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Libya — Battle of the Arab Spring

If Gaddafi is defeated, it will be through the kind of fighting now raging on the streets of Misurat

It is 2 May, my twelfth full day in Misurata, and I'll start with a man I met at a private clinic that had been turned into the city's main trauma hos­pital. The uprising against Muammar Gaddafi was two months old. Loyalist forces surrounded Misurata and controlled parts of the city centre, but the thowar - or revolutionaries - were putting up fierce resistance despite being outgunned. The battle crackled and boomed day and night.

Dr Tahar Alkesa, a surgeon, was sitting on the curb outside one of the white tents erected in front of the clinic to serve as a makeshift emergency ward. He is 31 years old and undoubtedly handsome, but the hours and stress had marked and changed him. He was sallow and unshaven, with dark rings under his puffy eyes. The evening light was soft and fading fast as we chatted. He rubbed his arms for warmth.

I had seen Alkesa at work earlier in the day, when fresh casualties were arriving at the hospital every few minutes. An ambulance or pick-up truck would screech to a halt outside the tent, amid cries of "Allahu akbar". If the victim was a thowar, he usually had a bullet wound, having been picked off by a sniper. Civilian casualties generally had shrapnel injuries caused by shells or missiles, the most vicious of which was a Grad, a long, tubular projectile fired out of a 40-barrelled launcher known as "Stalin's organ". When they were fired into Misurata, you heard a whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, and then bang, bang, bang.

One Grad victim arrived in the back of a blue sedan. Both his legs had been blown off at the knee. A crimson stream of blood trailed on to the tarmac as he was carried into the tent. Within a few minutes he was wheeled out, covered by a blanket. People gathered outside and launched into an anguished but beautiful refrain: La ilaha illa Allah,/La ilaha illa Allah,/ al-shaheed habib Allah. ("There is no God but Allah, there is no God but Allah, the martyr is dear to Allah.")

Alkesa worked without interruption, stitching, cleaning, talking softly to the patients, offering words of reassurance. His expression changed little, even when a grimacing man in his mid-twenties was rushed in. The man's face was blackened by smoke and his eyes were white and wide with pain and terror. His filthy khaki pants were bloodstained and torn. His forearms were shredded. He was a tank driver. The thowar did not have tanks.

His first request was for a lethal injection, because he was convinced that he would be tortured or beaten for fighting for Gaddafi. Alkesa politely said no, assuring him that he would be looked after. He cleaned the man's leg and groin wounds and sewed up the strips of flesh on his arms. The tank driver said he was from Tripoli, and that his commanders had told him that Misurata was under the control of foreign-ers and terrorists who had been destroying mosques. He said he felt he had been cheated, and was sorry.

Now, sitting on the curb, Alkesa told me: "Inside me, I really did not want to look after that man. I did not enjoy treating him. But it was my duty to look after a human being."

It pained him even more that the tank driver was a Libyan, unlike those of Gaddafi's forces, a minority, who are mercenaries from elsewhere in Africa, usually Mauritania, Chad or Sudan. "I just ask myself, what has Gaddafi done with their brains to make them fight us like this? He is not a human being. He is evil. Satan."

Until a few days earlier, he had not seen his wife, his four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son for a month. So intense was the workload at the hospital that he had been sleeping there; his family had become trapped after government troops overran his neighbourhood. Because the mobile-phone networks in the city had been cut, he had no way of reaching his family. "For two or three days I was completely dissociated from this world," the doctor said. "Even though I was working, I was asking myself: 'Is this real? Am I even real?' Then I came round and started feeling myself again."

Still, he said, every night when his shift ended, he would walk to his car, open the door and sit in the driver's seat. He had nowhere to go. He just needed a private place to weep.

Misurata is Libya's third-largest city, about 200 kilometres east of the capital, Tripoli, where the Mediterranean coastline dips south in the Gulf of Sirte. In better times, if Gaddafi's rule in peacetime could be described that way, you would drive there from the capital with a government-approved guide by your side. But since the beginning of the revolution, the only way in to Misurata has been by boat. First, you fly to Cairo and drive west for 14 hours, crossing the Libyan border roughly halfway. That gets you to Benghazi, the eastern city where Libya's revolution began in mid-February.

