Tuesday, 25 August 2009


This is an essay that I wrote whilst doing my Sociology A Level, titled 'The Sociology of Billy Casper's Failure'. The film 'Kes' has been a favourite since before I came to appreciate its message - this essay is the one I sent in with my application to University too, so Billy Casper, and his real world counterparts, have come to play a big role in my life. It's quite poorly written, but I'll leave it as it was originally.

Billy Casper is the epitome of a late 1960’s Northern education, an era in which failure is practically assured for people like him. He is deprived in every sense of the word; deprived of love, education, material possession and hope. Billy is not an isolated case but is representative of the huge numbers of children who were (and are still) let down and neglected by their society. The educational failure of Billy cannot be attributed to his own faults and mistakes, but is a consequence of the many social controls and inequalities thrust upon him by an iniquitous society. The cinematic representation ‘Kes’, is certain to cause a knowing smile upon the faces of Marxists.

In industrial Barnsley in 1969, Billy immediately has obstacles put in front of him. His family is desperately poor, and this is succinctly shown by the fact that Billy must share a single bed with his older brother Jud. Howard (2001) investigated the correlation of poverty and educational under-achievement and noted several contributory factors. Billy’s small house being in the industrial slums of Barnsley, means he is prone to overcrowding (Billy and Jud share a bed). At home Billy has no space to do educational activities or do homework. His sharing a bed is likely to mean he is inadequately energized for school also. Billy’s diet is very poor due to the lack of parental influence, and he is forced to steal confectionary from the paper shop where he works. His mother often leaves him money for ‘pop and sweets’ rather than provide home cooked food. This is likely to give him poor nutrition and a higher risk of illness. The issue of how Billy’s lack of money affects his education is provided by Bull (1980), who tells of how children from poor families have to do without equipment and experiences that would enhance their education. The costs of uniform, books and equipment etc are too expensive for many working class families and this includes Billy’s. Billy not having a change of clothes for PE for all of the 4 years Mr Sugden has taught him, demonstrates this. His lack of kit means he is singled out by both peers and the teacher, as an outcast, and made to feel inferior to his peers due to his lack of money. As well as the financial price, in Billy’s home environment, his attempts to read are greatly ridiculed by his bullying brother Jud. Billy also has to have a part time job, not to aid his education but to contribute to the household, and this often means he is late for school. This notion of Finn (1984) ‘s, is a study on how working class teenagers often have to work to support their studies. If Billy had been introduced more to books and had a natural flair, on monetary grounds alone he would still be unlikely to proceed in education simply due to it’s expense.

Billy is deprived of any culture that would be accommodating to his education. Culture is first in the form of acquired knowledge through the nurture of family, but Billy lacked adequate primary socialisation. His father is not apparent or contributing to the income and his mother works a low paid, W/C job. His older brother Jud works in the pits. From what we see, his older brother is a bully (though Jud himself will have gone through the same problems and closed gateways through his educational career), who inhibits every attempt that Billy makes to create and happiness. Judd sabotages Billy’s book on falconry and eventually kills Kes. Kes is symbolic for the freedom and hope that Billy both deserves and desires. The educational system has cast him as a failure through processes beyond his control and his kestrel is his release from the hardships of his life. The final act in which Jud kills Kes, is symbolic for the hope and aspirations of Billy but also all other W/C pupils. Jud is 1960’s education, who takes down anything that gives the idea of success. The culture Billy has grown to accept and resent means that he will have great difficulty in doing anything worthwhile.

The lack of adequate primary socialisation Billy had, meant he had an inferior academic intellectuality to that of M/C children, as his mother wouldn’t have read to him or encouraged thought provoking or creative activities. Language is another factor that goes against Billy’s favour. The area of language in relation to educational success is explored by Bernstein (1975). He identifies two codes of language. The elaborated code is used commonly by the middle classes, and has wide vocabulary and complex sentences; this is the code used by teachers in education often. The W/C pupils such as Billy however, speak in a ‘restricted code’, of short simple sentences and a small limited vocabulary. The differences between these codes mean that W/C students are often immediately alienated to the ways of school and hence do not reach the pinnacles of their ability. The strong colloquialism of Billy’s accent and the negative stereotype that comes with it mean that it would be unlikely that he would succeed outside of South Yorkshire. Luckily for the bourgeoisie, he has been ideologically controlled enough to have no aspirations to travel, and is set to perform an unskilled manual role in society.

Billy is not motivated to do well in school or progress into further education, in contrast the emphasis is placed more upon which low paid job he plans to do after he has failed. Douglas (1964) focused his studies on the impact of primary socialisation on intellectual prowess. He showed that working class parents were less likely to support their children’s intellectual development and in general, would place less value on education, were less ambitious, provided less encouragement and took less interest in their children than middle class parents. Consequentially, the children are less motivated and less successful in education. Billy is clearly a victim of this neglect. We never see any of Billy’s family pay any interest into anything that he does, and Billy attends his important careers interview alone. His parent’s indifference has been accepted, and now he manifests this same fault himself. This shows a small scale external version of the self fulfilling prophecy. Once he gains the indifference his parents showed to him, he cannot help but not do well in school.

