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Education White working-class boys are not failing school because of a ‘lack of aspiration’

The last 40-years has created an educational apartheid effecting all working-class children, boys and girls and of all ethnicities, in Britain, writes KEVIN OVENDEN

WHITE working-class boys are being left behind at school. And a major reason is that they come from families and communities that are “without a culture of formal education” and lacking in “aspiration.” 

The headline is from two years ago. So is the quote, which is from Tristram Hunt. At the time he was Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, a constituency that typifies much of deindustrialised and impoverished Britain. 

He went on to abandon representing those working-class constituents to take up a lucrative post as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. 

Underachievement of white working-class pupils, boys in particular, has been a recurrent theme for a decade and a half. So have all sorts of mistaken analyses and prescriptions. Unfortunately, Labour shadow education secretary Angela Rayner this week echoed some of those errors. 

She later clarified her remarks, but this is what she had to say in an interview: “I think it’s because as we’ve tried to deal with some of the issues around race and women’s agendas, around tackling some of the discrimination that’s there, it has actually had a negative impact on the food chain for white working [class] boys.

“They have not been able to adapt. Culturally, we are not telling them that they need to learn and they need to aspire.”

That class inequality is the single biggest determinant of educational outcomes is beyond dispute. Nearly half a century on from the educational revolution to create a meritocratic society promised by the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, the British education system remains the most class differentiated in the industrialised world. 

The figures are flattered by considering only the state sector. And that encourages a view of the impact of social class on education and life chances that ignores the wealthiest, leaving comparisons between the middle and working classes. 

When the private schools are factored in, where the 7 per cent of children from the richest families are educated, the effect of social class on educational outcomes is even more extreme. 

The educational apartheid is growing. More of those very few who have done well in the crisis years are sending their children to private schools. State schools across England and Wales, meanwhile face a real-terms cut in funding. 

So much of the commentary on the English education system ignores this reality. But to do so is the equivalent of imagining the key divide in British society as between a nurse (professional) and an “unskilled” building worker. 

It’s not the only distortion. Amid the welter of education statistics, generated by the high-pressure testing and monitoring regime of the last 20 years, few attempt to measure social class directly. 

Most of them use some proxy for class — usually entitlement to free school meals. While that provides some measure of reality, it is far from adequate. Some 13 per cent of school students are poor enough to qualify for free school meals. But around 60 per cent of people say they are working class. 

Education researchers have recently warned that with the rise of precarious work and in-work poverty, free school meals eligibility is no longer even a good measure of absolute poverty in Britain. 

It is not just the poorest one in eight children who face educational disadvantage. It is all working-class children in Britain — boys and girls and of all ethnicities. 

Unless we start from that fundamental reality we cannot understand the statistics about sub-groups, such as “white working class boys,” and the often highly ideological claims about them. 

The reality is that on the narrow measure of “five good GCSEs” all categories improved up until recently. That includes white working-class boys eligible for free school meals. They went up from 15 per cent to 32 per cent “good GCSEs.” It’s just that among white students not on free school meals the improvement was greater. 

The gap between poor minority ethnic students and those “better off” narrowed. But it remained persistently high for poor white students. 

The overall improvement is a testament to teachers who have had to battle with endless tinkering with the system by a revolving door of education secretaries. It has led to the “neoliberalisation” of education, with market mechanisms eating into the comprehensive system that had proved so effective. 

And now there is an unprecedented funding crisis and an exodus from the teaching profession. 

But why the more starkly pronounced gap for children from white working-class families?

The serious research is ongoing and mixed. But there are strong and common conclusions. And none of them supports the idea that the problem is either a cultural “lack of aspiration” or that white boys have been the victims of efforts to address the particular disadvantage faced by minority ethnic students and girls. 

White working-class children start school with lower educational measures than the better off. The Sure Start scheme did something to improve that. The Tory government is destroying it. 

But those children do have “aspirations” in life — hopes and dreams, and they advance in primary schools at the same rate as others. If there were a “culture without aspiration” then its impact would be apparent then. It is not. 

The second widely accepted factor is that, as a report by the Sutton Trust found, it is not only family deprivation that is a problem. It is significantly compounded by living in an area, town or city that is also marked by deprivation. 

Former Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw noted that poverty in Britain is not synonymous with “inner city areas.” It is now acute in once reasonably off coastal, rural and former industrial towns. 

These are now places of generational unemployment, low pay and shattered dreams. The Thatcher-Blair promise of turning somewhere like the banks of the River Don in Yorkshire into a silicon valley is today a bitter joke. 

A generation ago it was plausible to say that if you got on in school or went to university you would get on in life. Not now. And predictably the trebling of tuition fees led almost immediately to a fall in the poorest students applying for university.

The relatively better achievement of poor ethnic minority children is almost wholly accounted for by the big cities — London especially. The capital is bitterly class divided. But it is possible to hold out some hope that if you work hard at school you will get a decent job in what remains one of the centres of the world economy. 

And white working-class boys do better in London than elsewhere.

That is not so for large numbers of young people in somewhere like Hartlepool. 

Additionally, despite the many harebrained schemes there was some effort put into improving education in London. In much of the country the result has been only profiteering academies. As the National Education Union says, they tend to “improve results” by selecting for the already better-performing students. 

Rarely noted is the fact that the more truly comprehensive the social intake of a school, the better all students — boys and girls, all classes and ethnicities — do. And the gaps between them are narrower. 

There is a complex set of reasons for differential educational outcomes. But they tend to point back to the structure of our society and of the imposition of those free-market nostrums on the education system. Damage that has been going on for 40 years. 

They do not point to a failure of aspiration, nor to some zero-sum game in which we ignore the vast concentration of wealth at the top and imagine that an advance for one group of working people must come at the expense of another. 

And BAME school leavers find quickly enough that in most of the labour market they face persistent racial discrimination. Girls, meanwhile, have a lifetime of the gender pay gap to look forward to. 

To see the problem as some antagonism between white and ethnic minority students, or boys and girls, is to imagine that by cutting the budget from Hackney schools it will improve those in Hartlepool. It will not. The issue is attacking the enormous privilege at Harrow School and its grasp upon the whole society. 

One of the most compelling features of the Labour manifesto last year launched by Jeremy Corbyn was the commitment to a National Education Service. 

The echo of the National Health Service, which he also promised to “renationalise” is evident. 

But perhaps we can do even better than that. A revolution in education. That means a fundamental attack on class privilege and a point blank refusal to play the game of the last 30 years of pitching the have-little against the have-less. 

We need good and useful jobs. But education should be a right, not a privilege, nor merely an instrument for economic activity. 

Two of the interventions by Jeremy Corbyn last year that I think most captured people’s imaginations were these.

Every child should have the broadest curriculum and be able to learn a musical instrument. And there will be no more forgotten towns and cities. 

Those are the principles that ought to guide a radical education policy also, in the interests of all children, above all of the working class — girls and boys, black and white.


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