From there, you travel on a local fishing boat, carrying emergency supplies and most likely weapons for the rebels. The voyage takes over 40 hours.
Another way in is on the Ionian Spirit, a Greek ferry chartered by the International Organisation for Migration to pick up foreign workers stranded in Misurata. That journey takes just under a day, assuming loyalist forces are not bombing the port - as they often were.

Misurata has a proud history. An important trading post since ancient times, it provided determined resistance to Italian occupation a century ago, prompting one commander to declare that Libya was a snake and Misurata its head - something local people love to tell you. In modern times it became Libya's industrial hub, with its port and one of Africa's largest steel factories. Low-slung and sprinkled with palm trees, the city is well laid out and mildly prosperous. Most of the 300,000-plus residents had enough food to eat and many had cars and decent houses, too. Yet, given the country's vast oil reserves and small population, Libya should be much wealthier, more akin to Dubai or Abu Dhabi, in the view of many people you meet.

Since seizing power in a coup d'état in 1969, Gaddafi has squandered tens of billions of dollars on vanity projects and misadventures, such as sponsoring international terrorism. Meanwhile, countless public works projects, such as the renovation of Misurata's main hospital, were allowed to drag on for years. Yet that was not the main reason Gaddafi was so despised here, Alkesa told me. He explained that by the time he was born, in 1979, Gaddafi had come up with his "Third Universal Theory" of government, which he claimed was superior to democracy and communism and would lead to "a state of the masses". Its principles were laid out in his Green Book, which became required reading in schools and universities.

Most Libyans thought it was quackery, but very few dared question it openly. Those who did so were hanged. As a public service, Gaddafi ensured that the executions were shown on state television. "I remember watching them as a child," Alkesa said. "Some loyalists would run up to the bodies as they hung and jerk them downwards, to make it more violent. My father would have tears in his eyes when he saw that. That is why we have always hated Gaddafi. Not because we lacked money or food, but because we had no freedom . . . We also believed that nobody could destroy him. We were resigned to waiting for God to take his life."

Then, in January this year, there was a revolution in Tunisia, which borders Libya to the west. And then the turmoil in Egypt, to the east. The despotic leaders of both countries were toppled by people power. Libyans were inspired, especially the youth, but still they had no idea how they could emulate their Arab neighbours, Alkesa said. Compared to Libya, Egypt and Tunisia had seemed like liberal democracies even before their revolutions. “Despite our dreams, nobody could imagine that this could happen in Libya," he said. "No one. Really, no one."

On 15 February, there was a small protest in Benghazi over the arrest of a lawyer representing victims of a prison massacre. Two days later, a protest had become a city-wide uprising. The ripples reached Misurata. Nothing had happened yet, but people sensed it might. Alkesa's two brothers, who sell gold jewellery, removed all the stock from their shops and brought it home. Something was about to happen.

On my arrival at the port in Misurata on 20 April, I was taken to a girls' school that had been turned into a media centre for local journalists, some of whom accompany the thowar to the front line each day. They post video footage on YouTube, or send it to al-Jazeera, to which every television set in the city appears to be tuned.

At the media centre, I met a 23-year-old man whom I'll call Ahmed Ali. He worked in the graphic arts and he spoke good English. He was one of Misurata's first revolutionaries. He told me that, on 17 February, he and a few dozen other young men, most of them in their early twenties, held a demonstration in support of the people of Benghazi.

They were arrested by the security forces, who beat them before hauling them away. "During interrogation they showed us our Facebook pages, where we had been talking about plans for a protest. They had been watching us even before," Ali told me.

Some of those arrested, including Ali, were held overnight, others for two days. It was the spark that Misurata needed. The editor of a newspaper where Ali sometimes worked announced he would not publish again until all the men were released. On 19 February, some of their families and friends went on to the streets to demand the same. “We were 30 people, and then in a few minutes we were 100. Soon we were 5,000," Ali said. "It was incredible."

