the robustness of much of the evidence on which the claims of a growing crisis in boys' schooling are based. For example, some boys (particularly those from the working classes and, in Britain, those of African Caribbean, Pakistani and Bengali descent) have long done badly at school, while others (particularly from the middle classes) continue to attain well (Epstein, Elwood, Hey & Maw, 1998; Katz & Buchanan, 1999; Mac an Ghaill, 1988; Willis, 1990). In addition, girls are not uniformly successful at school (Skelton, 2001).

However, it does seem that as educational demands have shifted and increased, boys' ways of expressing masculinities have become less compatible with the gaining of educational qualifications, at a time when it is increasingly important for them to do so because fewer unskilled jobs are available. Many girls' ways of expressing femininities seem more compatible with good educational performance (Arnot, David & Weiner, 1999). In this context, it is salutary to remember that it has traditionally been taken for granted that boys «naturally» do better educationally than girls and that information that challenges this is easily overlooked or reconstructed as evidence that girls lack innate ability (Murphy & Elwood, 1998; Walkerdine, 1997b; Cohen, 1998). Because of this, it is often implied that if boys do badly it is because something has gone wrong with the educational process, and that the solution is to find technical, more suitable («boy-friendly») methods of teaching. In addition, the assumption that boys naturally do better than girls has continued to affect teachers' perceptions.

In a study of girls learning maths, for example, Valerie Walkerdine (1988) found that many teachers believed that girls only did well because they worked hard, whereas many boys did not do so well, but were nevertheless seen as naturally talented. Walkerdine argues that in teachers' constructions, the natural child is implicitly an active and rebellious boy, who does not sit and learn quietly. Michele Cohen (1998) argues that this reflects a discourse of «a habit of healthy idleness» which is accepted and condoned by some teachers, but which is maladaptive in educational systems that increasingly require sustained work.

This implicit gendering of childhood is likely to play a part in the story of boys' educational attainment. However, the many publications that have addressed themselves to the question of the gender gap in attainment between girls and boys point to various other factors. Several researchers have argued

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that boys have more difficulty than do girls in adapting to major changes in contemporary society, especially the shift in traditional patterns of male employment and the skills required to meet new occupational demands (e.g. Arnot et al., 1999). The complexity of these factors makes it extremely difficult to disentangle the relationship between masculinities and schooling (Bleach, 1999). It is clear, however, that the attainments of both boys and girls are affected by social changes as well as by school policies and by what teachers and students do. Furthermore, there is a strong «anti-swot» culture in many schools that particularly affects boys and that is evident from early in children's school careers (Epstein et al., 1998; Jordan, 1995; Noble & Bradford, 2000; Reed, 1999; Skelton, 1996; Swain, 2000).

This anti-swot culture is part of boys' constructions of masculinity and, hence, their everyday practices in relation to it. It has repeatedly been found in research that masculinity is defined as being about hardness, aggressiveness, confrontation as well as hierarchical power relationships and that it is racialised (Connell, 2000). One consequence of this is that boys who quietly get on with their schoolwork and make it clear that academic achievement is a high priority for them are considered effeminate by boys and teachers alike (Mac an Ghaill, 1994). The pervasiveness of a fear of failing to be masculine enough and hence of being considered feminine leads to rejection of schoolwork and of what girls do, something that Jackson (2002) calls a «self-worth protection strategy». It also privileges competition between boys in sport (Martino, 1999; Swain, 2000).

The above consideration of what is currently known about masculinity indicates that what is considered to be boys' underachievement cannot be addressed by providing only technical solutions of curriculum and classroom management. The rest of this article illustrates how boys' informal pedagogical practices serve to oppress themselves and each other and why these are not easily amenable to critical pedagogy.

