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10 June 2015

We need to talk about inequality, even when it makes us feel uncomfortable

The failure of state education in so many white working class areas is utterly unacceptable. Not to talk about it or to have any answers for how we overcome it, equally so. 

By wes Streeting

Recently, Liz Kendall gave a speech in her Leicester constituency on educational inequality. The difference in life chances between kids by the time they arrive at school is vast and should be a national outrage.

And yet one line in the speech – a handful of words in a 2,400 word speech – managed to send some in the media and parts of the Labour Party into a tailspin. Those words were “white working class”. The speech wasn’t about one section of society – far from it. Indeed, Liz also said that “fulfilling your potential should never be dependent on where you’re born, what your parents did, your gender, sexuality or the colour of skin.”

Yet if we cannot even mention a fact – supported by huge swathes of evidence – that there is a serious problem with white working class achievement in our schools then we will continue to fail them.

Just the other week, I read that ‘Bright but disadvantaged children are being failed by English state education – especially the white working-class’. That was in the New Statesman.

Back in 2010, we were told that ‘Action to improve white working class pupil achievement is vital’. That was from the NUT.

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‘White working class underachievement in education is real and persistent… white children who are eligible for free school meals are consistently the lowest performing group in the country’ was the conclusion drawn by the House of Commons Education Select Committee in June 2014. Last year, a mere 31% of white children eligible for free school meals achieved the expected level of 5 GCSEs at grade A*- C, including Maths and English.

I represent a diverse constituency on the London/Essex border. Many families move to Ilford North because of our excellent schools and their reputation for academic achievement. And yet I see it for myself, as someone who grew up on a council estate and was one of the few kids on free school meals to make it to Cambridge University, that too many white working class pupils in my patch are failing to realise their potential.

If you wanted an explanation of the issue in a single graph, it’s this one:

Of course, what that graph also shows is that there are still huge challenges facing other groups too. Young people from Caribbean communities are less likely to get decent GCSE grades – regardless of whether they’re on Free School Meals – than their peers. That compounds the other iniquities that black young people experience, especially young men.

Back in 2002, Diane Abbott gave a powerful warning over the performance of black boys in our schools, and led a charge to address it that made the political establishment sit up and listen. Since then there have been some signs of improvement. That fight continues, but we can learn from it as we seek to tackle educational failure amongst other groups – including white working class kids.

The failure of state education in so many white working class areas is utterly unacceptable. Not to talk about it or to have any answers for how we overcome it, equally so. Nor should we be tackling educational inequality affecting white working class kids at the expense of tackling the disadvantage facing young people from other backgrounds. This was a pretty self-evident point for anyone who read beyond one line in Liz Kendall’s speech.

All too often politicians duck issues for fear of the connotations attached to the subject. Leadership, however, means confronting those issues. We can’t address serious policy failings in our country by refusing to accept they exist – and that means we have to accept that Britain has a problem with educating kids from white working class communities and doing something about it. 

Wes Streeting is MP for Ilford North