The security forces opened fire. The first martyr of the revolution, Khalid Boshahma, was shot dead. For his funeral the next day, tens of thousands of people turned out in the city centre. Tear gas was used. Snipers who had been positioned in nearby buildings began firing in the air. People in the crowd started hugging each other, believing the army had taken their side by refusing to shoot at them. But then the snipers started picking people off. Dozens were shot in the head or chest. None of the protesters had guns - keeping a weapon was prohibited in Libya under Gaddafi - but their rage was enough to shake the army. As demonstrators began setting fire to buildings associated with the regime, state security hastily left Misurata, perhaps having been ordered to, or maybe out of fear. Tension was mounting in Tripoli, and so the government was unable to spare troops to mount a counterattack for two weeks. For many people in Misurata, it was the best fortnight of their lives, Ali told me. But they knew Gaddafi would be back.

Under the guidance of a hastily assembled judicial council, the people of Misurata prepared to defend their city. By looting the local armoury, they had acquired some AK-47s and grenade launchers but most of their weapons were home-made. Young men were instructed to prepare thousands of Molotov cocktails as well as fist-sized bombs known as gelatina, made from TNT.

When Gaddafi's forces finally attacked on 6 March, they met no resistance and were allowed to drive into Tripoli Street, the main boulevard, a few miles long, with its smart shops, coffee houses, banks and office blocks. Then, when the order came, hundreds of young men positioned on the rooftops along the street started hurling their bombs. The thowar joined in with their light weapons. Taken by surprise, the loyalist forces battled
for four hours to fight their way forward, but could not. Many of Gaddafi's soldiers were killed, and the survivors were driven back to the edge of the city.

The next attack, on 19 March, was on a different scale. Troops entered the city from several sides, Russian-made tanks leading the way. This time they forced their way into Tripoli Street. Out of armoured personnel carriers poured many hundreds of snipers, who raced up into Misurata's office buildings and residential apartment blocks.

Other units took over the city's vegetable market, the college of medical technology and the unfinished hospital. The urban conflict had begun: terrifying, old-fashioned war where men fired at each other at close quarters. The daily casualty count rose remorselessly. Ali's maternal uncle was shot in the leg by a sniper. One paternal uncle was killed. Another was kidnapped from his home and has not been seen since.

Like thousands of other men, many of them students or workers in their early twenties, Ali volunteered to join the fight. His father gave him an old hunting rifle that he had kept hidden in the house for years. Others in Ali's unit joked that while Gaddafi's forces were pounding the city with anti-aircraft guns, Ali was fighting back with an anti-duck gun. "We were at the front line, but I never wanted to be right at the front. It was really scary, as we did not have a leader yet and the situation was very confused," Ali told me as we drove around the city one day. "I don't have a strong heart like some of the guys."

Nor was he sustained by faith. "You probably think that I am a Muslim, because of this," he said, pointing to a Quran on his dashboard.

“I did shout Allahu akbar when we fought, but I don't believe in God and that virgins for the martyrs stuff, and neither do many of my friends. We like to listen to music, get drunk on the beach on home-made alcohol. I just can't tell my family how I feel, because my uncle is the head of a mosque."
After a few days at the front, Ali's colleagues suggested he might be more useful working in the media centre. He agreed, and gave his hunting rifle to another member of his unit. Two days later, that man was shot in the stomach. “I never found out where my father's gun went," Ali said.

By the time I arrived in Misurata, the street battle had been raging for weeks. Most of Tripoli Street was controlled by snipers, but Ali agreed to drive me and two other journalists to the side roads that intersected it, where units of thowar were in combat with the snipers.

The car belonged to his brother and was a mess, cigarette boxes, shoes, biscuit wrappers and a few tins of sardines littering the floor. The boot was filled with tins of canned food. Ali slipped a CD titled Alternative Ballads into the car stereo: soft rock for a hard war.

We passed bakeries where men and boys were queuing for rations of bread. Despite the scarcity of goods, supermarkets had kept most of their prices stable. A shop manager told me: "This is a war, not a time to make money."

Cigarettes were the one exception. Rothmans, Ali's brand of choice, had quadrupled in price to ten dinars (about £4). There were thowar checkpoints every few hundred metres, reinforced with huge berms of sand brought from the beach, or large pieces of concrete pipe. At one roadblock, twisted remnants of missiles and shells fired by Gaddafi's soldiers into Misurata had been placed on top of one pipe. Next to it, with an arrow pointing towards the display, was a sign that read, "These are his weapons." Poking out of the pipe was a rake and spade: "These are our weapons."

