We know boys tend to do less well than girls at school. We know some ethnic groups achieve better than others. But is class as important as race or gender? Are children from white working-class families disadvantaged by their cultural background? Swamped by the statistics and over-looked by the initiatives, many seem to be struggling to keep up with their peers.
Making the grade In 2005, 55 per cent of all pupils achieved five GCSEs at grades A-C.
Breaking down the figures by ethnicity reveals that white pupils were exactly in line with that average. Above-average results came from students of mixed white and black African descent (56 per cent achieving five or more A-Cs); mixed white and Asian (67 per cent); Indian students (70 per cent); and Chinese students (81 per cent). Those groups that fell below the national average were Bangladeshi (53 per cent); black African (48 per cent); Pakistani (48 per cent); mixed white and black Caribbean (44 per cent); and black Caribbean (42 per cent).
There is a similar pattern of achievement - and ranking - at almost every stage of testing; at key stage 1 maths, for example, 96 per cent of Chinese children achieve the expected standard, compared with 92 per cent of white children, 87 per cent of Asian children and 85 per cent of black children.
So white children do just fine?
The reason white children as a group perform at or around the national average is simple: in statistical terms they determine the average. By far the biggest single ethnic category, white pupils accounted for around 85 per cent of last year's GCSE cohort so, inevitably, their results go a long way towards determining the overall figures. This weighting towards the majority means the figures can mask a huge variation in performance from white children at either end of the achievement scale. It also means the number of white pupils who fail to achieve expected levels is large, even if the percentages are not. For example, in last year's GCSEs around 220,000 white pupils failed to get five A-Cs, compared with 5,000 black Caribbean and 2,500 Bangladeshi students.
In the past, the underachievement of ethnic minorities has tended to attract the attention of the media, the public and government - with justification. The statistics make it clear, for example, that a large proportion of black Caribbean children underachieve compared with the national average. But the difference in size between the white majority and other ethnic groups can complicate comparisons.
It's not about race A closer look at the statistics suggests that poverty, rather than race, has the greatest bearing on educational achievement. For example, in last year's key stage 3 English tests, 74 per cent of white children achieved the expected level, compared with 72 per cent of Asians and 66 per cent of black children. There's an even narrower gap, just six percentage points, between the performances of those with English as a first language (74 per cent) and those with a first language other than English (68 per cent). But the figures for children on free school meals reveal a more striking differential. Only 51 per cent of children who receive free school meals reached the same level, compared with 78 per cent of those who don't, a gap of 27 percentage points. It's a similar story at key stages 1 and 2 and GCSE, with entitlement to free school meals consistently proving a more reliable predictor of underachievement than ethnicity, first language or gender.
So it's about poverty?
That's too simplistic. According to recent figures from the children's charity Barnardo's, 25 per cent of white children in the UK live in poverty, compared with 51 per cent of children from ethnic minorities. Yet the gap in academic performance is narrower than these figures suggest. And some schools with high numbers of children on free school meals do relatively well, a fact the Government often highlights when it insists that poverty is not an excuse for low achievement. Of greater significance than poverty seems to be the much more complex concept of class.
Working-class children often fail to achieve their potential because their cultural identity and their behaviour at home or on the streets is so different from what is expected of them in school. "Street culture in white working-class areas can be brutal," says Dr Gillian Evans, an anthropologist at Brunel University and author of Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain. "It's about learning to withstand intimidation and to enjoy intimidating others. School has to be a safe place. If it becomes a high-adrenalin environment, where children play the power games they play on the street, then it's hard for them to achieve."
Following extensive field work in Bermondsey, south London, Dr Evans argues that what stops working-class children, particularly boys, from making progress is the amount of high-level disruption caused by bringing these power struggles from the street into school. This may explain why poor pupils at schools with a generally affluent roll make better progress than middle-class children who are educated at schools with a high proportion of children on free school meals.
