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.
This article appears in the 24 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash