Amanda Spielman, the current chief inspector of Ofsted, is no stranger to controversy. At the end of last year, Spielman went head-to-head with Muslim parents, teaching unions and third-sector organisations over the potential banning of Muslim children wearing hijabs (headscarves) in a primary school, with the implicit suggestion that Muslim parents could not be trusted to look after the welfare and the personal/intellectual development of their daughters.
Skip forward to the third week of June 2018, and the contentious head of Ofsted is now embroiled in a new controversy, this time casting aspersions on white working-class pupils and their parents, with the ill-judged and detrimental view that they have “low aspirations and drive”, particularly in comparison with “migrant communities”.
Cue: dismay and protests from everyone who has engaged with white working-class children (and their families) and anyone who has engaged with the evidence on aspirations and achievements of children in British schools.
Here are (at least) 10 reasons why and how, Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of schools, has misrepresented “the aspirations and drive” of white working-class children:
- Victim-blaming or blaming white working-class families and children for their low achievements is not only a cop-out, it’s a red-herring. Career aspirations don’t just come from families and the home environment; they’re also highly influenced by school practices and wider social and economic factors and external expectations and perceptions.
- Aspirations and expectations vary by socioeconomic backgrounds because "social capital" matters. Yes, parental and home factors are critical to shaping career aspirations, but factors such as parental engagement, access to informed networks (i.e., knowing the "rules of the game"), use of tutors and time spent on /help with homework are also hugely influential and more of a product of socioeconomic status rather than “attitudinal” or “cultural factors.
- Instead of trying to change pupils’ or parents’ attitudes (and victim-blame), we should put more pressure on the system to adapt. Research commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that it is more effective to equip poorer parents with tailored advice, support and information to support their children in education rather than focus on the symptoms of their disengagement with education, or their “aspirations”.
- We do not know whether lack of “aspirations and drive” are the explanation for low achievements in schools. Just because two things are linked or correlated (aspirations and achievement), it doesn’t mean one causes the other. So even if white working-class children have “lower aspirations” compared with other ethnic groups, there is no robust evidence to suggest that raising white working-class aspirations will address low attainment issues. In addition, it could be argued that the reverse is true – raising attainment raises aspirations and expectations.
- In blaming white-working class students for their apparent lack of aspirations, Spielman ignores the context in which they are schooled. Schools in deprived areas face significant challenges including high teacher turnover, which has a significant impact on children’s achievements. Research by the DfE has shown that teachers in secondary schools in deprived areas are 70 per cent more likely to leave than those in better-off areas. Research by the Sutton Trust and Oxford University educational department has also shown that 29 per cent of white boys from disadvantaged backgrounds went on to post-16 education in deprived areas compared with 46 per cent of white disadvantaged boys in more affluent areas.
- We know from educational research with black and ethnic minority pupils that school practices (e.g., streaming/sets) influence teachers’ expectations. How well schools meet the needs of pupils, including within the curriculum, is hugely important in shaping and predicting how well BME students do in school. This will also apply to white working-class children who are likely to have different experiences growing up from their better-off peers. Runnymede Trust research on the curriculum has shown that children prefer curricula that are more relevant to their lives, their history and their experience.
- Pitting children against each other by race and class is not only a false comparison (BME children are working class, too), but it is also harmful for children who are not being given positive messages and values about their socioeconomic background. The irony of Amanda Spielman denigrating the aspirations of white working-class children is that 20 years ago this is exactly what the educational system used to say about BME children when they were underachieving in schools. Detrimental and harmful views about the supposedly low aspirations, abilities and expectations of BME children and their parents meant that several BME groups (including those that are now “lauded” for their aspirations and success) were marginalised and destined for disengagement from education.
- Regular absences and exclusions have an enormous impact on achievement, and exclusion figures show that children on free school meals (FSM) are more likely to be permanently excluded from schools than children who are better off. In addition, white children on FSM are absent from school far more often than their ethnic minority FSM peers. While Ofsted has written to headteachers demanding to know why some groups of students (e.g., SEND) are disproportionately being excluded from schools, it also needs to review school absences by ethnic groups, and ask how itself and the DfE can better support (and reward) schools to retain and manage pupils with challenging behaviour.
- There is some research which shows that contrary to popular misconceptions, working-class pupils do have high aspirations, but the key differences between them and other social class and ethnic minority groups are trust, confidence and/or belief that these aspirations can be realised. A child from a poor background may have high aspirations, but may also believe that schools are not the medium through which they can achieve those aspirations.
- Where you live and grow up not only has a huge bearing on your educational attainment and higher education participation but also on your labour market prospects. One important reason why working-class children are not performing so highly is that white Britons are less likely to be based in London (only 10 per cent of white British children go to school in London, compared with approximately 45 per cent of ethnic minority children), where there have been significant innovations ranging from London Challenge, Teach First graduates, new academies and so on. Such concentrated investment has meant that London schools have transformed from being some of the worst performing secondary schools in the country to some of the best, as reflected by the position of some of the East London schools within the Times league table of secondary schools.
There is significant research evidence to show that children’s career aspirations and expectations are complex and influenced by many external (and rational choice) factors. But when the head of Ofsted suggested that the educational achievements of white working-class children were due more to their lack of “aspirations and drive", she not only misrepresented the structural impact of their socioeconomic circumstances, she wrote off another white working-class generation.