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Earning or learning? : class, culture and identity in contemporary schooling : an ethnography from northern England and southern Ireland

Smith, Jeffrey, Ph.D.


Jeffrey, Ph.D. Smith


Vassos Argyrou

Mark, 1949 Johnson


The study is divided into three parts.

Part One consists of two chapters in which I situate the study theoretically and reflect on the personal consequences of the subsequent methodological undertaking.

Chapter 1 introduces the conceptual and contextual frameworks utilised throughout this research. In it I chart the history of ethnographic educational research, from the Chicago School to the emergence of critical ethnography through the seminal work of the Birmingham-based CCCS, before rounding off by highlighting contemporary approaches offering new insights on the cultural landscape of social class inequalities. The current state of educational research in Ireland will also be touched upon, as I introduce the national setting for the comparative element of this study, which forms the location of the school in which I conducted further fieldwork. I also discuss the contemporary relevance of the concept of 'inclusive education' and contextualise its relevance in relation to a study of this nature.

Chapter 2 presents a reflexive account of how the research conducted for this study was actually carried out, concentrating on my early forays into the field as a fledgling school ethnographer in the English setting of Bridgepoint High school. The chapter focuses on this initial stage of the enquiry because this is when the pitfalls and dilemmas associated with researching people in real world settings confront one for the first time, leading to a strategy of reflexive engagement that subsequently shaped and informed the comparative fieldwork in Ireland.

Part Two contains two chapters that form the comparative case study element of this research.

Chapter 3 offers a detailed description of life at Bridgepoint High, a large state-run secondary school situated on the Bridgepoint estate in the northeastern city of Crownport. In addition to describing the social and economic conditions that prevail on the estate, the chapter looks at the way that constant testing and surveillance combines with the pressures of the contemporary education market to privilege a meritocratic IQ-ism that results in a deficit-based attitude towards its pupils. A culture of interactional hostility and disillusionment with formal education is found to be a pervasive feature of Bridgepoint school experience, with largely negative consequences for everyone concerned.

Chapter 4 presents a case study of secondary education in the Republic of Ireland, represented by St. Oliver's Community College in the coastal city of Cove. Again, the chapter details the local surroundings and points to similarities not just in the two cities themselves but also on the estates where the schools are located. However, in sharp contrast to Bridgepoint High, St. Oliver's was discovered to be a radically different kind of establishment, appearing on the surface to operate a more strict discipline code, but actually offering a calm, conducive and welcoming atmosphere characterised by surprisingly cordial social relations. The pressures of credentialism appear equally strong here too, but the willingness of staff to find alternate ways to celebrate pupil achievement, allied to shared investments in a positively ascribed local identity, are found to be at the heart of the outstanding sense of community witnessed at the school.

Part Three consists of three chapters, forming the 'analysis' section of the study.

Chapter 5 attempts to explain what I see as the reasons why Bridgepoint High school is not 'successful', both in the official terms proscribed by current government education policy, and in terms of the quality of school experience that it provides for its teachers and young people. Here, I point to the reinvigorated culture of 'machismo' exhibited by staff and pupils, partly as a rearticulated and insecure response to the diminished status of traditional forms of working-class, masculinity, and as a consequence of the 're-masculinizing' tendencies inherent in emerging forms of teacher subjectivities under the managerial regime of 'continuous improvement'. A school culture of strident homophobia, racism and compulsory heterosexuality is shown to present insurmountable barriers to improving school-based relations, without which the young people of the Bridgepoint estate will continue to prematurely disengage from education.

Chapter 6 presents a comparative analysis of how the two schools differed in their approach towards educating the young people in their charge, paying particular attention to the many similarities in structural constraint both schools faced, and yet pointing to the varied responses within the schools to the challenges posed by these constraints.

Chapter 7 offers a complimentary analytical perspective to that in Chapter 5, this time presenting a thorough explanation of the reason why St. Oliver's Community College was found by all of those involved, including staff, pupils and the local community of which it is very much an integral part, to be in every respect a 'successful' school, despite its relatively lowly status.

While highlighting the substantial contribution that a 'Catholic' outlook on schooling undoubtedly plays in generating congenial working relationships between teachers and pupils, I also highlight the strategy of affirming value in locality as a major reason why the school has developed such strong links with the surrounding community. Ultimately, celebrating one's sense of belonging in a particular place is argued to have a huge impact on the self-confidence and esteem of pupils who responded by sharing ownership of St. Oliver's in a shining example of the potential offered by inclusive education.

Finally, a brief Conclusion summarises the findings of the research and offers some tentative suggestions on how English schools, despite the policy constraints they face, need to apply a more community-centred model of schooling attuned to ensuring that people's concerns and realities are put at the centre of the educational agenda. Only then would members of those communities perceive themselves as active citizens, with their different ways of knowing valued as a resource in the shared enterprise of learning.


Smith, J. P. (2007). Earning or learning? : class, culture and identity in contemporary schooling : an ethnography from northern England and southern Ireland. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Feb 28, 2014
Publicly Available Date Feb 23, 2023
Keywords Social sciences
Public URL
Additional Information Department of Social Sciences, The University of Hull
Award Date Jul 1, 2007


Thesis (19.8 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2007 Smith, Jeffrey, Ph.D. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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