The latest Ofsted Report on schools referred to “the long tail of underperformance of white children from low-income backgrounds” (page 24). Compared to other ethnic groups of similar class backgrounds, this ethnic group remains largely socially immobile (Strand, 2008; Demie & Lewis, 2010; Evans, 2006; Gillborn & Kirton, 2000).
As Michael Wilshaw has recently argued, over the past six years improvements have been seen among deprived children from every other ethnic group, but such progress has been too slow in schools which have significant white working-class populations. It has been widely argued that the central reason for white working-class pupil underachievement remains social deprivation which is largely characterized by:
low aspirations parents have of their children,
feelings of marginalization,
low-literacy levels and
lack of targeted support to break the cycle of poverty and disadvantage.
The government has made disadvantaged pupils a priority. In November 2010 Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, declared it imperative for the UK to become an “aspiration nation” (BBC News 2010) where schools must become “engines of social mobility providing every child with the knowledge, skills and aspirations they need to fulfil their potential”( The Cabinet Office 2011: 36)Indeed when Michael Gove was shadow education secretary many of his attacks on the (Labour) governments policies focused on its perceived failure to improve the performance of the most disadvantaged pupils and to narrow the achievement gap. The government believes that increasing poor children’s attainment can break the inter-generational cycle of poverty, and so education reforms are focused on both raising attainment for all and closing gaps between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. School results clearly show pupils from low-income families perform less well than all other pupils at key stage 2 and key stage 4, including specifically white pupils.
The government’s main policy to address this is the pupil premium. White working class pupils are not specifically targeted, although some argue they should be, and as a matter of urgency given the consistency of data.
The Pupil Premium, by giving schools extra funding to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, aims to improve social mobility in the longer term. The pupil premium was introduced in April 2011. In addition the structural reforms namely the academies/free schools scheme is supposed to target the most disadvantaged areas, although some say that it is not doing so enough. Lord Nash in a PQ on 20 January said ‘We have given school leaders greater autonomy to drive improvement in their schools; around half of the 174 free schools are located in the 30% most deprived communities. In addition we are reforming the accountability system so that schools are held to account for both the achievement and progress of all their pupils. The new national curriculum and reform to GCSEs will also make sure that all pupils are taught the essential knowledge that matches expectations in the highest performing jurisdictions.’
Some argue that a significant obstacle to raising white working-class achievement is the failure of the central government to recognise this particular population as having very specific and distinctive needs that continue not to be met by the school system (Demie and Lewis 2010; Gillborn 2009). Lib Dem MP David Ward has said that most ethnic groups had representatives to speak up for their children’s education needs. But there were few pushing the cause of white working class children. The Select Committee is currently taking evidence on this issue, with one panel addressing the extent to which vocational education can help to address White working class underachievement, and a second focused on the ‘bigger picture’ of the problem of underachievement in education by this group, in terms of connections with the wider social issues.
Demie, F. and K. Lewis (2010). “White working class achievement: an ethnographic study of barriers to learning in schools.” Educational Studies 33(2): 1-20.
Evans, G. (2006). Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain. New York, Palgrave MacMillan.
Gillborn (2009). Education: The Numbers Game and the Construction of White Racial Victimhood.
Department for Education (2010). White paper: The importance of teaching. Norwich, TSO. 91.
Reay (2009). Making Sense of White Working Class Educational Underachievement.
Strand, S. (2008). “Educational aspirations in inner city schools.”Educational Studies 34(4): 249–267.
Hansard- Lords -Lord Nash- 20 January