Why are white, working class children in Britain falling behind?

Britain's poor white children are getting worse grades than minority students from similar economic backgrounds – leaving them unable to get a foothold in the modern workplace.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters
Pupils wait for the start of a GCSE mathematics exam at the Harris Academy South Norwood in south east London in March 2012.

Dylan Yates can remember a time, when he was about seven years old, when his teacher told him he had a talent for math.

That is his only positive memory, he says, of education, which he left when he was 16, having failed most of his General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams. Today, seven years later, he is unemployed, still living in a small apartment with his mother, and dependent on government benefits.

“There's not a lot out there,” he says, of the supposed search for work he has just sworn he is engaged in to a worker at a government job center in south London, to ensure that he continues to get his handouts.

Yates' story is illustrative of a gloomy truth: Too many of Britain's working class white children are faring so poorly at school they are unable to get a foothold in the workplace and in a fast-changing world.

Bottom of the class

Last week, parliamentarians published a report showing that only 32 percent of working class white children achieve good results – defined as more than five grades between A and C – on their GCSE exams, compared to 62 percent of Indians and 51 percent of black Africans whose parents had similar incomes. Afro-Caribbean children, who have long been regarded as an under-performing community in Britain, also beat poor white children on exams.

The report, by the Education Select Committee, defines working class as children whose parents earn sufficiently low incomes for their school lunches to be paid for by the government.

Stephen Gorard, professor of education at Durham University, says that one reason children from poor ethnic minorities do better is that while they may be poor soon after arriving in Britain, migrants often have educated backgrounds like “the Ugandan bus driver who is a doctor back home.”

But the low achievement of white working class children is still striking and of huge concern to the government. Aside from the human cost, it matters because Britain has fallen behind much of the rest of the world in educational standards.

In the Program for International Student Assessment rankings, which compare the performance of 15-year-olds across 32 countries, Britain's performance is dismal: it comes 26th in math and 23rd in reading.

Not enough parental pressure?

Often, when the failings of white working class children make the news, talk turns to parenting.

Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of the government body that oversees standards in schools, said last week that poverty is too often used as an excuse to explain the poor performance of white working class children. Because ethnic minority children from equally poor backgrounds do better, this does not wash, he says.

“It's not about income or poverty,” he said, in an interview with The Times. “Where families believe in education they do well. If they love their children they should support them in school.”

The education secretary, Michael Gove, is in the process of drawing up plans for tougher sanctions – including fines – on parents who fail to discipline their children or give them the necessary help to ensure their homework is done properly.

While his efforts to raise standards in schools have won plaudits, many education experts say that the focus on parenting will achieve little.

Gillian Evans, an anthropologist at the University of Manchester who lived on a council estate in southeast London to research her book, "Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain," says it is important to look at the history of white working class communities in which children are failing to understand what is happening.

A different job market

Today, education is crucial in the job market. Last week, figures from Britain's Office for National Statistics showed that people without any qualifications were twice as likely to be unemployed as those with a qualification.

Ms. Evans points out that this was not always the case. Traditionally, she says, the white working class has not regarded education as important because, when Britain was a manufacturing powerhouse, students could leave school at age 14 and land a decent job with promotion opportunities.

Work-related politics, from trade unions to the Labour movement, gave communities social cohesion and a sense of identity. But in the last 30 to 40 years, with the dramatic decline of manufacturing and industry, “the means for working class pride and a sense of self respect have been eroded in Britain.”

Most people, she says, now realize that education is essential for employment and progression. But for some, the idea that education is unnecessary has manifested itself in a “spirit of defiance.”

“The trouble is, that in these neighborhoods there is a street culture where masculinity manifests also as a defiant, tough oppositional stance and a minority of working class boys, who are involved in this street culture, tend to disrupt the learning of children from working class families who want to learn and do well at school.”

Better schools

To levy fines on parents in this situation is, she says, “absolute nonsense.” The focus, according to Evans, should be entirely on raising standards in schools.

For many working class white children, she says, “going to an excellent school is likely to be the only chance they have of a decent start in life.”

To that end, the Education Select Committee has suggested that schools should be open for up to 12 hours a day to give pupils from homes that don't encourage learning, “space and time” to do their homework.

The committee has also called for the government to look at incentives to attract top teachers to work in areas with deprived white working class children. It identified rural and coastal areas as having the highest numbers of failing white children.

Professor Gorard says that the single most important reform required is to shake up the social mix within schools so that white working class children have similar opportunities to middle class white children educated in state schools funded by the government.

Often, the best state schools are located in prosperous areas, where high house prices and a lack of social housing preclude the admission of poorer children. Professor Gorard says the government should even consider bussing poor children into schools in richer areas.

But Nigisti Abraha, an Ethiopian who has lived in Britain for a decade and is a mother of two primary school-age children entitled to free school meals, says school standards do not greatly worry her yet.

“My children are at a very good school,” she says. “I don't think the secondary school will be so good. But then we will have to find the money to get them extra tutoring. Their education is their biggest opportunity by far.”

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