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20 August 2015updated 04 Sep 2021 12:52pm

Why do white working-class kids do so badly?

Eighty-three per cent of Chinese pupils on free school meals achieve five Cs or above in their GCSEs, yet just 35 per cent of white students do. Why?

By Tim Wigmore

When Liz Kendall – remember her? – raised the issue of white working-class underperformance in schools at the start of the Labour leadership election, it provoked some handwringing about singling one ethnic group out. But Kendall was right to do so: the performance of the white working-class in England’s schools is abject. While the performance of ethnic minorities in schools has improved markedly in the last decade, attainment by the white working-class has remained dire.

Eighty-three per cent of Chinese pupils on free school meals achieve five Cs or above in their GCSEs, yet just 35 per cent of white students on FSMs in England do – comfortably the lowest of any ethnic group. “There are unacceptable attainment gaps at every stage of children’s development,” says Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust. “These now affect the white working class more than any other community.” Any serious strategy to raise standards in England’s schools must have the white working-class at its core, or else ignore the most systematic failure in schools today.

When Labour gained power in 1997, the party understandably prioritised lifting up the quality of London’s schools, which were the worst in the country. Every educational initiative – from academies, to the London Challenge and Teach First – focused on transforming schools in the capital, where there are a far higher percentage of ethnic minorities than elsewhere in the country. 

Coastal and rural communities, especially on the East coast, have been comparatively neglected. White working-class pupils have suffered. “We made the same mistake many implementations make – starting in the place where it’s easiest to implement things, the big cities, and taking a while to get to the areas which really need it,” admits Brett Wigdortz, the chief executive of Teach First. “A lot of great interventions start in London, go to big cities and then go to the East coast 10 or 15 years later.” Only in September, 13 years after it was launched, will Teach First be expanded into Great Yarmouth and Thanet. Rural and coastal areas also have deeper problems. Many London schools operate thriving after-schools clubs but, as Les Ebdon, the Director of the Office for Fair Access, notes, many pupils in rural areas live too far away from their schools to attend these; broadband provision is often dire, too.

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There are also deeper cultural obstacles that many white working-class children have to contend with. Stoke-on-Trent, where previous generations had guaranteed jobs working in steel, coal or the potteries, is a case in point. While those three industries have collapsed, they haven’t been replaced by a new focus on education. The city is “without a culture of formal education”, Tristram Hunt, the Honourable Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central and the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, recently told me. Changing this requires “parents, who themselves often have poor experiences of education, stressing the importance of education and supporting teachers and head teachers”.

A lack of ambition from white working-class children – and, perhaps more importantly, their parents – is a further problem. That white children on free school meals do considerably worse than those from other ethnic groups “seems to be quite closely connected with aspiration, which leads onto achievement,” Ebdon believes. “Many people came to this country to make a better future for their children, and they realised the way you get a better future is through education and so they pushed their youngsters and aspired strongly for them.”

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The challenge is how to inculcate a similar drive in white working-class children in rural areas. London suggests that it is possible: white children perform better here than the national average, even though they are more likely to be on free school meals. This not only speaks of the impact of the initiatives focused on London, but also suggests that the work ethic of children from ethnic minorities is absorbed by disadvantaged white children too.

The pull of living in the capital makes it particularly attractive to the best young teachers. This could be tackled in two ways. While still helping schools in London most in need, Teach First could reduce its emphasis on the capital: 40 per cent of its teachers are sent to London. Teachers could also be offered perks and higher salaries to teach in areas with greater need.

Recognition of how early in life a cycle of white working-class underachievement sets in is also needed. “The gap exists at age five and widens as children get older,” noted an Education Committee report on Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children last year. This speaks of a lack of regard for primary education. Apart from Estonia, the UK was the only one of 30 countries surveyed by the OECD in which class sizes at primary school are greater than those at secondary school. Primary school teachers in the UK are also the youngest in the OECD. Too many children, especially white working-class ones, are let down in primary school. By secondary school it is often too late.

For too long politicians have reacted to the appalling attainment of the white working-class with inertia. They cannot do so  any longer. “The consequences for young people of low educational achievement are now more dramatic than they may have been in the past,” the Education Committee warned last year. Failure to cultivate skills among the white working-class also feeds into wider disillusionment; it is no coincidence that there is a startling correlation between where schools are worst and where support for Ukip is greatest, as parents come to regard the poor quality of state education as emblematic of neglect by the political class. If nothing else, perhaps the self-interest of politicians will force them to treat the failure of the white working-class in schools with the attention it deserves.