Elite private schools are struggling to recruit clever white working-class boys to their means-tested bursary places because of a lack of parental aspiration, with places instead dominated by Asians and other minority groups, according to headmasters.
The white working class did not seem as "spontaneously interested in success and upward mobility", heads warned at this week's annual gathering of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) in Belfast. More needs to be done to engage with people with "skinheads and St George's Cross tattoos", one said.
The comments come shortly after a coterie of London's leading independent schools took out newspaper advertisements telling parents that if their children could pass their exams, they could claim bursaries.
Private schools are under increasing pressure from government and the Charity Commission to be seen to be helping poorer children to succeed, and are keen to demonstrate that their fees assistance is going to genuinely needy pupils.
Heads spoke out after the issue was raised by Joe Spence, headmaster of Dulwich College in South London, during a discussion on social mobility at the HMC conference.
Dr Spence was responding to a talk by social mobility campaigner Sir Peter Lampl, who is calling for the government to fund a new version of the assisted places scheme to allow more bright poor children free access to a private education.
"Shouldn't we be talking about aspiration?" said Dr Spence, whose school sponsors an academy on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, a predominantly white working-class area. "We have masses of Asian candidates for our scholarships, Afghan refugees, but it is difficult to find white working-class boys."
Richard Russell, headmaster of Colfe's School in Lee, South London, said afterwards: "It's a really important topic, but it is also a very sensitive topic.
"I'm seeing a lot of aspiration from Conisborough College (the state comprehensive that Colfe's supports in nearby Catford), but it's 90 per cent Afro-Caribbean.
"But it's these little skinheads with the St George's Cross tattoos who come from families where maybe nobody has worked. I don't think we are getting to the white working class as successfully as we should.
"These are huge generalisations, but the white working class are not as spontaneously interested in success and upward mobility as I am seeing from the Afro-Caribbean, Eastern European and Asian families."
Mr Russell conceded that his local area had a large immigrant population, so applicants were partly reflecting the social make-up of the area - only 39 per cent of school-age children in the borough of Lewisham are white - but he added: "I see them around. There are plenty of white kids out there; some of them must be bright.
"We see lots of white working-class boys and girls around the place, but a genuine concern is they are not aiming high enough. So often the bursary candidate has a very strong parent behind him or her."
His concerns were backed up by David Levin, headmaster of the City of London School, whose eight full means-tested bursaries for Year 7s received 268 applicants this year.
"The biggest group of applicants is Sri Lankans, followed by the Indian subcontinent," he said.
The concerns come after comments this summer from Ofsted's chief inspector and former Hackney headteacher Sir Michael Wilshaw, who said that white working-class boys risked missing out on a decent education or career because of an "anti-school culture".
A 2007 report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that white working-class British boys accounted for almost half of those leaving school with low qualifications or no exam successes at all.