Closer to the city centre, the tactics used by the thowar in the guerrilla war became evident. Giant shipping containers filled with wet sand and metal filings had been used to block off streets to prevent armoured columns getting through. Petrol-soaked blankets lay on the road, thrown there in the hope they would get caught in the tanks' tracks, allowing a Molotov cocktail or rocket-propelled grenade to set one of them on fire.

Leaving the car, we walked carefully down a side road to the main street, where several destroyed tanks hinted that the strategy had been successful. There had been an almighty battle; all the buildings were pockmarked by bullets. In places whole walls had been blown away. Splinters of glass and chunks of metal littered the street. A mosque had sustained heavy damage. There were burnt-out cars everywhere.

Closer to Tripoli Street, the damage had extended to residential homes, long abandoned by their occupants. Some of the side streets were within sight of the snipers, so Ali drove along new roads that been created by the thowar by punching holes in garden walls.

We were now very close to the vegetable market, where Gaddafi's troops had a base, protected by seven tanks. A group of about 20 fighters was having a breakfast of tuna and bread. They had been slowly clearing Gaddafi soldiers out of the neighbourhood, fighting house-to-house battles.
The leader of the unit was the only one wearing a uniform, which he'd taken from a captured Gaddafi soldier. He was a cartoonist's image of a rebel fighter - muscular, with a trim beard, a knife tucked into his belt at the back. Most thowar commanders had nicknames, but he was a replacement and new to the job; the previous leader had been killed by a sniper the day before. Ali suggested that we call him Mr Smile. He liked it.

He had been working in construction in Malta before the revolution, but had quit his job and taken a boat to Benghazi, where he received three weeks' basic training in light weapons. Now, as the leader of his group in Misurata, Mr Smile had control of a battle wagon that looked like something out of the Mad Max movies. A heavy machine-gun had been fixed on the back of a pick-up. Two giant rectangles of 12-millimetre-thick steel had been welded on to the front and rear of the vehicle. Mr Smile walked quickly towards Tripoli Street, waving his arm for us to join him. Coming to a crossing, he lowered his head and charged across.

“Snipers," he said. With gunfire zipping nearby, we bid Mr Smile goodbye. "Please come back and visit tomorrow," he said.

In this city, the abnormal quickly became normal. After a few nights sleeping on the AstroTurf floor of a basement gymnasium where journalists were put up, I no longer jumped at the rat-a-tat of gunfire, or the explosions or the ambulance sirens that pierced the night. Ordinary people in Misurata, who in January could barely tell the difference between a gunshot and a car backfiring, were - in their own minds at least - aural experts on heavy weapons.

Boom. "That's a Grad." Bang. "That's a mortar." Boom. "A tank shell."

Bang. "Katyusha rocket." Boom. "Nato must be bombing again."

War became normal for children, too. The schools were all closed, and for a while parents kept their children inside, but after a few weeks they were let out again to play. Ali's ten-year-old cousin started a game with his friends where they tried to find a full set of bullet shells, from a 7.62mm AK-47 round to a 50-calibre heavy-machine-gun round. Inevitably, there were accidents. One afternoon, on a visit to a clinic on the western outskirts of Misurata, I saw a 14-year-old boy, Abdishakur. He was sitting in a wheelchair because of his osteoporosis. It looked like he had measles, but in fact his face had been blasted with tiny fragments of shrapnel. His 11-year-old brother, Ibrahim, had even more severe injuries, sustaining damage to both eyes. His father, a local imam, explained what had happened.

“The boys were looking after my sheep when Ibrahim found a bullet still in its shell," he said. "They did not realise it was dangerous. They took it home. Ibrahim was hitting it when it exploded."

Family life had acquired a strange new reality. Neighbourhoods close to Tripoli Street or in other areas controlled by Gaddafi forces quickly emptied out. Families moved in with relatives or friends. If they had nowhere to go,

a stranger might offer up his house, and move his own family in with somebody else. One evening, I visited the home of Mohamed Tag­ouri, a 50-year-old who owned two water tankers. It was a large, well-maintained house with four bedrooms, ideal for Tagouri, his wife and their five children. Now, there were 11 families living in the house, 62 people in all. Tagouri's sister and her three children, all under five, were among them. Her house, near Tripoli Street, was now "junk", Tagouri said. Her husband was dead, killed on the front line a few days earlier. "Every family in Misurata has lost a relative," Tagouri told me as he sat on the floor, drinking coffee. "But we cannot stop resisting. We have to finish the situation. We have no regrets."