Billy has no cultural capital that would benefit him in 60’s education. At home, Billy has no access to the knowledge, attitudes, values, language and abilities of the middle class. As these are great aides to education, Billy is more likely to fail without the influence of such things. This is the idea of Bourdieu (1984), who believed that education is not neutral, as it favours and transmits the dominant middle class values. In contrast, he discovered that ‘working-class children find that school devalues and rejects their culture as ‘rough’ and inferior’. In this way, Billy and his peers have an immediate disadvantage in coming from a socially deprived area, of little to no M/C influence.

The noted are only the obstacles in Billy’s educational path before he even sets foot in a school. As well as being deprived of the necessary values to succeed at home, Billy is a victim of poor education within his school. Corporal punishment was still rife and as Billy wisely noted, his teachers cared as little for him as he does for them. The school atmosphere was about control and the transmittance of ideological control. School was a place to be taught conformity, respect and competitiveness, according to Marxists.

Billy is constantly told that he is a failure and is ridiculed. When he daydreamed during the register and uttered ‘ “German Bight” ‘, after a students name, he is ‘jumped upon’ by his teachers and cruelly mocked. The teacher’s intention was not to promote success but to punish failure. Billy is clearly not in a good environment for him within school. From a modern point of view and a more liberated standpoint within education, though we see Billy lacks the academic skills required in the 1960’s, he has a potential gift with animals and under modern situations would be encouraged into veterinary science for example. But, there is no encouragement for Billy and the lack of faith instilled in him by his teachers, means that he has no aspiration of confidence within himself.

Becker (1971) noted the teachers fantasy of an ‘ideal pupil’, who produces good work, conducts themselves well and are of a good appearance. They judge the identity of the pupil by how closely they match this ‘perfect’ pupil. Billy is bordering on illiterate, uses poor vocabulary and has an unkempt and dirty appearance. Not one of these factors is due to him, yet each one means that he is labelled negatively from the beginning. With the exception of Mr Farthing who comes to understand Billy more, all the teachers view Billy as a useless misfit and an idiot. These views are reflected in his own views of himself when asked by the careers advisor of his aspirations, of which he has none. Were Billy given more encouragement and motivation, maybe he could have given himself a better label and had a better start in life. As Rist (1970) stated in his study of teacher labelling, “What teachers believe, their pupils achieve.” Nobody at home or in school believes in Billy, and as a result he fails and has little to show from being in school at all.

Billy is immediately anti-school in his views, though we never see him associate with fellow renegades to form a sub-culture due to his solitary mind and affection for Kes. As with many things in education for Billy, he hasn’t a choice in the matter. On his financial background and appearance alone, he cannot make the requirements of being pro-school and so rejects its views. Rather than not elaborating, Billy observed the mutual indifference the pupils and teachers showed for each other. This is the exact theory put forward by Lacey, “school rejects the boy: boy rejects the school”. It is commonly accepted that joining an anti-school subculture is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy of educational failure. Billy didn’t even have the opportunity to be in a sub culture, as he is singled out by teacher and student alike. He hasn’t even the money to truant and smoke.

School for Billy, rather than help him, simply alienates him further from it, as again he is given the image that he is worthless and will not amount to anything: the same scenario as he experiences when he gets home.

Once we consider all the factors that contributed to how Billy failed academically, we see that it would be somewhat miraculous if he overcame these barriers. Success wasn’t even a consideration for him, as he had accepted all of these inequalities. The worst thing is that Billy is even so ideologically controlled that Bowles & Gintis’ ‘Poor are Dumb’ theory came into place, and he attributed some of his failure to himself rather than society. When Billy shouts to his PE teacher, “you shu’n’t have put me in goal, you know I’m useless”, what we see is the saddening way in which his teacher’s expectation had killed his aspirations. What Billy means is “you’ve said that I am useless, so I must be.”

In the assembly scene, an excerpt from the Bible is read, in which we are given the question of if you have 100 sheep and 1 strays from the group, should you let the one get away and make do with what you have, or go out of your way to save the lost sheep? Billy is the lost sheep that the shepherd forgot, though he is not alone as there were and still are many Billy Caspers who are failed by the system. In the final scene when Jud nonchalantly admits to killing Kes, with the death of the bird, dies Billy’s only source of hope. Given Bernstein’s theories on W/C restricted code, the strongest thing Billy could think to call Jud was ‘fuckin’ bastard’. Kes represented the hope for the W/C pupils like Billy, and Jud; education as it kills away all hopes and aspirations. In this context, Billy’s statement of ‘fuckin’ bastard’ seems pertinent in both the literal and metaphorical sense.

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