A class of their own Many social commentators suggest that the white working class feels threatened by multiculturalism; ridiculed by the middle classes as "chavs", and marginalised by a labour market in which masculine manual work has been replaced by what is perceived as feminine, deferential service industries.
As a result, white working-class families cling proudly to their heritage.
Research at the University of Essex has shown that the children of immigrants who moved to the UK in the 1960s are much more likely to have broken through the class barrier and gained jobs as professionals or managers than the children of white working-class families. Yet, despite this, the authorities often seem to overlook the particular difficulties faced by working-class children. "Having English as an additional language is considered a legitimate excuse for failure, but being white working-class isn't," says one London head. "Yet exam papers are set by the middle classes, within a clear cultural framework. It can be hard for children from outside that framework."
Blame the parents?
Research published in 2004 by Dr Ruth Lupton of the Institute of Education at London University, found that schools serving white working-class communities face tougher challenges than those serving ethnic minorities.
Staff at two predominantly white working-class schools reported poorer levels of behaviour and discipline than teachers at a school serving a largely Pakistani community and a school serving a mixed ethnic community, despite the fact that the latter two schools had higher levels of children on free school meals. In part, they attributed this to relative levels of parental support; while many immigrant parents "saw education as a way up in society", white working-class parents often put "a low value on education".
It may also be that adult authority in immigrant homes is closer to the model that operates in schools. The research suggested that in South Asian communities "respectful behaviour towards adults was expected from children", which had a knock-on effect in schools, since parents were "more likely to be supportive of school behaviour policies".
Many teachers in white working-class communities complain that families don't value education, particularly in areas with a strong tradition of manual work which never required formal qualifications. "I taught many of the parents of the children I'm teaching now," says one long-serving deputy-head in a former mining town, whose colliery closed in the early 1990s. "For them, school was just something to be got out of the way, before you could work down the pit or get married. Now they're parents, I talk to them about their child's lack of progress and they just shrug, and say 'so what?'. No one thinks twice about taking holiday during term-time, even a few weeks before GCSEs."
Or perhaps not?
Blaming parents is an easy way out for schools, says Gillian Evans.
"Attributing behavioural problems to poor parenting or poverty neatly excuses the school. Teachers usually think there must be something wrong with the child emotionally or psychologically, or that he or she must come from a bad family. Their response is either blame or pity, neither of which is helpful."
Dr Evans's research found that nearly all white working-class parents "wanted their children to do well and valued formal learning". She points out that blaming parents overlooks those children who are disruptive in school but "as good as gold" at home, and fails to explain how one child in a family may do badly at school, while another does well. "Most working-class parents think education is important, but they see it as something that happens in school, not in the home," she says.
Ruth Lupton's interviews with teachers also showed that many white working-class parents want their children to do well, and that where there is a limited regard for education, this may be a valid response to past experience; generations of families trapped in manual labour or unemployment may have less reason for optimism than immigrant families.
"White working-class areas contain many families whose expectations of social mobility through education are small," says Dr Lupton.
Treading carefully In recent years the Government and the media have highlighted the gender gap in achievement levels and the difficulties faced by those with English as a second language. But the question of social class has remained in the background. "It's a hidden barrier," says one London headteacher. "No one seems comfortable talking about it and it's rarely discussed in the media.
The class issue is political dynamite."
Some argue that it's not highlighted precisely because it's such a huge issue. "Putting the emphasis on race is deliberately misleading," says a spokesperson for the Independent Working Class Association. "It's an attempt to persuade the public that the problem of underachievement is confined to a small minority when that clearly isn't the case. Raising the results of black working-class children to the level of white working-class children is relatively easy because it's not much of a gap. The real challenge is to bring about equality between children from working and middle-class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity."
The issue is also sensitive because there is a perception that paying more attention to the white working class means ignoring the needs of minorities, and takes the debate into dangerous right-wing waters.
