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Analysis of The Government’s 2014 Report on White Working Class Underachievement

White working class underachievement is persistent and real, but contemporary government reports are potentially biased in that they might fail to take seriously critical (left wing) analysis of issues such as this. Students might like to read the summary below, and check out the actual full report and consider whether or not this report provides a full picture of the causes of white working class underachievement, or whether its agenda is limited by ideological (neoliberal) bias…

A summary and sociological analysis of a recent government report on white working class underachievement….

Summary of the Government Report on White Working Class Underachievement

The summary below is taken from the House of Commons
Education Committee on Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children, First Report of Session 2014-15

educational underachievement sociology government reportThe possible causes and contributors to white working class underachievement are many and various, and include matters in home life, school practices, and wider social policies. We received evidence on a broad range of policy areas and relevant factors, many of which fell outside education policy. Our report holds a mirror up to the situation—it does not attempt to solve the problem on its own—but it is clear that schools can and do make a dramatic difference to the educational outcomes of poor children. Twice the proportion of poor children attending an outstanding school will leave with five good GCSEs when compared with the lowest rated schools, whereas the proportion of non-FSM children achieving this benchmark in outstanding schools is only 1.5 times greater than in those rated as inadequate. Ofsted’s inspection focus on performance gaps for deprived groups will encourage schools to concentrate on this issue, including those that aspire to an “outstanding” rating.

Our inquiry focused on pupils who are eligible for free school meals, but there are many pupils just outside this group whose performance is low, and it is known that economic deprivation has an impact on educational performance at all levels. Data from a range of Departments could be combined in future to develop a more rounded indicator of a child’s socio-economic status and used to allocate funding for disadvantaged groups. The improvement in outcomes for other ethnic groups over time gives us cause for optimism that improvements can be made, but not through a national strategy or a prescribed set of sub-regional challenges. Schools need to work together to tackle problems in their local context, and need to be encouraged to share good practice in relevant areas, such as providing space to complete homework and reducing absence from school.

Policies such as the pupil premium and the introduction of the Progress 8 metric are to be welcomed as measures that could improve the performance of white working class children and increase attention on this group. Alongside the EEF “toolkit”, our recommendation for an annual report from Ofsted on how the pupil premium is being used will ensure that suitable information on how this extra funding is being used.

An updated good practice report from Ofsted on tackling white working class underachievement would also help schools to focus their efforts. Meanwhile, further work is needed on the role of parental engagement, particularly in the context of early years.

The Government should also maintain its focus on getting the best teachers to the areas that need them most, and should give more thought to the incentives that drive where teachers choose to work. Within a school, the best teachers should be deployed where they can make most difference. Schools face a battle for resources and talent, and those serving poor white communities need a better chance of winning. White working class children can achieve in education, and the Government must take these steps to ensure that that they do.

Analysis

While the summary recognises that a number of factors contribute to white working class underachievement, including policy and home based factors it basically (obviously?) ends up concluding that the problem can be fixed by individual teachers and schools within the existing system, without making any major changes to the current system.

The evidence cited to support this view is that ethnic minorities from poor backgrounds do not significantly underachieve compared to their richer peers (the message being ‘if they can do it, so can poor white kids); and the fact that ‘schools can and do make a difference’.

The suggested strategies to improve the standards of white working class kids include:

  • Schools dealing with the issues in their local contexts (fair enough I guess)
  • Schools ‘sharing best practice’
  • Getting the best teachers to where they are needed the most – which mainly means coastal areas (although there is no mention of how to do this)
  • Yet more monitoring by OFSTED (into how the Pupil Premium is being used)
  • Doing more research on how to engage parents, implying that they are somehow to blame.

What is NOT considered is the broader social and cultural inequalities in the UK and the possibility (some may say FACT) that the education system is actually run by and for the middle classes and white working class kids just see it as ‘not for them’, as this research by Garth Sthal suggests:

(source: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/neoliberal-prerogatives-and-contextualizing-white-working-class-underachievement/)

Garth Stahl worked as an educator in predominantly white working-class and boy heavy schools in London for nine years and recently spent one year researching the educational experiences and aspirations of 23 white working-class boys in order to better understand how they came to understand the educational provision provided to them.

