Poverty and social disadvantage have a much greater effect on white pupils' school results than on those of any other ethnic group, new research has found.
White British pupils from well-off families perform better at school than children of any other ethnicity, according to Steve Strand, of Warwick University. By contrast, those who are eligible for free school meals are among the lowest achievers.
Professor Strand studied the performance of 2,398 primary and 1,402 secondary pupils in the south London borough of Lambeth. These pupils are among the most deprived in the country: more than a third receive free school meals, and nearly three-quarters live in deprived neighbourhoods.
Professor Strand's results, which are being presented today at the annual British Educational Research Association (BERA) conference, will reignite the debate about the low levels of achievement among white, working-class pupils. This debate has previously focused on boys, although this research suggests the problem spans the gender divide.
For most pupils, socio-economic background made only limited difference to their performance at key stage 2. Race played a much greater role: black pupils from wealthy backgrounds underperformed significantly in comparison with their white classmates.
By contrast, white British pupils were both the lowest and the highest achieving pupils at primary school, depending on their affluence.
By the time pupils took their GCSEs, this pattern had become less pronounced: wealthy pupils in Lambeth secondaries no longer demonstrated the same levels of achievement as at key stage 2.
However, Professor Strand said that this probably reflects the fact that many well-off Lambeth teenagers attend selective independent secondaries.
"The pupils remaining within Lambeth secondary schools, and within the state system as a whole, may not be representative of the population that attended Lambeth primary schools," he said.
Nonetheless, the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged white British pupils remains at secondary school. This is reinforced by a second study, also being presented at the BERA conference.
Academics at the Institute of Education in London, and Queen Mary, University of London, studied the gaps in achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged GCSE candidates across Britain.
They found that only 31 per cent of white teenagers eligible for free school meals achieved five A*-C grades, compared with 63 per cent from wealthier backgrounds. This gap was much wider among white pupils than among those from any other ethnic group: the equivalent gap for Bangladeshi teenagers was seven per cent, and for Chinese pupils five per cent.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "It's an enormous challenge. In some areas where there are disadvantaged white communities, there tends to be an anti-education culture.
"Schools need to raise self-esteem, show children they can achieve. It's about giving them an appropriate curriculum, giving them the extra support they might not get at home. There needs to be a real culture of recognising and celebrating achievement. Success breeds success."
Previous research by Professor Strand, based on an analysis of more than 15,000 pupils' GCSE results, revealed that white working-class children performed worse than other ethnic groups, once background and social factors were taken into account.
Professor Strand pointed out that wealthy white parents often have more resources to invest in their children's education: they are, for example, able to pay for private tutors.
He also highlighted the importance of family expectations. "More recent immigrant groups, such as the Portuguese, Pakistani and Bangladeshis, often see education as the way out of poverty," he said.
"By contrast, if you've been in a white working-class family for three generations, with high unemployment, you don't necessarily believe that education is going to change that. All of these factors may combine to make the effect of socio-economic status remarkably strong for white British kids."