Most educationists acknowledge that ethnic minorities are more likely to be excluded, discriminated against, and unemployed or low-paid. But more sophisticated approaches may be needed to deal with underachievement as a whole, rather than sectioning off groups of children. "Poverty and ethnicity measures are not sufficient, and may even be misleading," says Dr Lupton. While schools serving ethnic minorities may struggle with language or welfare issues, they "may offer more favourable environments for schooling than white areas with lower numbers on free school meals".
Aiming low It's possible that in five or 10 years' time, white children will be the worst performing ethnic group in the country, despite the large number of white middle-class children whose results are well above average. Last year 55 per cent of white children achieved five GCSEs at grade A-C, compared with 42 per cent of black Caribbean children. But while the statistic for black Caribbeans has risen nine points from 33 per cent in 2003, the performance of white students has risen just four points in the same period. The value-added data also suggests white pupils make less progress between the ages of 11 and 16 than black or Asian children; between key stages 2 and 4, white pupils average 985, compared with 998 for black pupils, 1,015 for Pakistani, 1,016 for Bangladeshi and 1,023 for Indian pupils. In many local authorities white children on free school meals make less progress than any other group.
Nor is it just a question of results; it is also about attitude. The 2005 Youth Cohort Study, carried out by the Department for Education and Skills, shows that only 73 per cent of white children remain in education after they turn 16, compared with 78 per cent of Pakistanis, 81 per cent of black children and 91 per cent of Indians. And a 2004 survey by the Sutton Trust found that while 80 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds from ethnic minority backgrounds aimed to go to university, only 68 per cent of white children had similar ambitions.
What can be done?
The issue of white working-class underachievement is gaining more recognition. Some LEAs, such as Birmingham, are establishing action groups of the kind that already exist to tackle underachievement among ethnic minorities. And the DfES has run a number of projects, including one aimed at raising attainment by white working-class boys in writing. Raising white working-class achievement is also a key objective of phase 2 of the London Challenge.
But many people feel that deep-seated changes are needed. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) believes the current system of additional funding means some schools serving white working-class estates don't receive adequate financial support. "The basis for secondary school funding should be prior achievement to the age of 11," says general secretary John Dunford. "That is the best measure of the task in hand."
Others feel that changes to the curriculum are the answer. "We need to consider what kinds of learning these children are motivated to engage with," says Gillian Evans. She believes little progress will be made without considering a wider range of factors than just race or poverty.
"It's about how gender, class and race intersect. And that's a complicated thing. When we consider the education of black children, we look at their race, culture and ethnicity, but rarely their class. When we consider white children we look at their class, but don't try to understand their race, culture and ethnicity. We need to look at all of those things for every child."
* The 2005 DfES statistics for attainment by pupil characteristics are available at: www.dfes.gov.uk rsgatewayDBSFRs000640index.shtml
* The DfES report "Ethnicity and Education" (2005) can be found at www.standards.dfes.gov.ukethnic minoritieslinks_and_publicationsEandE_RTP01_05
* Dr Ruth Lupton's report, "Schools in Disadvantaged Areas: recognising context and raising quality": http:sticerd.lse.ac.ukdpscasecpCASE paper76.pdf
* "Educational Failure and Working Class White Children in Britain", by Gillian Evans, will be published in July by Palgrave Macmillan, pound;50
Main text: Steven Hastings
Additional research: Sarah Jenkins
Next week: Menopause
Did you know?
* Last year 55 per cent of white children achieved five GCSEs at grade A-C.
They accounted for 85 per cent of the exam cohort
* The figures hide the fact that large numbers also underachieve. Around 220,000 white pupils failed to get five GCSEs at grades A-C
* In many local authorities white children on free school meals make less progress than any other group
* A 2005 DfES study shows that 73 per cent of white children remain in education after they turn 16, compared with 78 per cent of Pakistanis, 81 per cent of black children and 91 per cent of Indians
* 'Having English as an additional language is considered a legitimate excuse for failure, but being white working-class isn't,' says one London head