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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

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game