Most days, the shelling was not too heavy and he would drive one of his tankers to the desalination plant near the port, which had become the city's main supply after Gaddafi had cut the water mains. He would then sell the water in town, or give it away if someone was low on cash. Many were, as no salaries were being paid and no banks were open, although neighbourhood committees were handing out small sums of money to all families. They were handing out food parcels, too, but Tagouri said they lacked a crucial item. “There is no macaroni in Misurata."

Despite the best efforts of Mr Smile's team and other bands of thowar, the snipers of Tripoli Street were still causing havoc. No target was off limits: not the mosques, which broadcast "Allahu akbar" over and over to give the thowar strength, and not ambulances. Children, too, were seen as fair game.

At the hospital, I saw a ten-year-old boy who had been shot in the head while stepping outside to play with his friends. Such was the fear of snipers that some people had been too terrified to risk fleeing the city centre when the snipers came in. These included 101 orphans housed close to Tripoli Street. After huddling together in the basement of their orphanage for weeks, they had nearly run out of food. The power and water had been cut.

Selima al-Teer was one of two social workers trapped with the children. "My colleague and I were so afraid of snipers, but we decided we had to run to try and find food," she told me. "We took a hammer, ran about 500 metres to a supply store, and broke the door down. We put food in a wheelbarrow and ran back to the orphanage."

They made the journey three times. “Each time we just said to each other: 'May God help us,' and then ran," she said. Eventually, with the help of the thowar, all the children escaped and found refuge in a Quranic school in a safer suburb of the city.

As the days passed, it was clear that the thowar were gaining the upper hand on the snipers. By blocking the streets, they had managed to cut Gaddafi's resupply lines and began clearing buildings along Tripoli Street one by one. To identify the snipers' hideouts, the revolutionaries crept along side roads and then held out small pieces of mirror to look up the street, examining the reflection for the tell-tale puff of smoke whenever a shot was fired. Then they attacked the buildings with their Kalashni­kovs, heavy machine-guns and RPGs. Finally, they sent fighters into the buildings. They worked through the floors, sometimes tossing burning tyres into rooms to smoke out the last of the snipers.

One night, at the media centre, Ali told me that the eight-storey insurance building, the tallest in Misurata, which stood at the very centre of the city at the top of Tripoli Street, had been declared clear. We drove there early the next morning. For the first time the extent of the war here became obvious. Many of the buildings near the insurance tower resembled those of Mogadishu, in Somalia, where bullets have flown freely for 20 years. There were four destroyed tanks. A handful of local people wandered around in a near daze, struggling to grasp what had happened.
With Ali leading the way, we entered the darkened reception area of the insurance building, picking our way up the rubble-strewn stairs. We soon came upon some mattresses where a few snipers had been sleeping, and empty tuna and tomato paste tins. Spent shells lay in heaps on the floor. There was graffiti on the wall, which Ali translated. “If we survive, we are warning you gays and dogs. We will not forgive anybody from Misurata. We will fuck your daughters and your wives."

On the roof of the building, snipers had been sleeping in the elevator maintenance room, mattresses packed tightly together. Outside, there were thousands of spent shells on the terrace, along with several cases that had held anti-tank missile launchers. The roof had a panoramic view of the city and of the epic destruction below. To be up here with a gun was to be a master of downtown Misurata. However, after weeks of starving the snipers of food and ammunition, and hitting the buildings with gunfire, the thowar had cleared all the snipers from Tripoli Street.

And yet the death toll mounted. One day, I saw Mr Smile at the hospital, looking harried. He had lost a few men, he told me. The war had entered a new phase as the revolutionaries tried to push Gaddafi's soldiers out of their bases in the vegetable market and other locations. On the back foot - Gaddafi's minions called it a strategic retreat - the loyalist forces had increased their long-distance shelling of the city.

“Do you think this is over?" asked Hassan Mohamed, a 51-year-old man who was showing me around a destroyed house where 16 of Gaddafi's troops had been killed. He had already lost several family members in the conflict. He expected to lose more. Then he answered his own question: "This is not over. Gaddafi will send more soldiers. He is much bigger than the devil himself."

As the thowar pushed forward, there were terrible battles on the southern and western outskirts of the city. The scale of the missile and mortar attacks by the pro-Gaddafi troops increased, loyalist shells often falling on civilian neighbourhoods, whether intentionally or not. On one night of particularly heavy bombardment, Ali frantically searched the internet for information on the best place to take shelter in a house when bombs were falling. He then took the microphone at Radio Free Libya, which had become the voice of Misurata's revolution, and told people what he had learned.

As the first uncensored medium in the city in 42 years, the station offered an insight into some of the challenges that Libya might face once Gaddafi was gone. People of Ali's father's generation had pushed for Radio Free Libya to adhere to conservative values, with a strong focus on religion. But Ali and his friends, of the generation that had started the revolution and was dying on the front lines, wanted something more progressive. "Look, us young guys don't just know about camels or how to fix a car," he told me. "We have the internet. We know about the world."

I saw Tahar Alkesa in the emergency tent two nights before I left Misurata on 3 May. His stubble had turned into a beard, with patches of grey. He looked even more fatigued than when we had first met. The casualties had not slowed - ten to 20 killed most days and dozens of others injured. We could hear the boom, boom, boom of Grad missiles being launched by Gaddafi's troops in the distance. As they were slowly being pushed back outside the city, government forces had trained much of their attention on the port, determined to cut off Misurata's lifeline. A few days earlier, a small naval team sent by Gaddafi had been intercepted as it laid floating sea-mines outside the harbour.

Inside the hospital, while trying to ascertain the day's casualty figures, I bumped into Suleiman Ibrahim, a prominent businessman in Misurata who had been helping out around the hospital for weeks with Haythem, his younger brother. Haythem had left for Malta that morning on a boat - one of the very few able to enter the harbour in days - to sort out business in China. The men's two younger brothers, twins in their early twenties, were both working for the hospital, one as an ambulance paramedic, the other as a doctor. "This war is disastrous. Misurata has paid a big, big price," Suleiman said.

He was desperate to get his parents out of the country, but his mother had refused to leave unless all her sons did, too. They would not.

I had heard the reason many times from different people: we win, or we die.

Xan Rice is a contributing writer of the New Statesman.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden

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The lost boys: how the white working class got left behind

The gap between poor and middle-class white pupils is widening. What can we do about the educational plight of underprivileged white youngsters?

One pleasant Thursday at 3.20pm, Carl Roberts, the principal of the Malling School in Kent, walks to the front gates. Along with several other members of staff, he makes the same journey every morning and afternoon, greeting pupils as they arrive and leave. “It’s all about modelling positive behaviour for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds,” he explains.

Roberts is an admirable head teacher. Energetic and ambitious, he runs a school that marries warmth with a sense of order. Just outside the gates, he gently admonishes the only boy without his shirt tucked in. The child immediately apologises.

The Malling has thrived during Roberts’s eight years as head. In 2015 it was rated “good” across all of the main areas assessed by Ofsted, the schools standards agency, and “outstanding” for its students’ personal development. In recent years, its overall progress has been in the top third of schools nationally and the attainment gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils is less than half the UK average.

The school is nestled in East Malling, a town that at first glance seems to conform to an idealised view of 1950s England: abundant green spaces and farmland, several busy pubs and a couple of churches. There was an uproar last year when East Malling Cricket Club, which dated back to the 19th century, closed because of a shortage of funds and players – even though there remain three other clubs within four miles of the station. Tonbridge and Malling, the constituency that encompasses the town, is among the safest Conservative seats in the country and ranks above average judging by national indicators for employment, health and well-being.

This is not an obvious place to find students struggling. Yet at the Malling School last year only 30 per cent of pupils got five good GCSEs including English and maths. Of the third of students eligible for free school meals (FSMs) – the national average is one in five – just 17 per cent get five good GCSEs, falling to 15 per cent for boys. Here, almost all of these pupils are white.

