Ipswich MP: White working class children have been 'left behind'

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt has secured an adjournment debate on the Orwell Bridge in Parliament. Picture: P

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt is a member of the Education Select Committee in parliament - Credit: House of Commons

This week, the Education Select Committee (of which I’m a member) published a very important report titled: “The forgotten: how white working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it.”

The decision to  produce this report was taken after a number of disturbing statistics came to light regarding the poor performance at school of white pupils who are eligible for free school meals, compared to non-white pupils who are also eligible for free school meals.

At GCSE in 2019, 18% of white British pupils who were eligible for free school meals achieved grade 4 at GCSE for English and Maths. This figure was 23% when it came to the average of all pupils who are eligible for free school meals.

With regard to university access, only 16% of white British pupils eligible for free school meals gained university places, compared 59% for the equivalent Black African pupils, 59% for Bangladeshi and 32% for Black Caribbean pupils.

Quite clearly, there is an issue here - and it is wrong to simply put this significant disparity down to issues such as funding and poverty in a general sense.

The purpose of this report was to get to the heart of the matter and to understand fully the causes of this disparity in academic performance and what might be done to address it.

As the Member of Parliament for Ipswich, I’m acutely conscious of the fact that within the town there’re a significant number of young people that fall into the category of pupils in question.

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Therefore, I’ve been very active on the Education Committee in relation to this report and very keen to ensure it comes to the right set of conclusions.

Throughout the inquiry, it’s become very clear that there are also significant issues in relation to other disadvantaged groups.

For example, the drop out rate at University for black Caribbean students is far higher than any other group.

Moreover, there continues to be significant issues regarding access to the labour market and pupils from certain groups being more likely to be expelled than others.

The opening section of the report also makes clear that, as a committee, we acknowledge that racism continues to be an issue in schools and something that sadly many young people continue to experience.

We are not downplaying this. The committee will undertake future work aimed to supporting all disadvantaged groups.

I do, however, think its right that we explored the issue of white working class pupils relative academic underperformance.

We should be comfortable to talk about supporting this group of disadvantaged pupils in the same way that we are any other group. Brushing it under the carpet and pretending there isn’t an issue, which the Labour MPs on the committee seemed intent, on doing won’t help anyone.

After months of taking evidence, both written and through oral evidence sessions, we concluded that six key factors combine to put white working-class pupils at a disadvantage:

1. Persistent and multigenerational disadvantage

2. Place-based factors, including regional economics and underinvestment

3. Family experience of education

4. A lack of social capital

5. Disengagement from the curriculum

6. A failure to address their low participation in higher education

The report sets out in detail how this is, so and there are a number of recommendations to tackle the issues highlighted.

Some of the recommendations included creating “family hubs” to get parents more involved in their children’s learning, attracting teachers to areas that are struggling to retain staff, ensuring that work related vocational education is available and using pupil premium funding to provide more support to the most disadvantaged pupils.

There does seem to be a bit of problem with many young people and their families perceive education and the importance of doing well at school.

Our inquiry found that actually there seems to be a bit of an “immigrant paradigm” where often the families of those who have moved to our country more recently have a more positive view regarding the importance of education.

There were some very interesting written submissions by representatives from the Muslim community who spoke of the role of the Mosque within the community and how often this could feed through into benefits the educational outcomes.

I do think we need a school curriculum that is made as relevant as possible to all children. Many may not see academic success at school as being of major significance to them.

I definitely think there is room here for a far more balanced curriculum that promotes apprenticeships and technical education from an earlier age.

However don’t get me wrong, this absolutely should not lead to a two-tier system when we give up on the ability of all children whatever their background to achieve academic success and go to university of this is what they want to do.

But I believe we need academic and technical education to be viewed as of equal worth.

Much of the 80-page report we put together as a committee was uncontroversial. As a report, it is dedicated to looking to support some of the most disadvantaged children in the country.

It was therefore perplexing that all four Labour MPs on the Education Select Committee decided to vote against the report.

Many Labour MPs have said that the plight of white pupils who are eligible for free school meals is all about “austerity”.

However, if this is the case, then surely when it comes to academic performance there wouldn’t such a disparity between different disadvantaged groups and all groups would be impacted equally?

There is a small section in the report on “white privilege”.

This followed an evidence session with Barnardo’s, the children’s charity, where the chief executive was questioned about why his organisation had published a paper called: “White privilege: a guide for parents,” which was then dispatched to thousands of underprivileged families (many of whom would have been white and far from privileged).

As a committee, we believe that promoting the term “white privilege” within schools could be alienating and damaging to white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. I personally sympathise with this view.

Ultimately though, what motivates me and most of the other members of the committee is our desire to support all young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We do not believe that one group of disadvantaged pupils should be focused on any more or less than any other disadvantaged group.

It’s our belief that we have a responsibility to look at the facts and to try and come up with solutions. And when it comes to the performance at school of white pupils who are eligible for free school meals, the facts speak for themselves.

No brushing of these facts under the carpet will help this large group of young people who have most definitely been left behind.

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