He argues that white working-class underachievement is symptomatic of a much larger social, cultural and economic inequality, which plagues the British education system, in which pupils’ performance has an extraordinarily strong positive association with social class.

A summary of his research is as follows:

  1. Schools negatively label white working class boys as ‘lacking in aspiration’ and write many of them off before the enter the school building, putting them in lowest sets and paying less attention to them, as they believe they have no chance of achieving 5 A-Cs.
  2. White working class boys are well aware of how they are negatively labelled in educational environments, and the poor quality of education they are receiving, and also the constraints of their social class position.
  3. In response, they often excluded themselves from the school’s neoliberal “aspirations” agenda of university entrance and social mobility
  4. They preferred employment that was ‘respectable working-class’ such as trade work which they considered for “the likes of them” and where they would feel comfortable.
  5. The boys were also haunted by a fear of academic failure – they realised that they would be blamed for their failure and thus be made to feel a sense of shame because it (Even though deep down they knew they had less chance of succeeding than their middle class peers).
  6. On the other hand, they also feared academic success. Good exam results would mean pressure to further their education, and to enter into areas that felt foreign, such as university, where they potentially would be made to feel uncomfortable.

Application and Relevance

Taken together these two items show how research which implies that we need system-level change will not be considered in government education policy – and serves to show up the bias and limitations of government reports which feed into social policy.

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Education in America

Key statistics on education in America, and the key features of the American education system including primary, secondary and tertiary education, the national curriculum and the examinations system.

This is part of a new set of posts designed to help students assess how developed countries are in terms of some of the key indicators of development such as economics, inequality, education, health, gender equality, peacefulness and so on…

America is an interesting case study because it is the wealthiest nation on earth in terms of total GDP, and very wealthy in terms of GNI per capita, but these high levels of wealth and income do not translate into social development for all.

This is a summary post at first, to be expanded on later…

America: Key Education Statistics

Core education statistics taken from World Bank data 

  • Pre-primary net enrollment rate – 63.8%
  • Primary enrollment rate – 93.1%
  • Secondary enrollment rate -90.5%
  • Tertiary enrollment rate – 86.7%
  • Out of school children – 1.5 million !
  • Government expenditure on education as percentage of GDP – 5.2%.

Education stats taken from other sources

Pisa Rankings (2015)

  • Science – 24th
  • Maths – 25th
  • Reading – 39th

Key Features of the American Education System 

Kindergarten, Primary, and Secondary Education in America

Schooling is compulsory for all children in the United States, with every child being entitled to a minimum of 12 years publicly funded education. Some states add on an additional year of pre-primary ‘Kindergarten) education, and the school leaving age also varies from state to state: some states allow students to leave school between 14–17 with parental permission, other states require students to stay in school until age 18.

American education

Children attend primary school from the ages of 6-11 where they are taught basic subjects, typically in a diverse, mixed ability class, with one teacher.

Children attend secondary school from the ages of 12-17, which is subdivided into junior high-school and senior high school. Here students are typically taught in different classes for different subjects and are allowed some degree of freedom to choose ‘elective subjects’.

While there is no overarching national curriculum, education in secondary school generally consists of 2–4 years of each of science, Mathematics, English, Social sciences, Physical education; some years of a foreign language and some form of art education, as well as the usual PSHE.

Many high schools provide ‘Honors classes’ for the more academically able during the 11th or 12th grade of high school and/ or offer the International Baccalaureate (IB).

The National (And Hidden) Curriculum

While there isn’t a national curriculum in America, there are some very detailed national common core standards in subject areas such as English and Maths – so why schools aren’t told what books they should actually get students to read, or how to teach maths, the standards dictate that they must spend a certain amount of time teaching these and other subjects…. When I say detailed, they really are – the standards on English stretch to over 60 pages.

In terms of the Hidden Curriculum – 50% of schools require their students to pledge allegiance as part of their daily routine, which I guess is an attempt to enforce a sense of national identity.

