Leader: Our educational system is failing working class boys

What the Sutton Trust calls “Missing Talent” is especially prevalent among the white working class, whose educational performance is worse than any other demographic group’s.

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The educational underachievement of the most disadvantaged children in England is a disgrace. A new report from the Sutton Trust, published on 3 June, makes clear the scale of the problem: children who grow up in poor homes have less than half as much chance of getting top GCSE grades as those from other families. Boys from disadvantaged backgrounds perform especially poorly, including many of those who thrive at primary school but later flounder. Indeed, over a third of boys on free school meals who are in the top 10 per cent of performers at the age of 11 have, by the age of 16, fallen outside the top 25 per cent. Something is going very wrong – and needs urgently to be addressed.

What the Sutton Trust calls “Missing Talent” is especially prevalent among the white working class, whose educational performance is worse than any other demographic group’s. While just 28.3 per cent of white boys eligible for free school meals earn five good GCSEs, at least 39 per cent of mixed-race, Asian and black boys do so. This is an indictment of the support that struggling white, working-class pupils receive. The situation is particularly bad in the north and the Midlands, where eight out of the ten worst-performing local authorities identified by the Sutton Trust are located.

Meanwhile, state education in London provides an astounding contrast. It is easily forgotten just how poor many of the capital’s schools were when Labour came to power in 1997. But today state schools in London comfortably outperform those in the rest of England. The growing economic power of the capital has helped, of course. So, too, has immigration, which not only brings children from highly motivated families into the system but also helps to create a culture of hard work and ambition: white British children in London state schools are outperforming those in the rest of England.

London benefited from politicians’ recognition of how bad its schools had become. Nearly every initiative designed to enhance state education since 1997 – including the introduction of the academies programme; Teach First, which fast-tracks talented graduates into difficult or failing schools; and the London Challenge, which concentrated on raising the quality of leadership – has given the capital top priority at the expense of the rest of the country. Lamentably, it is only this September that Teach First will expand into some rural and coastal areas such as Great Yarmouth. Small wonder that Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools for England and head of Oftsed, warned in 2013 that underperforming pupils in many market and seaside towns were “invisible”.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the success of London’s schools is to put ideology and dogma aside: what matters is what works. However, even more vital than pragmatism is to enhance the prestige of teachers, so that the profession can attract the most capable graduates. In Finland, which records the best school results of any country in Europe, teacher training colleges admit only those whose exam results are in the top third. As things stand and as the Sutton Trust reminds us, the correlation between poverty, geography and educational underachievement diminishes us all.