Young Masculinities

The London-based study of masculinities in 11-14 year old boys discussed in the rest of this article consisted of 45 group discussions; nine of which were of mixed gender - followed by two individual interviews with seventy-eight 11-14 year old boys. The boys came from twelve London schools; four of which were in the private sector and eight in the state sector, ensuring a reasonable spread of social class groups, and different ethnicities were represented in the sample.1 Boys were interviewd about various aspects of their lives. The main focus of the interviews was the ways in which the participants experienced themselves as young men. The interviews followed a semi-structured format, and encouraged the boys to express themselves in narrative terms - as freely as possible. The analyses draw on Bruner's (1990) distinction between canonical narratives (which are general stories about how lives may be lived in the culture, serving to justify certain behaviours) and the personal narratives through which boys make sense of their own specific position. This distinction, between canonical and personal does not counterpose cultural and personal as binary opposites. Instead, it follows Kerfoot and Whitehead's (1998) and Wetherell's (1998) simultaneous engagement with both social power relations and the ways in which particular boys subjectively account for themselves as masculine subjects continually engaged in the process of «doing boy». For further details about the study see Frosh, Phoenix and Pattman (2002). The examples that follow come from boys from a range of ethnic groups. Where names are used, they are pseudonyms.

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It is all too easy for media reports on boys and education either to treat boys as if they are passive recipients of an educational system that is failing them, or as hooligans whose mindless behaviour is responsible for their educational problems. Neither of these positions can be justified if we consider what boys themselves say. In our interviews, many boys explained that they faced contradictions in negotiating both masculine identities and schoolwork. The major reason for this was that the pervasive canonical narrative of popular masculinity (which shares features of hegemonic masculinity; see Connell, 1995) in London schools are pervasively constructed as antithetical to being seen to work hard academically. This posed problems for some of those boys who wished to gain qualifications without being labeled by other boys in pejorative terms. Far from being mindless, boys had continually, and actively, to negotiate how to position themselves in relation to popular and unpopular masculinities and, hence, to education. It was, thus, not a simple matter for them to reconcile educational demands with the constraints imposed by canonical narratives of masculinity.

A pervasive narrative was that being viewed as clever or a swot was not really masculine and was likely to make for unpopularity. Many boys counterposed schoolwork and sport; being good at the former was a marker of unpopularity, whereas sporting prowess often led to high masculine status. The following quote is a condensation of the canonical narrative of what it is to be a popular boy:

Q: What makes boys popular?

A (13 year old boy of Iranian parentage): Being good at sport... being good at cussing people ...if someone cusses you and you just take it they think you're weak but if you cuss them back er make a better cuss than them ...then that's ...the first round to him then second round to you... the more girls like you the more popular you become ...and you have to be popular for the girls to like you...you have to be good at cussing and sport ... The popular boys because they're popular have to get into trouble they always like backchat the teacher get loads of detentions ..they'll think you're cool.

The polarisation of popularity and schoolwork had consequences for how boys reported that they could behave at school. For example, a major obstacle to boys treating school as a place in which to do serious schoolwork is that this could lead to their being bullied.

Thomas (14 year old white boy): It's your attitude, but some people are bullied for no reason whatsoever just because other people are jealous of them and I find that quite annoying.

RP: How do they get bullied?

Thomas: There's a boy in our year called James and he's really clever and he's basically got no friends and that's really sad because he's such a clever boy and he gets top marks in every test and everyone hates him. I mean I like him, when I see someone bullying him I just tell them to go and get lost, I just find that really annoying.

RP: Is it clever boys that get bullied?

Thomas: No not always, it's also because he's really shy. Some people are really clever and they get bullied, it's just he's just bullied, I think he's bullied too much and he never answers back so they find it easy to bully him.

In the extract above, Thomas deals with the dilemma that arises from attempting both to present himself as a boy and as sympathetic to school achievement. He disclaims the notion that everyone hates the really clever boy in his class by professing that he (Thomas) likes and defends him. He thus distances himself from the potentially troubled position (Wetherell, 1998) of bullying a boy through jealousy of his

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academic attainments. Instead, Thomas constructs for himself the position of being kind and morally responsible while emphasizing that it is not generally considered masculine to work hard.

In the British school system, children who attend private schools know that their parents pay a great deal to improve their chances of doing well educationally and all those we interviewed wanted to get qualifications and felt that it would be shameful if they did not. However, they also belittled boys they considered worked too hard, as is demonstrated in the following two extracts.

A (13 year old white private school boy): We have like a weak school and not a hard school. [Q. Meaning?] Um well we got a reputation of being a very good academic school and not having any good - good hard people so um it's quite annoying cos it's quite rough actually, we do rough sports and we're quite hard.

Q: Why do you think you got that reputation?

