Poorer white pupils let down and neglected - MPs

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Exam hallImage source, Getty Images

White working class pupils have been failed by decades of neglect in England's education system, a report by MPs says.

The Education Select Committee accused the government of a lack of targeted support for disadvantaged white pupils.

It says use of the term "white privilege", suggesting white pupils are at an advantage, is the "opposite" of the reality for poor white pupils.

The government says it is committed to making sure no child is left behind.

The report warns that white pupils on free school meals underachieve from early years in school through to GCSE, A-levels and university entry, compared with pupils on free meals from other ethnic groups.

'Swept under the carpet'

Committee chairman Robert Halfon said it was a "major social injustice" that so little had been done to address this gap in attainment - and accused the government of "muddled thinking" in suggesting it could be explained by poverty.

"If you think it's about poverty, then it doesn't explain why most other ethnic groups do much better," he said.

Poorer white pupils are falling behind "every step of the way", he warned, and with almost a million young people being affected, it could not be "swept under the carpet".

  • At GCSE, in 2019, 18% of white British pupils on free meals achieved grade 5 in English and maths, compared with 23% for the average for pupils on free meals
  • For university entry, 16% of white British pupils on free meals get places, compared with 59% of black African pupils on free meals, 59% of Bangladeshi pupils on free meals and 32% of black Caribbean pupils on free meals.
Image source, Samuel George
Image caption,
The places where people live and their local challenges were part of the bigger picture of achievement, MPs reported

'White privilege'

Mr Halfon warned against using the term "white privilege" in education, saying it was divisive and likely to "promote disharmony" and "pits one group against another".

The committee described white privilege, which has been used in a wider social context, as the idea of "societal privilege that benefits white people over other ethnic groups".

The committee said that in education "privilege is the very opposite to what disadvantaged white children" experience - and questioned whether under equality legislation schools should use that terminology.

But a Labour MP on the committee, Kim Johnson, rejected the reference to white privilege as a red herring which was trying to "stoke the culture war" and avoid scrutiny of the "lack of investment" in schools and local communities.

Why are poor white pupils falling behind?

The report highlighted a mix of challenges about the local areas where many poor white pupils lived - and also "cultural factors" that could limit how much support they got from their families.

These underlying social problems included:

  • Poor local jobs market and lack of opportunity
  • Lack of community assets and social organisations, poor local services and transport
  • Families with "multi-generational poverty"
  • Disengaged parents with a poor experience of education

In response, the committee proposed more targeted funding and making the education system feel more relevant for these communities.

  • Using pupil premium funding to provide more support
  • "Family hubs" to get parents involved with children's learning
  • Attract teachers to areas that can struggle to retain staff
  • Ensure that work-related, vocational education is available
  • "Find a better way to talk about racial disparities"

Pupil's view: The 'that's not for me' attitude

Image caption,
Oliver is planning to go to university - and warns about stereotypes being created about white working class teenagers

"There's this nagging feeling that it's not for me," says 18-year-old Oliver Jones-Lyons, describing the "suspicions" about the value of education that he thinks hold back some white working class communities.

He has been a pupil on free meals at a school near Newcastle and says there is still a concern about the education system harbouring snobbery and class prejudice, even down to stereotypes about regional accents which "mark you out as different".

There's an inclination to turn away from exams and instead say "my dad can get us a job".

"There's a lack of explanation of how education is helping you," Oliver says.

But he argues "the biggest barriers to education are outside education" - in places with limited job opportunities, bad housing, poor public transport and families not able to support their children in school.

And he says that while he describes himself as a "white working class boy" he doesn't like the way that the label is being used to "create more stereotypes".

"It shouldn't be about putting people against each other" or about "culture wars", he says, and rejects the white working class identity being caricatured as being bigoted or narrow minded.

A better description would be people "more likely to undersell ourselves" and to dislike showing off, says Oliver.

But his own ambition has been supported by working with the Social Mobility Foundation charity - and he is waiting to see if he gets the A-levels grades needed to get into Oxford University next year.

'Schools can't do it alone'

The underachievement is down to a "poisonous mix of place, family and local culture", said Chris Zarraga, director of Schools North East, a regional network of head teachers in one of the areas with the biggest concentrations of disadvantaged white pupils.

He said it meant tackling the consequences of "long-term deprivation", where there might be fifth and sixth generations of workless families.

"Schools can't do it alone," he said, warning that already the pandemic had seen schools having to cope with feeding and clothing pupils.

"We need a cross-party sense of urgency about solving these problems," he said.

Mr Zarraga backed the targeted use of pupil premium funding and called for better ways of retaining teaching staff in the most challenging areas.

Parent's view: 'Not a lot of opportunities'

Image caption,
Kerry would like her sons to be able to go to college and get an apprenticeship

The report argues that vocational routes in education need to be clearly available - showing the connection between qualifications and work.

This chimes with the concerns of Kerry, a mother in Mansfield who is thinking about what jobs will be available for her sons, Bailey and Finley, in the years ahead.

Her own parents stepped from school into factory work, which she says offered secure jobs.

The current world of employment seems more precarious, she says.

"I don't see good jobs arising, I don't think there's much opportunity out there," says Kerry. "I want them to go to college, then get apprenticeships."

The aim is "guaranteed work" and she is worried about the cost of university. "As a parent, I wouldn't be able to fund them to go," Kerry adds.

'Levelling up'

Without tackling the underachievement of white working class pupils the wider aim of narrowing the attainment gap between rich and poor will fail, warned former Ofsted chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw

"Two thirds of children on free school meals live in these communities. We will never reduce educational inequality unless we urgently address this longstanding issue," he said.

Labour's shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said the MPs' report showed the Conservative Party has "turned its back on these pupils who need most support, from knowingly underfunded free childcare places in early years to cutting the pupil premium".

A Department for Education spokesman said: "This government is focused on levelling up opportunity so that no young person is left behind.

"That's why we are providing the biggest uplift to school funding in a decade," added the DfE spokesman, with £3bn in recovery funding and existing plans to increase school budgets.

"The pupil premium is expected to increase to more than £2.5bn this year, through which schools can support pupils with extra teaching, academic support or activities like breakfast clubs or educational trips."