I am an immigrant from Pakistan. When I came to this country at the age of 13, I spent the next few years alongside white working-class young people in an urban English setting. Unlike many of my peers, I was a model student. The village I had left behind had no running water or electricity, there were no roads - we walked everywhere - and my primary school had just one teacher for all five classes. So coming to the UK, I knew I had arrived! I was now in the First World, which had everything.
At the time I had not realised that I was actually living in one of the city's most deprived neighbourhoods and attending a school which had little going for it. I managed to come top in some of the subjects, especially where language was not the issue.
Having left school at 16 with a few CSEs, I have enjoyed sterling help from many in the world of life-long learning. After earning two degrees and numerous certificates, I am now researching an opportunity to do a PhD. If my father was alive he would now be saying: "The boy's done good".
Throughout my adult life, I have been active in equality and diversity. Some five years ago, when I had responsibility for championing the needs of the underachieving black and Asian young people, I realised that the biggest underachievers were poor whites.
So with the support and encouragement of my line manager I began to focus on them. However, much of the knowledge and expertise I use in "championing" the needs of underachieving white, working-class young people has been learnt from my work with black and Asian underachievers.
We have known for some time that disadvantage limits access to educational opportunities and reduces the ability of children to benefit from the schooling that they do get. More specifically, educational disadvantage leads to denial of equal access to educational opportunities, the tendency to leave education at the first opportunity and the hindrance of achievement by social and environmental factors.
There is now little doubt about the disadvantaged position of the white working class, both generally and in relation to educational underachievement. The only question left to ask is: what will change the situation?
I believe we need to stop piecemeal responses - or, as educationalist Professor Tim Brighouse once called them, "time-limited dollops". The problem requires a wholesale, systemic response.
Colour of disadvantage
I believe the lot of the white working class would improve manifold if they were treated as if they were an ethnic minority - although, of course, they are not an ethnic minority; more a cultural minority in social class terms. Trevor Phillips, head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has gone as far to admit that "institutional racism misses the fact that in many parts of the country, the colour of disadvantage is white as well as brown or black".
We need to apply the best practice developed by schools to address the needs of white working-class young people. To paraphrase the education academic Professor Charles Desforges, the achievement of white working- class pupils could be significantly enhanced if we systematically apply all we have learned from addressing other underachieving groups.
Furthermore, over the past three decades, central and local government as well as many of our schools have invested a great deal in systems to address ethnic minority underachievement. As the Department for Education has pointed out in its Breaking the Link report last year, much of this has proved successful: "Emphasis has been placed on minority ethnic achievement at national, local and school level, through targeted projects led by the national strategies and delivered by local authorities and schools.
"But perhaps even more significant is the contribution which local communities themselves have made. The raising of aspirations of parents, families and pupils, and backed up by schools determined not to permit underperformance to continue, has achieved this large improvement in the life chances of many young people from minority ethnic backgrounds."
Much of this practice and its associated structures and systems have the potential to be transferred to address white working-class underachievement. Former Birmingham headteacher Gilroy Brown has for many years advised central and local government on many of their successful initiatives aimed at addressing underachievement of African-Caribbean young people. I believe his "5As" model could easily be applied to the situation of white working-class young people:
- Awareness: that there is a problem and a target group which is being unfairly treated and that its members have individual as well as shared identities.
- Acceptance: that the school system is both part of the problem and can also contribute to the solution.
- Area focus: recognising that the wider community has a partnership role and that there is no "one size fits all"; different communities, neighbourhoods and even streets or blocks of flats have influential effects.
- Alignment: of the students' home and school experiences, encouraging parental involvement and breaking barriers between them and the school.
- Action: focused directly on the target group and the issue and designed to ensure that the work is explicit, funded and managed.
Furthermore, there is much specific practice developed in relation to black and ethnic minority parents which has the potential for application to white working-class parents.
Dr Lorna Cork is another Birmingham-based educational practitioner who has for many years worked on addressing black underachievement. She has made the point that "a parent is a parent is a parent".
Much of what she has written in relation to African Caribbean parents could benefit white working-class parents and their children. This includes dedicated home-school liaison staff who have particular understanding of, and respect, for the parents.
They could also bring into school parents who have a particular knowledge of the area and its history and can add value to the curriculum.
She also recommends giving schools an opportunity to discover how they may become more inclusive and welcoming to the parents concerned. In addition, she promotes the development of parental advocacy to help address the power imbalance which can exist between the school and working-class parents and can be the cause of many confrontational encounters between them. On top of this, she backs the development of supplementary schooling.
Of course, any work on white working-class underachievement would require allocation of appropriate funding of the type provided for ethnic minority pupils. This began as Section 11 (of the 1966 Local Government Act) and later came to be EMAG (ethnic minority achievement grant). Its purpose was to help meet the "special and additional" needs of immigrant pupils.
The white working class have plenty of needs deserve a helping hand from the government (see box, left). In the current political context, the source of the funds may be the pupil premium rather than EMAG.
Impact of past inequalities
As well as attending to the present, we have to address the impact of past inequalities. Ever since the mid-1970s, we have learnt from gender and race equality that it is never sufficient to simply remove discrimination and promote equality - it is also necessary to deal with the effects of past discrimination.
This is why the sex and race discrimination legislation allowed for positive action, where in order to deal with past inequalities women and ethnic minorities could, and still can, be given preferential treatment in certain situations. This is exactly what we need to address white working- class under-achievement, which appears to have been with us forever.
Let's face it: in many of our larger cities, the white working class will soon be an ethnic minority. We need legislation that applies beyond schools; to our colleges and other learning providers.
As well as providing the much-needed resources, a law of this type would give people permission to talk about the issues. This has never been more needed than now when many in white working-class communities feel like a forgotten group.
It has been pointed out that as disadvantage has multiple causes, tackling it requires strategies that bring together multiple agencies that more usually work in isolation. Journalist Fran Abrams pointed out in her book, Learning to Fail: "Perhaps the seeds of the solution to all this lay not in the family, nor in the school system, nor in the colleges, nor even in the workplace, but in all of them; in all of us."
I am also reminded of Tony Blair's "joined-up" speech at the homeless charity Centrepoint on 16 December 1999. He talked about the ineffectiveness which results from agencies working in isolation when responding to need and made a case for greater "joined-up" working: "But teenagers, and those who try to work with them, are still too often let down by a system which tends to treat the problems and challenges that young people face in isolation, and to deliver a piecemeal response down separate channels and through professionals only able to deal with issues one by one."
There is not a more deserving candidate for a joined-up approach than the white working class. We need to enable our early years practitioners, school staff, colleges, universities and a range of other community organisations and individuals to work together for a single goal in addressing their needs. Their work will not happen without the systemic change, and the associated resourcing.
Furthermore, we need to create a cultural and political environment which gives professionals the desperately needed courage and vocabulary they need to do for white working-class young people what has been attempted and accomplished for others.
Karamat Iqbal is director of the Forward Partnership, a consultancy on diversity and education. For more information visit the "white under- achievement" pages on www.forwardpartnership.org.uk
Why positive action is needed
White working class pupils:
- are the largest underachieving ethnic group across the country
- fall behind from the early years
- suffer from some of the worst levels of attendance and exclusion
- are more likely to be Neets (not in education, employment or training) than other ethnic groups
- tend to have the lowest aspirations
- often attend schools that face additional cost pressures
- tend not to be included in discussions on diversity and identity
- lose out on some opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities, missing their educational and general benefits.