A recent parliamentary report has found that poor white boys and girls do worse in schools than children in other ethnic groups.
How much worse do poor white children do?
The report uses students who received free school meals (FSM children) as an indicator of poverty:
- 32% of FSM white British children get five good GSCEs, compared to…
- 42% of FSM Black Caribbean children
- 62% of FSM Indian children
- 77% of FSM Chinese children
The achievement gap between poor white children and rich white children is much larger than the corresponding gap between poor and rich children from other minority groups, and the gap widens as white children get older.
How has educational performance changed over time?
The achievement rates of poor white kids has actually improved signficantly in the last decade – in 2008 only 15% of white pupils on Free School Meals got 5 good GCSEs, which has now doubled – the problem is that pupils from more affluent backgrounds have also improved, meaning the ‘achievement gap’ has stayed the same for white kids – today 65% of better off white children get 5 good GCSEs compared to only 32% of FSM white children, meaning a and achievement gap of 33%.
This trend is different for ethnic minorities – poor minority children have closed the gap on their wealthier counterparts. For Indian and black students the gap between rich and poor is only 15%, and for Chinese students it is 1.4%.
This has led some to conclude that there must be cultural differences influencing the way poor white British children approach their education.
Do Cultural Differences Explain why White Working Class Underachievement?
The cliche is that the children of immigrant parents are put under greater pressure to study, and the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England suggests some supporting evidence for this view:
White working class boys and girls are more likely to have anti-school attitudes than other minority groups, they play truant less, and they spend less time doing homework – an average of 2.54 evenings a week compared to 3.13 for black African and 3.29 for Indian children.
There is less support for the idea that white working class parents and their children lack aspiration – For a start, 57% of British people identify themselves as working class, while it is only the 12.5% on Free School Meals who are doing very badly at school – so it is more a case of there being pockets of underachievement rather than the whole of the working class underachieving.
There is also evidence that working class children, especially young children, have high ambitions.
Schools (and leadership) Can Make a Difference
There are plenty examples of academies which have been set up in deprived areas which have helped local working class kids get good GCSE results.
In 2003 New Labour launched ‘The London Challenge’ to drive up standards, and invested £80 million in leadership, targeting failing schools – about 80% of schools in London now have ‘outstanding leadership’ according to OFSTED and 50% of children in London on Free School Meals get 5 good GCSEs, irrespective of ethnicity.
The problem is that this initiative might not work outside of London – London has a prosperous economy which makes it easier to attract the best leaders and teachers, and also benefits from the positive impact of immigrant families.
The Geographical Aspect to Underachievement
In 2013 the chief inspector of schools, Michael Wilshaw, identified a geographical shift in educational underachievement – away from big cities and crowded, densely packed neighbourhoods, to deprived coastal towns and rural, less populous parts of the country.
Such towns suffer from fragile, seasonal economies, an inability to attract good staff, a lack of jobs for young people, and scant opportunities for higher education – all of which contributes to a vicious cycle of underachievement, perpetuated further by the ‘brain drain’ – anyone that does get qualifications leaves because there are no opportunities to use them in the local area.
In such areas, simply building swish new academies don’t seem to be enough to improve results – In 2005, the so-called worst performing school in the country, Ramsgate School, was transformed into the new, £30 million Marlowe Academy. SIx years later, it fell into special measures.
Summarised from ‘The Week’, 2nd August 2014.