A: Cos loads of our pupils are really weak, like really academicos. This counts as a really academic school.

Q: Do any boys get teased who do very well precisely because they work hard...?

A (13 year old white private school boy): Um I think it's their attitude really, there are some boys who are really intelligent and there's nothing you can do about that. So people don't tease them about that but I think what they do tease them about is if they walk around and they study, study, study and I mean study at school and in lunchtime and you'd much rather being playing football or something. That's when they start getting teased or in your classroom for one and a half hours when no-one else is. That's when people start to tease you and to say «what are you up to you nerd» and so on, but most people are, if you're intelligent you're intelligent and if your brain works better than other people there's nothing else they can do about. People tend to leave them very much alone.

Some boys also had a notion that it is possible to overwork and that this does not necessarily produce good results. The following two accounts demonstrate that overworking is not generally admired by boys and that it leads to a range of name calling (as also in the quote above).

Q: But what kind of boys are likely to get called «geek»?

Christopher (white 13 year old): Boys who work too hard, who really, really work too hard then they study for this test and they've studied and studied and studied and they've got it really good and they've got it perfect in their heads and they fail it./.../ 'Cos they work too hard. They overwork themselves./.../

Q: What about boys who work hard and do well in tests, are they called geeks?

Christopher: No, they're called boffs... 'Cos they know everything, they're clever.

John (white 12 year old): If you say to a smart person you didn't do your homework they look at you like scum as if you've offended them. These are boffs - boys and girls but more likely to be girls they take their work too seriously, overwork themselves. Girls' results are better than boys.

The pervasiveness of name-calling for boys who are seen to work hard in school and the disdain in which such boys are held produced contradictory positions for many boys, who wanted to attain as well as possible academically, but did not want to be rejected in the classroom. The communities of practice in which they spent their time, therefore constrained how they could engage with formal education.

- (white 14 year old): I hope we boys beat girls in exam results and stop playing football as much as we do, because girls don't like

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football and football is one of the things that puts you off work.

While the boy quoted above expresses a hope that boys will do well, several boys put a great deal of effort into negotiating the demands of schoolwork and the demands of masculinity at school. For them, informal pedagogy, which demanded conformity to the versions of masculinity currently circulating in British schools, was at least as powerful as the formal pedagogy that many people assume is the point of school. This is evident in the following quote, from a boy who is sufficiently self-reflexive to recognize that he is using strategies to help him to reconcile the expectations of masculinity with the demands of schoolwork.

RP: Yeah yeah (.) so what -what about you? What what would you say (.) that you're (.) you're (.) popular or (.) or what?

Mustafa (13 year old boy of Iranian parents): I'm about in the middle.

RP: Oh right (.) how d'you get to be in the middle?

Mustafa: I wouldn't know.

RP: Yeah.

Mustafa: There's some people you don't even know them. They're (.) always quiet in the class. [RP: Yeah] And they're (.) some people (.) they talk (.) an but they don' like (.) get into trouble. [RP: Mm] And then some people get into trouble (.) but not that much (.) like me. [RP: Ok] Sometimes you get into trouble (.) and then the popular boys (.) because they're popular they have to like get into trouble (.) They always like backchat (.) backchat the teacher [RP: Mm] Get loads of detentions.

Mustafa's middle position here involves getting into trouble in class, but not as much as do popular boys who, he suggests, «have to like get into trouble... because they're popular». His account reminds us that popularity carries costs. Far from being entirely free to choose how to behave, there are weighty expectations on popular boys that they will be hard enough to satisfy other boys' desire for the spectacle of confrontations with teachers. Why does Mustafa position himself in the middle? It seems that, like many of the boys we studied, he wants to negotiate a position where he does not get into too much trouble, but does so enough to be popular enough for school to be bearable. He does not condemn the behavior of popular boys who he defines as being popular simply because they are resistant to authority, but he does say later in the interview that «they're just wasting their time».

In the example discussed above, Mustafa adopted strategies that entailed working hard at both masculinity and schoolwork and constantly self-monitoring. This was also the case in the following three examples.

Q: What do boys do in class?

Jim (12 year old with Greek and English parentage): Talk about football and computer games.... I talk and work at the same time... they [teachers] just tell us to shut up... we just keep on talking... she just keeps on shouting. Says if you keep on doing it you going to get a detention.

