Education & Family

White working class pupils left behind

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Media captionChloe and her mother Julie talk about life as a minority at the school

A primary school near Waterloo Station in south London has helped to uncover a national trend: that the poorest white children are falling behind ethnic minority groups at school.

"How many of you have got another flag?" asks head teacher Di Morgan.

Over 200 young faces stare excitedly back at her during morning assembly at Johanna Primary School, near Central London's Waterloo Station.

"Morocco!" shouts a student, whose parents are Moroccan.

"China!" says another. "Iran," pipes up a third.

This school is diverse - the children speak 40 languages between them.

But Di Morgan is worried about one of the smaller ethnic groups in her school: The old white working class who once dominated this inner London neighbourhood.

"White working class children were underachieveing," she says.

"The truth is a lot of our white children in nursery have fewer words of English than bilingual children."

She and the school staff have tried to turn around their fortunes by engaging their parents in the school's activities.

Reversing the trend

Chloe, aged 11, is an aspiring actress and one of the school's several white working class success stories.

But it wasn't always this way.

"Schools weren't looking at what was really happening with British children," says her grandmother Anne, who works at Johanna school.

"They assumed being British you knew how to read and write."

"A lot of the British have just lost motivation," admits Chloe's mother, Julie. She blames a perception that schools aren't interested in these children.

But she's pleased that Chloe now has friends from all over the world, and encourages fellow white parents to take a leaf from the ethnic minorities' book.

"I think a lot of the ethnic minorities have higher aspirations for their children," she says. "They've come from war-torn countries and they want to push as hard as they can."

National Study

Image caption Forty languages are spoken at the Johanna School

Such concerns over the poor achievement of white pupils led the local council, Lambeth, to research what was happening.

They found that the poorest white children weren't just struggling in schools in diverse cities like London. The story was the same across England.

"We've found that our own indigenous, white core people have become this group of low achievers," says Kirstin Lewis, one of the researchers at Lambeth.

Her study isolated those children whose parents who had listed "White British" for their ethnic group, and who were on free school meals - the best indicator of social class they could find.

They looked at results in primary school and at GCSE and found that in many cases the poorest white students achieved lower results than any other major group, both locally and across England.

She says when all white children are grouped together, the success of middle class white children brought up the achievement rate for the group as a whole, and was "hiding" the fact that the poorest were falling behind.

"The shock for us really was that this group were the lowest achieving group," says Lewis.

"Because we've been concentrating a lot nationally, and as a local authority, on the groups that have come into the country and celebrating their cultures."

Sensitive subject

I spoke to several white families in the Lambeth area, but most would not speak out on the record.

Image caption Diners at a Lambeth eel and pie shop speak to the BBC in 1943

There's a widespread fear that to even speak about these issues would be construed as racist or bigoted.

But areas like this part of London have seen enormous and sometimes unsettling change.

The world of old market stalls and working men, captured in songs like "The Lambeth Walk" from the musical Me and My Girl, has been replaced by a knowledge economy, gentrified coffee shops and a vibrant mix of immigrant groups.

"Fruit and veg stalls, flower stalls, everything you could wish for were in this market," says Nicola Church - a teaching assistant at Johanna, whose family lived here.

She feels there has been a breakdown in prospects, especially for older teenagers like her own son.

"They hang around on street corners, not in education," she says.

She says the older values of the area have been lost.

"You had to work until you were old. That was what you were brought up to do, you had to get out and work, education wasn't important."

Changing World

Academic experts say that in London and many other parts of Britain, the old white working class is still adapting to a changed economy.

"There are undoubtedly a large number of families who haven't been able to grapple with the new world," says Kate Gavron of the Young Foundation, an East End think tank.

"It's quite difficult to change your thinking about education," she says.

"You have to encourage kids to do well at school."

The profound shift in the economy makes it all the more vital that students are reached early on by schools.

That's certainly what head teacher Di Morgan has in mind.

"Some of these families thought, well, what's the matter with my life? Why would my child want anything more than I've got?" she says.

"It is do to with a lack of aspiration, I believe."

In other words, economic background and support at home can often make as much difference as what colour you are.

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