Too ‘UNFASHIONABLE’ to help? Poor white children fall behind in UK schools and may suffer biggest Covid-19 hit, experts warn MPs

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Poor white children fall behind in UK schools and may suffer biggest Covid-19 hit, experts warn MPs | image Ken Loach film Kes.

A left-behind generation of white kids will not bode well for an inclusive Society

There have always been concerns about children from poor and marginalised communities underperforming at school. While conventional wisdom held that ethnic minorities were at a disadvantage, it is now white, working-class kids who are falling behind.

Study finds poorer white children’s attainment has stayed stubbornly low despite improvements among other groups

White children from poor or working-class backgrounds are falling behind their peers from other ethnic groups in educational achievement, and they face the worst prospects for economic advancement, experts told UK lawmakers.
Efforts to raise educational standards tend to be aimed at minority students, dimming prospects for white children to catch up, according to reports sent to a parliamentary committee that is investigating issues faced by disadvantaged groups.

The Centre for Education and Youth is a ‘think and action-tank’. who have expertise in relation to disadvantaged pupils’ educational outcomes. For instance, we have undertaken research projects with King’s College London to understand why white working-class boys and Gypsy Roma Traveller young people are underrepresented in higher education.

They have also worked with the Greater London Authority to explore how best to support Black Caribbean and Free School Meal Eligible White Boys in education.

This means we have a deep understanding of the educational issues facing boys from disadvantaged backgrounds and the challenges that need to be overcome.

Society should ensure all children and young people receive the support they need to make a fulfilling transition to adulthood.

Mixed-methods research on marginalised young people and our backgrounds as teachers and youth workers means that they are particularly well placed to provide the education select committee with evidence on left-behind white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The struggles of poor white children tend to be neglected because they are seen as “unfashionable” and “not worthy” of helping, the UK Daily Mail quoted Oxford University, Professor Peter Edwards, as saying. Raising such concerns is “taboo” in academia, he said.

Researchers found that working-class whites are also set to be hit hardest by the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, and Exeter University Professor Lee Elliot Major said they face “permanent educational and economic scarring.”

While poverty continues to play a major role in educational outcomes, attainment among pupils from Bangladeshi, black African and Chinese backgrounds who are on free school meals (FSM) has improved dramatically in the past decade.

Nearly two thirds of FSM-eligible pupils at GCSE level are white British and their results are among the lowest, especially for boys.

White children whose families are poor enough for them to receive free school meals are underperforming their peers academically and have only a one-in-10 chance of attending university, according to the UK’s Center for Education and Youth. By comparison, in the same low-income group, three in 10 children of Black Caribbean ethnic backgrounds and five in 10 of Bangladeshi ethnicity make it to college. Nearly seven in 10 ethnic Chinese children who receive free school meals attend university.

Among poorer white children, meanwhile, just a quarter of boys (24%) and a third of girls (32%) achieve the benchmark of five good GCSEs, leading to calls for schools to target those pupils at risk of falling behind.

Attainment at GCSE among disadvantaged pupils from Bangladeshi, black African and Chinese pupils has improved by more than 20 percentage points since 2006, while the national average has improved by 13.5 percentage points. Performance among white working-class children over the same period has remained stubbornly low.

“Several explanations have been proposed for this shift,” says the report. “The popularity of private tutors among ethnic groups and the latter’s concentration in large urban areas such as London (where average results have improved in recent years, with some suggesting that ethnic minorities have driven this progress), the impact of supplementary schools, and differing levels of parental aspiration, among others.”

Despite the plight of white students, government and private education programs target large cities with ethnically diverse populations and, in the case of some charities, require that beneficiaries be non-white.

Working-class white boys, in particular, are at the bottom of the heap when it comes to educational assistance. Neglect of those children not only means their potential will go untapped but also will have a destabilizing effect on “the very fabric of the country.”

Three years ago the Sutton Trust called for targeted improvement programmes aimed at pupils at particular risk of falling behind, including white working-class children. It is also urged the government to introduce incentives to attract the best teachers into the most deprived schools; “enrichment vouchers” for disadvantaged ethnic groups to provide opportunities to supplement core lessons; and a dedicated fund to support highly able pupils from less advantaged backgrounds who fall behind.

When politicians say culture needs to change, what they mean is that change is necessary but they are not actually going to do anything to bring it about. In truth, cultural change is not in the gift of politicians. Policy change is.

“Harnessing that same will to learn that we see in many ethnic minority groups in white working-class communities should be a part of the solution to the low attainment of many boys and girls. We need a more concerted effort with white working-class boys, in particular.”

The underachievement of boys – and the poorest boys in particular – has been recognised and talked about since the late 1980s. Politicians from all sides have furrowed their brows, declared it to be a terrible problem and then done literally nothing about it. A freedom of information request to the Department of Education in 2015 asked what policies or initiatives the department had undertaken to specifically address the academic underachievement of boys. The short answer was this:

“The Department of Education does not fund any initiatives that specifically focus on the underachievement of boys.”

What is worse, not one mainstream party in the UK has adopted a single policy to address the issue. There has never been a single proposal in any party manifesto.

On this, I find I have to agree with Paul Mason “It was not always the case that ethnic-minority children did better than white English ones, but the reason why some of them do now is pretty obvious: their problem – racism – is defined; their language skills tend to be well-developed; their culture is one of aspiration; they have social and religious institutions that promote cohesion.

By contrast, the problem of poor white kids cannot be properly defined: not in the language of freemarket capitalism, at least. It has nothing to do with being “overtaken” – still less with any reverse discrimination against them.

It is simply that a specific part of their culture has been destroyed. A culture based on work, rising wages, strict unspoken rules against disorder, obligatory collaboration and mutual aid. It all had to go, and the means of destroying it was the long-term unemployment millions of people had to suffer in the 1980s.

Thatcherite culture celebrated the chancers and the semi-crooks: people who had been shunned in the solidaristic working-class towns became the economic heroes of the new model – the security-firm operators, the contract-cleaning slave drivers; the outright hoodlums operating in plain sight as the cops concentrated on breaking strikes.

We thought we could ride the punches. But the great discovery of the modern right was that you only have to do this once. Suppress paternalism and solidarity for one generation and you create multigenerational ignorance and poverty. Convert Labour to the idea that wealth will trickle down, and to attacks on the undeserving poor, and you remove the means even to acknowledge the problem, let alone solve it.

Thatcherism didn’t just crush unions: alone that would not have been enough to produce this spectacular mismatch between aspiration and delivery in the education system. It crushed a story.”

Article Paul Knaggs

Government papers

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