Is ignoring white working-class cultural identity making them underachievers?

5th February 2010 at 00:00
This researcher says their heritage is ignored while attention is focused on ethnic minorities

The Government should ensure that the school curriculum highlights white British identity alongside other ethnic and religious traditions, a leading race relations adviser has said.

Feyisa Demie, head of research at London's Lambeth Council, also wants to see the Government implement a statutory annual census of pupils' social-class backgrounds, including data on their parents' occupations.

"The Government needs to recognise that the underachievement of white British working-class pupils is not only a problem facing educational services, but a daunting and profoundly serious challenge," he said.

Pupils from advantaged, professional backgrounds are three times more likely to achieve five A*-C grades at GCSE than their classmates from working-class homes. And although the grades of both sets of pupils have improved over the past decade, the gap between them widens every year.

Dr Demie interviewed heads, teachers, parents, pupils and governors from 13 Lambeth schools.

He found that policymakers often grouped pupils by ethnicity, meaning that white working-class pupils were not distinguished from their higher-achieving middle-class peers. "Poverty ... makes a vast difference to white British children," Dr Demie said. "Effectively treating white British as a single group is extremely misleading."

Staff, meanwhile, were concerned about the gulf between their high expectations for working-class pupils and the low expectations often encountered at home.

Many pupils knew little of life beyond home and school. "They stay in their flats watching TV," one teacher said.

"They do not travel, they don't go into London. Many don't even go to the local park."

Another head said: "In the Caribbean community, there is an ethos of hard work, with church and music providing a strong focal point for families. White British probably have nothing but the pub."

But while teachers made efforts to include pupils from immigrant backgrounds by highlighting their culture and heritage in the classroom, the curriculum rarely reflected white pupils' own culture.

One teacher said: "Maybe there is an assumption that, because you are British and white, you are already included in things. But do we celebrate being British?"

This was echoed by another teacher: "We celebrate Christmas and Easter, but even that is done in a diverse way."

Similarly, white working-class pupils also lacked direct, targeted support in school. One head said: "The worrying thing is that no-one seems to care about them, and there is nothing going for them at all."

Dr Demie called on the Government to provide targeted funding to support these pupils.

And schools and local authorities should be given support to develop a curriculum that highlights white British identity alongside that of ethnic minorities.

"This curriculum should give confidence to white British pupils so that they can proudly assert their identity as an ethnic group," he said.


Only one in four white working-class boys has the language and social skills expected at the age of five, according to Department for Children, Schools and Families figures based on teacher assessments.

They show that among boys eligible for free school meals around 8 per cent of gypsies, Roma or travellers have reached the expected level in seven areas measured. The figure for white British boys claiming free school meals is 24.9 and for 'other' black boys - those not classed as Caribbean or African - 25 per cent.

For boys not claiming free school meals, the overall average is 45 per cent, with white British boys gaining 47.8 per cent. Irish boys are the highest-performing ethnic group, with a figure of 53.6 per cent.

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