These results are indicative of a wider trend. Across England, the white working class performs badly. Overall, just 28 per cent of white children on FSMs get five good GCSEs; the figure drops to 24 per cent when girls are excluded. A white working-class boy is less than half as likely to get five good GCSEs, including the core subjects, as the average student in England, and among white boys the gap between how poor and middle-class pupils do is wider than for any other ethnic background. As Theresa May noted in her first speech as Prime Minister, “If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.” More recently, she signalled her intention to address this and other shortcomings in education through sweeping reforms, including allowing grammar schools to expand. Britain, May said, should be the world’s “great meritocracy”.

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A few hundred metres away from the Malling School lies the East Malling estate known to local people as Clare Park. About one-third of the school’s 700 students live in tower blocks here. Roberts says that, all too often, these pupils “will be worried about their parents, they will be worried about where their next meal is coming from. And suddenly they are no longer worried about passing exams.”

Roberts can relate to this. He grew up in the 1980s on a council estate in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, and his father was unemployed for many of his teenage years. Roberts attended the local comprehensive and, helped by his supportive parents, got the best GCSE grades in his year. He went on to study at the University of Bath.

“My childhood shaped my values, which is why I now work with children from disadvantaged backgrounds, with a view to ensuring they can have the future I was lucky enough to have,” he says. Maximising pupil attendance is central to doing so. On the main school noticeboard, a sign reads: “365 days a year, 190 in school, 175 not in school”. This is designed to stress to pupils how important it is to attend class, but it also serves as an unwitting reminder of the limits of what any school can achieve.

“Schools will see children for six hours a day,” Roberts says. “There’s a lot of other time when children are much more influenced. Until you sort out things like health for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, until you help them overcome the issues with crime, until you help them overcome the issues associated with poverty and lack of employment, schools are never going to be able to close that attainment gap by themselves.”

When pupils arrive at the Malling School at the age of 11, their attainment is already 20 per cent below the national average. Here, as across England, much of the damage to deprived pupils’ prospects is done even before primary school begins. In his or her first years of life, a young child with two highly educated parents will receive 40 minutes a day more parental engagement in playing and reading – 240 hours more per year – than one with two low-educated parents. By the age of five, there is an average 19-month gap in school readiness between the most and least disadvantaged children.

“This is a wider issue that’s actually nothing to do with schools,” Roberts tells me. “If you’re going to tackle [it], you need to do it between the ages of nought and two in the family home. It’s a social issue, not an education issue.” From their early years, poor white boys do particularly badly. At Key Stage 1, the exams taken when children are six or seven, white boys on FSMs already perform worse than any other ethnic group.

The challenge facing disadvantaged students is exacerbated by politicians’ neglect of primary education. Primary-school teachers in the UK are the youngest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development area. In an OECD report in 2012, the UK and Estonia were the only two out of 30 countries surveyed in which class sizes at primary were larger than at secondary level.

“There’s something fundamentally crackers about having a class size of 34 for children aged five and a class size of five for children aged 18,” says Phil Karnavas, the executive principal of the academy trust that runs Canterbury High, another school in Kent with a large proportion of underprivileged white pupils. The earlier in a child’s life money is invested, the further it goes.

Yet deprivation alone cannot explain the struggles of poor white children. Equally disadvantaged pupils from other ethnic groups perform far better. Thirty years ago, researchers divided children in Kingston, Jamaica, into three groups. One group received nutritional supplements; the parents of another group received hour-long weekly coaching sessions in parenting techniques and were encouraged to play with their children and to read and sing to them; the control group received nothing. Those whose parents were encouraged to play with them thrived both at school and in later life and now earn 25 per cent more, on average, than the other sets of children.

Parenting seems to explain some of the differences in results between white children and those of other ethnic groups on FSMs. Studies suggest that ethnic-minority parents often have higher aspirations for their children and are more involved with their education. This leads their children to engage more at school, says Simon Burgess, an economics professor at Bristol University whose speciality is education. More engaged parents can transform a child’s educational prospects. In July, a trial involving 16,000 pupils conducted in England by the Education Endowment Foundation found that children in secondary schools perform better and are absent less often when their parents receive regular text messages alerting them about forthcoming tests.