Q: Did you ever get teased for being a boffin?

Julius (black 13 year old): No it wasn't like that... I used to mess about and then at home just study, and now I do both I can mess about and study at the same time so no I don't get teased.

Q: You said you were clever in the group interview, do you get cussed for that?

Bob (14 year old boy of mixed black and white parentage): No not really, in class I don't do all my work, sometimes I do nothing. The only people who are cussed are two Turkish boys, they always sit in the front and do all their work and when someone cusses them they don't do anything about it /.../ Some people cussed me cos I keep getting high results and call me nerd some parts were

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jokey and we laughed afterwards /.../ Sometimes if people are jealous if they call me nerd I call them dumb, they're probably not going to do well when they leave the school.

Quotes such as those above demonstrate that boys were sophisticated in their negotiation of the constraints imposed on them by the competing demands of masculinities and schoolwork. They also observed other boys' strategies for negotiating these contradictions. This often included being explicit about the need for inauthenticity.

Matthew (white 14 year old): And you just ignore them, you sort of you know, laugh with them, 'Yeah I done well in this exam,' but that, you sort of change your attitude and pretend you're like them (.) you know you pretend you're dangerous as well, but really you don't care much, so suddenly, you're playing, yeah, yeah I'm just like you and things, and soon they get bored, ... they sort of think that they're exactly the same as you, so they shouldn't (.) sort of cuss you because really they're themselves. (.)... You pretend you're cool and you know you hang out with the group and things, but the instant they stop, ... you just ignore them again.

- (black 11 year old): There's this boy in year 11 he like thinks he's big. He's really brainy. When it comes to exams he'll pass all his exams but he don't like going to lessons because he wants to show his friends.

Overall, boys dealt with the dilemma that can be characterized as masculinity versus schoolwork in four ways. Many of them negotiated a middle position for themselves, working sometimes and being off task at other times. For some others, doing boy entailed being popular by not doing their schoolwork. A very few boys managed to negotiate the demands of masculinity and of schoolwork so that they managed to be both popular and to do well at school and a few others focused on their schoolwork in ways that made them unpopular with other boys.

Racialisation, masculinity and schoolwork

That boys are not simply free to make rational choices about how what they know should affect what they do becomes even clearer if we consider how masculinities and racialisation intersect in their everyday practices. There is ample evidence that black young men of African Caribbean descent are viewed in some ways as 'super-masculine' in Britain and in the USA (Connell, 2000; Sewell, 1997). They are constructed as possessing the attributes that are constructed by young men as indicative of the most popular forms of masculinity, toughness and authentically male style in talk and dress. As trendsetters, they may be seen as archetypically active consumers, choosing and producing new styles. This positions them in particularly contradictory ways. At one and the same time, they are feared, discriminated against and face high rates of school exclusions because of those features. However, they are also respected, admired and gain power through taking on characteristics which militate against good classroom performance.

From their research in the US context, Majors and Billson (1992) refer to this as 'cool pose', an aggressive assertion of masculinity that allows control, inner strength, stability and confidence in the face of the adverse social, political and economic conditions which many African American men face. Cool pose fits many of the characteristics associated with popular masculinity. However, it also imposes costs on those black boys and men who cannot deal with it simply as performance, but want others to believe that they really possess it. What this means is that rather than playing with a set of

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identities which might be adaptable to different contexts, many black young men find themselves constrained within a construction of masculinity that gives them power in their local situations. However, it contributes to their relative lack of power in society as a whole. Moreover, those boys who attempt to inhabit this prescriptive cultural construction of masculine positions but are unsuccessful in doing so have to deal with failing to achieve racialised, gendered, cultural practices which many have essentialised as natural to black boys.

Schools are racialised and racialising places (as well as gendered and gendering) in that there is, for example, a great deal of informal racialised, as well as gendered, segregation (Phoenix, 1998). In that context, it is not surprising that white masculinities are racialised in relation to black masculinities. Indeed, the pervasiveness of racialised constructions of difference indicated its centrality to the production of identity positions. In the following (group interview with 12 year old white boys) quotations, hierarchical distinctions are made between Asian, black and white boys.

