The left behind: white working-class kids and education

Sunday 14 October, 17:3018:45, Pit TheatreIdentity wars: race and society

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There have always been concerns about children from poor and marginalised communities underperforming at school. While conventional wisdom held that ethnic minorities were at a disadvantage, it is now white, working-class kids who are falling behind.

According to the CentreForum think-tank, white working-class children are thirteenth in the table of highest-achieving groups at age 16, behind those of Chinese, Indian, Asian and black African heritage. By contrast, the attainment of non-white minorities from similarly low-income backgrounds has improved dramatically in the past decade. Why are the children of migrants excelling while their white peers are failing – and who is to blame for allowing white working-class kids to fall behind?

Some argue that anti-racism campaigns, and the rise of multiculturalism, have enabled children from ethnic minorities to excel academically, while traditional values and supportive family life provide a springboard to success within African and Asian homes. At this year’s Festival of Education, the chief inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, said that children from white working-class families can the ‘lack the aspiration and drive’ of migrant communities. Spielman’s predecessor, Sir Michael Wilshaw, went even further, claiming that some white families ‘don’t care a monkey’s about their child’s education’.

Is it true that white, working-class parents don’t care? It wasn’t always this way. Upward mobility was a reality in the 1970s and 1980s, when working-class organisations were a major force in British society. Smart working-class kids went on to university and into professions, and even less-academic kids were encouraged to respect education and acquire the skills that led to a better quality of life. In contrast, many claim today that the white working class is demonized as dysfunctional – mocked, marginalised and presented as in need of policing in much the way ethnic minorities once were.

Do we have a problem with white working-class kids? If so, who is to blame? Does blaming white working-class parents for their kids’ failure demonise further a group already under attack? Has official support for ethnic minorities meant that the white working class has been left behind? Or is it less to do with race, and more to do with a culture of low horizons within the working class itself?