We must help to stop disadvantaged white pupils falling behind at school, says Ipswich MP
PUBLISHED: 08:24 16 October 2020 | UPDATED: 08:44 16 October 2020
I wrote last week about the immense disruption Covid-19 has caused to young people including school children, university students and youngsters who are taking the first steps in their career.
And rightly our main focus on the Education Committee in Parliament this year has been understanding these challenges and scrutinising the response of our education system.
This week’s committee was a bit different though as we looked at one of the committee’s other lines of inquiry into the issues faced by young people in disadvantaged groups. The virus of course factors into this but it’s also about looking at wider issues which mustn’t be allowed to go unaddressed because of the pandemic.
As part of this inquiry, this week we heard evidence on the underachievement of disadvantaged white pupils, specifically those that are eligible for free school meals. The statistical case that these pupils are falling behind other children from low income backgrounds is stark. For state-funded white British 15-year olds on free school meals, just 13% of boys and 19% of girls were in higher education four years later. This is well below other groups like black African boys and Pakistani boys where the numbers were 51% and 42% respectively.
Of course getting into university is not the be all and end all of a successful education, and one of the points I raised very strongly on the committee was that a big part of dealing with this issue will be strengthening technical and vocational education, particularly apprenticeships, and making sure that these pathways aren’t something that our society looks down its nose at compared to going to university.
But access to higher education is by far the only indicator that disadvantaged white pupils are falling behind their peers from other groups. Right from Key Stage 1 where they tend to do worse in reading, writing and maths compared to others, up
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to GCSE where they are the least likely cohort to gain a strong pass in English and maths, the fact there is a problem that needs addressing is clear.
Some of the most important evidence we heard though at the meeting was from Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at Kent University, about the barriers to tackling the issue in the first place. He was right to talk powerfully about how these pupils suffer from an additional disadvantage when they are told by certain sections of modern society that they have ‘white privilege’, and that they don’t just have to overcome social and economic barriers but apologise for what group they happen to belong to.
It’s ridiculous to suggest that some of the most disadvantaged children in our society today with some of the poorest educational outcomes are somehow in an inherently privileged position. The attempts by those determined to push politically correct notions like ‘white privilege’ only serve to put these children down when we should be having a conversation about lifting them up. And this narrative runs a high risk of dismissing the communities as the problem and not the challenges they are facing.
This notion that it’s too politically incorrect to discuss disadvantage among white working class children is also something I picked up in the written evidence to the committee’s inquiry. With a number of submissions questioning the premise of the line of inquiry or skirting around answering the questions at hand it in a way I don’t think would be expected if it was about any other group. And I believe Matthew Goodwin was right when he responded to me that this sort of status deficit creates legitimate reasons why people in these communities feel that they’re not treated with the same degree of recognition as others.
It’s important to be clear that tackling this status deficit is only one part of the work needs to be done. I mentioned before about the need to have both academic and vocational/technical routes out of disadvantage available to young people and we also need to look at things like the ability of towns like Ipswich, which are less diverse than the capital, to attract the best young teachers. Many are drawn to metropolitan centres like London where salaries are higher.
It’s also important to reinforce that this week’s meeting is part of wider piece of work by the committee investigating disadvantage among young people and it’s right that we also look at disadvantaged BAME groups and others as well. I appreciate racism at school is still and issue for many from BAME backgrounds and it’s good that this and other forms of disadvantage will be covered in future sessions of the committee. What’s crucial is that we don’t get into the mindset that some pushing the culture war want where groups are pitted against one another and looking at the challenges faced by one must be to the detriment of others.
To get to the heart of issues facing disadvantaged white children and others we must be ready to change perceptions for the better as well as the education we provide to young people. No child, no matter what group they come from, deserves to be left behind. I didn’t get into politics to pay lip service and when it comes to improving the future of our young people we must have the courage to leave no holds barred.
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