If you’re American I imagine this gives you a warm glowing feeling, if you’re not you’re probably fluctuating between an uncomfortable feeling of nausea and wondering WTF this has got to do with ‘liberty’. NB note the doting parents looking on, and that YouTube is full of this sort of thing.  

 

Differential Educational Achievement in America

The education system clearly doesn’t work for everyone equally – around 3 million students between the ages of 16 and 24 drop out of high school each year, a rate of 6.6 percent as of 2012.

Unsurprisingly, there are considerable ethnic differences in educational achievement in America, as this data from 2009 suggests:

ethnicity education America

 

Sources (those not included in links above!)

Wikipedia entry – Education in the United States

An overview of American education

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The Moral Panic About Boys ‘Underachievement’ in Education

Researchers in the Gender and Education Association take a critical feminist approach to the issue of boys’ underachievement.

moral panic boys education.png
A news headline from 2016 – Is this just a ‘moral panic’?

 

They argue that boys’ underachievement has long been a feature of the UK education system, but it has recently become a ‘moral panic’ (In 1996, the UK’s Chief Inspector of Schools called it “one of the most disturbing problems facing the education system”) which has arisen because of the following three reasons:

  • First, deindustrialisation in the UK has led to the decline of traditional manufacturing jobs, and so there are fewer jobs available for those with few or no educational qualifications. As a result, young working-class men who leave school with relatively few qualifications have now become a ‘problem’.
  • Second, feminism has had an impact on girls’ education and career aspirations, and so women are advancing into technical and professional jobs which were previously male dominated.
  • Third, examination performance is increasingly central to policy, with Britain ranked against other countries, and failing students matter more.

They argue that focusing on boys’ underachievement is a problem because:

  • It ignores other differences between young people, particularly of ethnicity and class, which actually have a far greater affect on results.
  • Since girls are on top, there’s no space to tackle the problems that girls have in education. including teenage pregnancy, sexualisation and bullying in friendship groups.

Finally, they point out that some of the strategies adopted to deal with the ‘problem with boys’ are unlikely to work:

  • For example, there has been a big push to recruit more male teachers, particularly in primary schools, to act as role models for their male pupils. Yet research shows that the gender of the teacher has no effect on how well boys achieve in school.
  • Similarly, to solve the gender gap in reading policymakers have suggested giving boys adventure stories and factual books. But research shows that boys have a more positive attitude to reading when all pupils are encouraged to read as wide a range of books as possible.
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Ethnic Minority Pupils – No Longer ‘Underachieving’ ?

It would seem that the notion of ethnic minorities underachieving is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. If you look at the stats below, with the exception of Gypsy Roma children, ‘white British’ children are outperformed by the majority of ethnic minority groups, and for those groups who lag behind, the difference is small.

It’s also worth noting that for those groups who were drastically underachieving in 2008/09 compared to the national average, have seen rapid improvement in the last five years, especially black Caribbean children. If this trend continues, we could see white children at the bottom of the ethnic league tables by 2020.

ethnicity and achievement

What all of this means is that all of that material about teacher Racism  that you have to trawl through in the text books is probably by now mostly irrelevant, except for the fact that you now have to criticise the hell out of it.

The question is now really one of why do most minority students do better.

This brief post from The Guardian is a good starting point to find the answer to this question – in which one London school teacher explains why he thinks London schools with a higher proportion of ethnic minority students tend to do better…

“It comes down to the parents’ influence. Students who’ve arrived as migrants recently are generally coming from a place where education is valued for education’s sake. Where I teach now, in a rural area, we’ve got a very homogenous set of students, all from similar backgrounds – generation after generation quite happily in a steady state where they’re not forced to improve. If you compare that with a parent and children coming over from a country where there isn’t as much opportunity, they do really have to try, and that’s a parent-led ideal that gets fed into the student. I met so many students from African and Asian countries that really wanted to learn.

“But that sort of ambition can have a positive impact on other pupils too. If there’s someone who’s a really enthusiastic learner, it’s a teacher’s job to seize on that opportunity and use it to generate an atmosphere in the classroom, and it does rub off.”