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Demographics also work against poor white children. According to the Social Market Foundation, where a child grows up now has a greater impact on his or her results in school than in previous generations. Only about 10 per cent of England’s white population lives in London, against 45 per cent of the ethnic minorities. Schools in London have been transformed over two decades with intensive investment and focus from politicians; they are also more likely to have thriving after-school clubs, which are crucial in ensuring that children from disadvantaged areas do not fall behind. There is little selection among state schools in London but, instead, an emphasis on demanding higher standards from all students.

Disadvantaged white children perform better when they are in London but they are more often educated in small towns or rural areas where they can be “invisible”, as Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, warned in June. They can also suffer because they have longer commuting times than children in big cities, making it harder for them to take part in after-school or homework clubs, if their school offers them at all. Meanwhile, local services such as libraries are more difficult to find, especially since the cuts imposed under the government’s austerity programme. And in places such as Kent, the allure of London, which is nearby, can make it even more of a struggle for schools to attract the best teachers.

“As each year goes on, the quality of teachers gets better and better but it becomes harder to recruit teachers,” Roberts says. He is desperate to introduce a homework club after school but lacks the funding.

Throughout the Western world, boys now work less hard at school than girls and get worse results. Across 64 countries that the OECD surveyed last year, boys were less likely than girls to do homework and to read for enjoyment, but were more likely to play computer games and surf the internet, as well as have negative attitudes towards school and turn up late. Girls aged 15 were, on average, a year ahead of their male peers in reading aptitude.

Yet the gender gap is particularly high among the white working class in England. Just 9 per cent of white males on FSMs aged 18 go to university. For every two disadvantaged white boys who go to university, three disadvantaged white girls do: the highest gap between boys and girls on FSMs in any ethnic group.

White working-class boys suffer from a paucity of positive role models. The decreasing numbers of well-educated, working-class men in public life makes poor white boys less willing to work hard at school. “It’s not cool for boys to do well. They have stereotypes to live up to,” a girl at Canterbury High School tells me.

Another factor working against young boys is that most teachers in the UK are female and middle class, says Anna Wright, an educational psychologist. Less than 15 per cent of primary-school teachers in England are male (the figure rises to 37 per cent in secondary school). And poor children are more likely than advantaged children to grow up with only one parent. In nine cases out of ten, children from broken families live mostly with their mother rather than their father, and so have no male role model.

White boys suffer in particular because of the legacy of deindustrialisation and the collapse of secure jobs for life. “The culture of white, Anglo-Saxon, working-class boys is one which has historically led them from the terraces to the factory, the fields or the farm. That doesn’t exist any more,” says Karnavas, of the Canterbury Academy. “If you’re at the bottom end of generational unemployment – not just first-generation, but in some cases second- and third-generation – your assumption will be that you are not going to be employed.”

Karnavas says that when GCSEs come around, teachers are left “firefighting”, attempting to salvage a few decent results from boys facing stiff challenges from birth. This is nothing new: he argues that we could have been having a similar discussion 40 years ago. However, in a globalised world, the consequences of failure at school have become “more dramatic than they may have been in the past”, as a House of Commons education committee report warned two years ago. There is more competition for jobs than ever before. This bodes ill for white working-class boys, who now rank bottom for educational attainment in England. Their position relative both to girls and to other ethnic groups has never been lower. In the job market, poor white boys are left standing at the back of the queue.

The position of white working-class boys is falling. Ethnic minorities continue to soar: since 2005, the GCSE results of black children on FSMs have improved 50 per cent more than those of white children on FSMs. A white British boy on FSMs is now less than half as likely to get five good GCSEs as a Bangladeshi British boy on FSMs.

The gender gap, too, continues to grow. On current trends, a girl born in 2016 will be 75 per cent more likely than a boy to proceed to higher education. For the first time in history, it will become the norm for women to date and marry men with fewer educational qualifications than they have.

Back at the Malling School, Roberts is content as he lingers by the gates. “They’ve all left incredibly happy, having had a very positive day,” he says. Then he pauses, and regrets that many of the children “may not have their own bedroom or their own workspace. They may not even have books in their house.” By the time they return to school tomorrow, many boys at the Malling may have fallen even further behind. 

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 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation