Working class girls fear failure

Working class girls fear failure says Commission's new report

09 June 2009

Almost half of girls from a working class background have a profound fear of failure which is seriously affecting their chances at school and work, a new report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission has found.

The Staying On report, which includes a survey of more than 1,000 young people, represents one of the most comprehensive pictures to date into the education and career aspirations of 14 to 18 year olds.*

It found that the fear of failure could be the result of the overwhelming focus on academic achievement with options such as vocational training and apprenticeships not sufficiently promoted as alternatives.

Forty-six per cent of girls from lower socio-economic backgrounds worried about not succeeding at school.2  This compared to just 28 per cent of boys from middle class backgrounds. Forty-three per cent of ethnic minority groups and more than half of young people with disabilities feared failure.  Overall 37 per cent or 1.2 million young people said this was an issue for them.

Girls’ attitudes to career choice remain traditional despite moves towards gender equality in wider society. Regardless of socio-economic background, the top three jobs girls believed they would be working in were teaching, childcare and beauty. Four times more boys compared to girls believed they would go into engineering, with similar percentages of boys over girls choosing building, architecture, trade and IT careers.

Poor career and subject advice was also highlighted as a major problem, with information provided to young people often reinforcing class, gender, ethnic and disability stereotypes.

Contrary to popular myth, most young people were not apathetic and disengaged in society – they were keen to succeed and were hopeful and optimistic. But their ability to engage effectively with opportunities was significantly limited by their socio-economic background, gender, race or disability.

However, the findings suggest certain groups will struggle to meet new legislation to stay in education and training until the age of 18.

Other major findings from the survey included:

  • One in five young people hadn’t received one-on-one career advice and did not have an understanding of how to achieve their desired career path.
  • 94 per cent of young people said they needed better subject and career information and support. 
  • 250,000 young people (seven per cent) felt physically unsafe and five per cent felt emotionally unsafe at school.
  • One in 10 or more than 350,000 young people in England were considering leaving school or training.
  • 95 per cent of young people felt they were doing ‘very’ well (32 per cent) or ‘fairly well’. Ninety-eight per cent felt able to improve their current situation. Those not in employment, education and training were significantly less optimistic.
  • There was an overwhelming focus on academic achievement with vocational training and apprenticeships viewed as a route for students failing to succeed.

Commission Chair Trevor Phillips today called for a re-think of how education and careers services can be re-shaped to realise the aspirations of young people.

“We have to get to grips with tackling these worrying barriers for certain young people. Education is critical in ensuring we create a society where talent is nurtured rather than crushed. The new legislation affords us an extraordinary opportunity to provide young people with two years of education and training. These are precious years where we must build confidence in our young people to achieve their goals rather than perpetuate an environment of fear or stereotyping.

“Why in 2009 do girls still assume that their careers lie in hairdressing rather than engineering? Why are young people being pushed down an academic route when they would do better in apprenticeships? We need to ensure that parents, schools and careers services challenge, rather than encourage such presumptions.”

Recommendations made by the Commission in the report include:

  • Reviewing the current £30 a week Education Maintenance Allowance with a consideration to increase the maintenance.
  • Further Education colleges to consider offering vocational courses to young people who have no GCSEs as a way of re-engaging 16 year olds who leave school without any qualifications.
  • The Department of Children, Schools and Families to introduce work experience and vocational options earlier to students
  • The Commission to work with the National Apprenticeships Service on initiatives to open up apprenticeships to women, people with disabilities and ethnic minorities.

Speaking at an event launching the report will be Roland Fryer III, a Professor of Economics at Harvard University and a prominent educationalist who has developed radical solutions which have been adopted by schools and proved successful in improving the educational performance of African-American children. Time Magazine last year included the 31 year old as one of the world’s 100 most influential individuals.


For more information contact the Equality and Human Rights Commission Media Office on 02031170255, out of hours 07767272818.

Notes for Editors

The Staying On Report is a summary of:

*Due to the sample size an accurate figure of the percentage of girls and boys from ethnic minority communities who fear failure could not be established.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission
The Commission is a statutory body established under the Equality Act 2006, which took over the responsibilities of Commission for Racial Equality, Disability Rights Commission and Equal Opportunities Commission. It is the independent advocate for equality and human rights in Britain. It aims to reduce inequality, eliminate discrimination, strengthen good relations between people, and promote and protect human rights. The Commission enforces equality legislation on age, disability, gender, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation or transgender status, and encourage compliance with the Human Rights Act. It also gives advice and guidance to businesses, the voluntary and public sectors, and to individuals.