White British pupils underperform across social strata. Not just the working-class ones. Why?

Much has been written about the educational performance of white working-class pupils, writes the leader of a major teachers' union. But the problem is much wider than that

Mary Bousted

News article image

There is a problem besetting the English education system which has been under-reported, under-considered and has been lacking sufficient response from policymakers and educationalists. As a study from the Centre Forum thinktank reported yesterday, white pupils are the worst performing group in our education system.

The hard facts of the educational underachievement of white pupils was highlighted by Dr Paul Cappon, a Canadian academic, who was asked by the Department for Education (DfE) to review the English education system. He presented his findings to the secretary of state for education, Nicky Morgan, and wrote a report.

Dr Cappon noted that whilst the under-achievement of white working-class children is a grave cause for concern, and one which has received significant political and expert consideration, there is a far bigger issue which no one appears to be talking about.

The fact is that educational under-achievement is not limited only to white working-class pupils – it is a problem faced by white pupils across all social classes. This table makes for startling reading:

Educational underperfomance

While the performance of white pupils as a whole is equivalent to that of black pupils, the fact is that white pupils, as a whole, are less disadvantaged than black pupils. Fewer white pupils are eligible for free school meals (FSM) than black pupils (12 per cent of white pupils have FSM compared with 29 per cent of black pupils). The relative economic advantage of white pupils makes their relative educational underperformance even more inexplicable.

Reflecting on the evidence about the underperformance of white pupils as a whole, Dr Cappon notes that: “It is interesting – and telling – in the light of these startling data – that few interveners in education seem aware, or wish to acknowledge, that the issue for indigenous British is not merely that of the working class. An important question, then, is: why do they not know or subconsciously wish not to know?”

Why is more not being done?

I agree with Dr Cappon. Why are white pupils, as a whole, achieving so poorly in the English education system? And why, in the light of the evidence, is more not being done to ascertain the nature of the problem, and to address it?

Has the issue been masked by the attention that has (rightly) been paid to white working-class under-achievement? It is widely known that white children who are eligible for free school meals (FSM) are now the lowest performing children at age 16. This problem is compounded by the fact that the attainment "gap" between those children eligible for FSM and the remainder is wider for white British and Irish children (approximately double) than for other ethnic groups, and this gap widens as children get older. 

So worried were members of the Commons education select committee about under-achievement in education by white working-class children that they investigated the issue and produced a report in 2015. Expert witnesses to the committee had different ideas about what caused the problem, and what could be done about it.

The Economic Policy Institute summarised the link between poverty and educational failure: “Lower class families have lower parental literacy levels, poorer health, more racial isolation, less stable housing, more exposure to crime and other stresses, less access to quality early childhood experiences, less access to good after-school programmes (and less ability to afford these even if they did have access), early childbearing…less security that comes from stable employment, more exposure to environmental toxins (eg, lead) that diminish cognitive ability, etc”

This is a very good summary of the multiple effects that poverty has upon children’s life chances – but the factors listed above would apply to children of all ethnic groups living in poverty, so what were the particular causes of white British children’s underperformance?

The Joseph Rowntree foundation argued there was not a poverty of expectation amongst white working-class parents. Professor Becky Francis (now adviser to the select committee) echoed this view: “There is a lot of evidence that working-class families have high aspirations. What they do not have is the information and the understanding as to how you might mobilise that aspiration effectively for outcomes for your children. Money makes a big difference here… but also understanding the rules of the game."

All this resonates with me, and sounds entirely plausible, but I question whether the disadvantages described by the experts are the preserve only of white working-class children. Are they not experienced too by working-class children from other ethnic groups, and if so, why do these issues affect white pupils so badly?

And why are white children, as a whole, and not just white working-class children, not performing as well as other ethnic groups in the English education system?

Not one of the explanations for white working-class under-achievement given to the Commons education select committee explains why it is a problem that effects white pupils more than their similarly disadvantaged peers from other ethnic groups. And there is no explanation I have been able to find for the fact that underperformance in white pupils is not confined to those who are working-class, but extends across the white school population. This is an issue that needs to be investigated thoroughly, so we can all work to improve the educational achievement of white pupils as a whole, not just that of white working-class pupils.

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL teaching union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow TES on Twitter and like TES on Facebook


Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Mary Bousted

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU

Latest stories