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Why the struggles of white working-class children matter – and what can be done

White working-class failure in schools is a microcosm of a deeper problem: the struggles of the white working class in a post-industrial world.

Last Wednesday, the Sutton Trust published its annual report on the educational backgrounds of those who occupy the leading professions in British life. It painted a familiar picture: most lawyers, journalists, military personnel and doctors attended private schools. Social mobility in the UK seems to have come to a halt.

A generation ago, we assumed that it was harder for children from the ethnic-minority groups to overcome their socio-economic disadvantages. Now, it is becoming apparent that the group that requires special attention is the white working class. White children on free school meals (FSMs) perform far worse than disadvantaged children from other ethnic groups. Just 28 per cent of white children on FSMs get five good GCSEs, including English and maths, compared with 38 per cent of mixed-race children, 41 per cent of black children and 48 per cent of Asian children.

The struggles of white working-class children are not new but their position relative to other poor children is. While the performance of disadvantaged white children has risen modestly in recent years, other ethnic groups have soared. The gap in attainment between black and white students on FSMs has doubled since 2005.

The difficulties begin early in life. The attainment gap between five-year-old white children on FSMs and those who are not is higher than for any other ethnic group. The gap only widens as the years go by: there is a bigger difference between how white children who are disadvantaged and those who are better off perform in their GCSEs than children of any other ethnic group.

One reason white working-class pupils fare so badly is that they are less likely to grow up in London. Only 10 per cent of poor white Britons go to school in the capital, compared to 45 per cent of poor ethnic-minority children. The capital has benefited from a string of innovations: new academies; Teach First, which sends talented graduates into difficult schools; the London Challenge, which aspired to raise the standard of leadership. As a result, the quality of London’s schools has improved. Tower Hamlets had the worst GCSE results of any local authority in England in 1997. Today, pupils there are almost 10 percentage points more likely to get five good GCSEs than the national average.

And yet, too often, those beyond the capital have been ignored. According to the head of Ofsted, Michael Wilshaw, white working-class students are often “invisible” in disadvantaged rural and coastal areas. Some 40 per cent of Teach First recruits are in London. Children in rural areas also suffer because the length of their commute to school can make it harder for them to attend after-school or homework clubs.

The lack of drive in white working-class communities compared to that of ethnic minorities might be another problem. “The children of immigrants tend to be more ambitious, more aspirational, and to see a role for education in ‘getting on’,” says Simon Burgess of the University of Bristol. “By contrast, those things are relatively lacking in white British students.”

White working-class failure in schools is a microcosm of a deeper problem: the struggles of the white working class in a post-industrial world. “It’s a shithole – run-down and with crap jobs,” a jewellery seller in Stoke-on-Trent, where educational attainment is among the lowest in the country, told me last year. For white, working-class parents and their children, the insecure labour market has “eroded the old optimism that doing well at school was a passport to a decent job and a better life”, says Alan Milburn, the chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. Where a child grows up has become a good predictor of their achievement in school, the Social Market Foundation recently found.

So, what can be done? Noting how disadvantaged white children perform better in London than elsewhere, Milburn tells me: “Demography need not be destiny.” He advocates a greater emphasis on putting the best teachers in the worst schools and believes that improving employment prospects in struggling areas will benefit school standards.

Yet if the educational performance of disadvantaged white children is not rapidly improved, it bodes ill for the future. “The consequences for young people of low educational achievement are now more dramatic than they may have been in the past,” warned an education select committee report in 2014. In a globalised world, the white working class is floundering at school and risks being left behind thereafter.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash

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Marching against climate change in the age of Donald Trump

The People’s Climate Movement is as much about politics as science. That's its strength.

Saying goodbye is never easy. But the present generation are facing an awful lot of farewells: to the melting arctic, the dying Barrier Reef, and the general resilience of ecosystems around the world. As Margaret Atwood described it in her essay of the same name: “It’s not climate change, it’s everything change”.

The problem with “everything-change” is that it can be overwhelming. How do you even decide where to start?

The People’s Climate Movement want to begin by making visible the extent of concern out there. This weekend, a coalition of organisations have planned a protest march on the American capital. Between 50,000 -100,000 people are expected to attend, including eco-celebrities Leonardo Di Caprio, Al Gore and Richard Branson.

In London, a group called Campaign Against Climate Change, are co-ordinating a UK-based solidarity event. Protestors will meet at 11.30am in Old Palace yard opposite Parliament, then move to Westminster Bridge, where they will spell out a message to Theresa May: “Trump and May: Climate Disaster”.

For UK campaigners, this is a vital opportunity to raise awareness of the many ways in which action on climate change is under threat. Claire James from CACC outlines the sense of frustration and injustice that many feel with regard to recent government policy: “There have been 12,000 jobs lost last year in the solar industry alone and installation numbers have plummeted. Meanwhile fracking, hugely unpopular, is given determined backing.”

Ahead of the June election, campaigners are using the event to call for specific, cross-party commitments. One, fast-tracking the UK’s delayed Climate Change Plan. Two, ruling out new trade deals that compromise environmental, worker or consumer rights. And three, implementing a fair deal for UK solar and wind industry. “Our action on Saturday is about saying to the government – and to anyone who wants to form the next government – do your policies measure up?” says James.

These concrete political aims are an important way in which the movement differs from last weekend’s March For Science. That protest, inspired by the popularity of the Women’s March earlier this year, kept its message intentionally wide. As one of the London event’s organisers told DeSmog, it placed its emphasis on a generalised “celebration of science”. But this lack of specificity drew criticism from some quarters – for presenting a confusing message about politics' relationship to science.

Generalisation can also risk putting people off joining marches at all. Over the last few months, numerous friends have said they feel uncomfortable joining protests where they’re not sure that the person marching next to them is doing so for the same reasons. They’d feel much happier signing a petition, with a more specific and limited aim, they tell me.

This weekend’s climate marches risk drawing some of the same concerns. “Climate-change has become a synecdoche, a surrogate, for many causes in today’s world – social justice, the protection of nature, the rights of future generations, the defence of science,” says Professor Mike Hulme from King's College London. “Marches such as this give political voice to anti-establishment protest, but they don’t stop the climate changing.”

In addition, not all who want to see climate change prioritised by governments may agree over the exact course of action – with outright opposition to fracking, for instance, or to a third runway at Heathrow.

But this weekend’s movement also appears to have taken these lessons on board. First, they are putting their political aims up front. According the US event’s website, whereas the March for Science strove to be non-political, this movement “believes strongly in the need to call out the politicians.”

The link to the Paris Climate Treaty is helpful in this respect. The People’s Climate Movement traces its birth back to September 21 2014, the eve of the UN climate summit, when 400,000 people marched through New York demanding action on the climate crisis. This gives the movement a clear piece of legislation to both celebrate and defend.

And the London-based event is also attempting to re-think and expand what street-protests can achieve. “We’re doing a smaller action rather than a big march,” explains Claire James, “but we’re trying to have a real focus with the speakers on ‘what next’”. After the protest in Westminster, attendees are invited to join an afternoon of free food, activities and music, hosted by the food waste campaign Feedback. Here there will be even further opportunity to learn about the many ways – from divestment campaigns to local renewable energy groups – in which people can help press for change.

In this respect, public action against the climate crisis promises not to end when the walking does. And while protests won't stop climate change in themselves, joining a march can be a powerful reminder that we are not in this crisis alone.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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