Des: Don't know it's just (.) black boys seem to get friends easier (.) and they're more popular I suppose

Interviewer:...What about in your class, are Asian boys as popular as black boys?

Des: No I shouldn't think so

Jason: No

Interviewer: They're not no

Des: No (2)

Interviewer: Why's that? (3)

Des: Don't really know sigh (3) black boys um Asian boys just go round with (.) like who they want (.) but they don't they don't go out picking, they wait for them come to them (1) they've only got a few friends (2) /.../

Group interview with 4 white12-13 year old boys.

Interviewer: So ... you're more likely to go around with black boys than Asian boys are you?

Graham: Yeah

Interviewer: Why is that do you think?

Graham: Probably cos like (.) sometimes you think not (.) you ain't you're not really popular an' (.) you know someone who is popular and you go and like try and hang around with them?

The racialisation of those cultural practices that define popular masculinities apparently places them out of the reach of white boys and particularly Asian boys who are constructed by white and black boys as not properly masculine. Some white boys produced narratives that indicated that other white boys wanted to be black, but this was not something they generally claimed that they themselves wanted to be.

Interviewer: D'you think some white boys then envy black boys (1) 'cos they think they're stronger?

Paul (11 year old white boy): Yeah like, they wanna like, some people wanna be black 'cos (1) they might like be more popular. Like, black people like, don't like really cool. Black people have like black slang don't they an' they call people (.) bro an' that (hands). Like white people don't call each other (.) names like that an' black people call some people some. And sometimes people wanna be black an' that./.../

Interviewer: Yeah, yeah. What about you?

Paul: I'm not really bothered what colour I am. Happy the way [how I'm made]. I don't really mind.

To some extent, the racialisation of masculinities defines black boys outside normality since such an envied positioning leads some young white men and teachers to treat young black men as if they are Other and too hard. Young people from all racialised groupings gave accounts that suggest that teachers treat black boys particularly badly.

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In the quote below, Lance suggests that he gained instrumental benefits from his teacher's discriminatory treatment in that he didn't like the subject from which he was excluded. However, it takes little imagination to recognise that his acquiescence here is likely to damage the qualifications he is able to obtain and, hence, his future life chances.

Interviewer: Right (2) Do you think some teachers are racist?

Lance (14-year-old black boy): Yeah. Cos like there's sort of like a stereotype for like that black people are feisty....

Interviewer: So do you think (.) has there been cases where you've been in conflict with a teacher and you think the teacher has been wrong?

Lance: Last week (1) this teacher gave me a detention for like for absolutely nothing, like, if everyone in the class had said to him that I hadn't, I wasn't talking, cos I was sitting by myself, [Interviewer Mm] anyway, like he still gave me detention okay, and I said, and I said, and because I was arguing about why I was, why I should have a detention then I had to go see the deputy head and I got taken out of like French for the rest of the term, that's alright cos I don't like French.

It could be argued that it is here that critical pedagogy can make a difference to black boys' experiences of school and their qualifications, by changing teacher behaviour. There are, however, two reasons that this is not in itself sufficient. First, some white boys react to the racialisation of masculinities by constructing black boys as Other. The quote below demonstrates the complex feelings of hate, envy and desire that can be produced through the contradictory positioning of being in the more powerful racialised group in society generally, while being racialised outside powerful masculinity in the school context.

Interviewer: Why do you think it is that bullies tend to be black boys?

A (12 year old white boy): Seems to be all black boys have a chip on their shoulder, you do get white bullies - I'm not sayin' that, but half of the school here, erm, half the black boys - all of them- walk around walkin' like that, brand names, lookin' down at people, like Year Seven's, the little girls. They look at you and stare at you as if you're lower then dem.

Second, the contradictions inherent in the racialisation of masculinity makes contestation about masculinities and differential positioning an important aspect of subjectivities for young men -despite the fact that some young men's accounts nuance this racialisation rather than making general claims about black, white or Asian boys and young men. There are, however, instrumental benefits for black boys in maintaining their positions as hegemonic in relation to masculinity as in the following quote where racialised masculinity is viewed as a protective relogicalTitle.

Interviewer: How important is being black for you?

Greg (11 year old black boy): Mm mmm. (1) I don't get picked as I don't get picked on as much as other boys that ain't the same colour as me.

