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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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit