Does white privilege exist? For many white working-class pupils, in particular boys, it doesn't. For years, it has been clear that these youngsters are struggling. Now for poor white kids, things are arguably worse than ever.
Among poor white children, only 24 per cent of boys and 32 per cent of girls achieve five good GCSEs. As many as 73 per cent of children at Pupil Referral Units are white British. Only 13 per cent of white British boys on free school meals go to university. The attainment gap between white pupils who qualify for free school meals and more affluent white children is the widest of any ethnic group.
These dire statistics might sound horrifying, yet they are hardly surprising; the warnings have been there for a while. Back in 2008, a report found 'disproportionately low attainment amongst white British pupils'. A 2013 Ofsted report concluded that white British boys have 'stubbornly low outcomes that show little sign of improvement.' There was a parliamentary hearing on their underperformance in February 2014; a lengthy investigation by King’s College London in 2015; and another similar report by the Sutton Trust in 2016.
We have sat on this data for years. But is that about to change? Yesterday morning a cross-party education committee set up by the House of Commons gave its first oral evidence session on some of these issues. The aim of the inquiry is to 'examine the extent of the achievement gap between this group and their peers alongside a consideration of the effects of the Covid-19 outbreak.'
The potential reasons behind these failings are varied and complicated: low aspirations; under-resourced schools; lack of parental engagement; inexperienced teachers and high staff turnover; unstable family dynamics; low literacy rates; post-industrial generational unemployment; funding models targeted at large cities with more ethnically diverse populations; few role models and mentors. Lynsey Hanley’s biography Respectable: The Experience of Class condenses the problem into three key factors: lack of respect, lack of hope, and lack of trying.
While it is easy to understand why we are in this situation, it is harder to comprehend why we have not done anything about it so far. A Freedom of Information request in 2015 elicited this short response from the Department of Education: '[We] do not fund any initiatives that specifically focus on the underachievement of boys.' The answer to the question – why on earth not? – is a troubling one.
Mary Curnock Cook, the former head of UCAS, said that this issue 'always got a few headlines, [but] where it never got any traction at all was in policy-making in government….the subject of white boys is just too difficult for them.'
It might be too difficult for policymakers because they fear accusations of racism and sexism, but it’s important to remember that education is not a zero-sum game. White working-class boys are underachieving in spite of the recent rapid progress of their female and BAME equivalents, not because of it. It might not be ‘fashionable’, but policymakers aren’t supposed to care about fashion, they are supposed to care about facts.
We have ignored this social injustice for far too long. As Lee Elliott Major, professor of social mobility at Exeter university says, 'these pupils will suffer most from the effects of the pandemic' and potentially 'face permanent economic and educational scarring.'
So what can be done to help these children before it is too late? There are many options available which would improve outcomes: ensuring free childcare provision; adequately funding Family Hubs and Children’s Centres; making sure Pupil Premium is spent effectively; and offering better careers advice and support, particularly around vocational options.
Strategies that target the early years would be particularly effective, given that 40 per cent of the overall attainment gap between disadvantaged 16-year-olds and their peers has already appeared by the time a child is five. The government’s £1billion catch-up fund to help recover some of the lost learning during lockdown could also be prioritised for these disadvantaged groups.
None of this can happen though unless we get rid of the stigma over this issue in the first place. Forget culture wars; this is about children who need support, children who should have been prioritised but instead have been ignored because of pedantic politics and wokeness. Providing for one demographic group does not mean neglecting another, and we hardly need more proof that this is an urgent and pressing issue.
The fact that last year Dulwich College and Winchester turned down a bequest of more than £1million because their donor wanted the money ring-fenced for scholarships for white working-class boys proves how far our insecurities and sensitivities have blinded us to what truly matters. The schools appeared to be more worried about tiptoeing around taboos than they were about offering talented pupils an opportunity that would transform their lives.
This new education committee should not be just a data-collecting exercise, but a way to realign and reassess our priorities for the future. Education secretary Gavin Williamson told Tory conference last week that the disproportionately low number of white working-class boys going to university was a 'disgrace'. He acknowledged that 'talent is evenly distributed across the country, but opportunity is not.' It’s time for him to put his money where his mouth is. If he doesn't, a new generation of lost boys will emerge.