It is quite clear then that masculinity is a practical accomplishment (Connell, 1995) that is racialised and struggled over in schools because it incorporates contradictory power relations. Boys' subjectivities are, therefore, constructed from intersections of racialisation with gender (as well as sexuality, nation and class). This is a complex and difficult task. Racialisation (like gender) is both a relogicalTitle in the construction of masculinities and is produced in boys' everyday practices of contestation or conformity. It is marked by anxieties and contradictions; for example, for black boys, between being relatively

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powerful in locally situated interactions in schools, but not more widely in society. For black and white boys, these contradictions could mean that they recognised that their behaviour was likely to have an adverse impact on their chances of gaining educational qualifications, without being able easily to do anything about it. Critical pedagogic interventions that take no note of how boys' social relations in their communities of practice affect their performances are unlikely to be successful for any boys, whatever their ethnicity.

Consequences for boys and for critical pedagogy

The sections above have focused on boys in British schools. However, there is evidence that similar issues apply in Scandinavian schools (see, for example Young, 3/1998, which was on 'Young masculinities'; Sorensen, 2000). The fact that informal pedagogy meant that boys had to spend a great deal of time and effort practising strategies that allowed them to be accepted by their peers and permitted them to do some schoolwork (and so, hopefully, to get some qualifications) had important consequences for boys. Many were anxious about their positioning in relation to masculinity and were able to think critically about masculinity and their place within it. Most had to produce careful performances at school that involved monitoring and policing what is allowable as masculinity for themselves and other boys. Many spent time and attention avoiding being seen as serious about schoolwork, being like girls are assumed to be and avoiding behaving in a way that would give other boys the chance to call them gay - homophobic abuse being rife in British schools.

Yet, boys were not cultural dupes who were simply incorporated into already existing gender relations. They recognised that gender positioning had changed and knew from the media and their teachers that girls are doing better educationally than boys. Many complained that their teachers preferred girls and resented this (as well as resenting girls). They were also well aware that, in order to gain future success, they needed to get qualifications and were analytical about how other boys negotiated the dilemmas posed by masculinity versus schoolwork. Nonetheless, they were invested in «doing boy» in ways that reduced the amount of schoolwork they could do because failing to be accepted as sufficiently masculine imposed costs in terms of being the butt of name calling and ostracism that most boys did not want to face. Performances of masculinity were, therefore, constrained by canonical narratives of masculinity. For this reason, many negotiated a middle position for themselves between being too academic or failing. This negotiation was often more difficult for black boys since they were constructed as the most masculine boys, one of the only social positions that gave them power and high status.

What then are the implications for critical pedagogy of the fact that boys' informal pedagogy led to self-regulation within social constraints in ways that allowed boys to think critically, but reinforced inequalities and reduced opportunities within school? Three points are perhaps relevant here. First, informal pedagogy (and the oppressive informal school processes it entails) is as important in education as formal pedagogy or the hidden curriculum if we are to produce schooling that transgresses old power relations and that provides emancipatory ways of reclaiming power and identity. Schools are not just about education but also about negotiating complex social relations.

Second, boys are active agents in constructing masculinities and hence in their engagement with schoolwork, even though

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they are constrained by what is considered acceptable masculinity among their peers. Third, and following from the first two points, attempts to improve boys' attainment (including critical pedagogy) need to consider boys' investments in resisting schoolwork and the complexity of their situations. For while this article focused predominantly on masculinity and racialisation, social class, sexuality and consumption all intersected with these and differentiated boys and girls in the school situation. Technical solutions to inequalities in education that result from theorizations of critical pedagogy are thus insufficient to deal with the complexity of everyday practices and positioning in schools.

It is not being suggested that informal pedagogy renders valueless all attempts to emancipate students. For example, the British Office for Standards in Education has published two reports examining the factors that make a minority of schools successful in producing above average attainment in pupils of African Caribbean descent. (Ofsted, 2002a, b). What is being suggested, however is that critical pedagogy cannot contribute to emancipation from unnecessary repression unless young people's communities of practice are recognized for the complex, contradictory and powerful processes they are.


This study was funded in the British Economic and Social Research Council Children 5-16 programme (grant number L129251015).

  1. Twenty-four girls from the same schools were also interviewed about masculinities. However, these interviews re not discussed here.


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