Why it's not racist to argue for the white working class

Andrew Bethell

Andrew Bethell is chief executive and creative director of Teachers TV

I was made very uneasy by Margaret Hodge's recent suggestion that established British families should be given priority over economic migrants for council housing. I am sure she has plenty of anecdotal evidence of apparent unfairness from her constituents, but there is little hard evidence to back her claim. It was hard not to associate it with something very similar from the British National Party. Yet I was conscious that Teachers TV was about to show a documentary on white underachievement that could have attracted the same unease.

It is a polemical film, in which the tone is set by teacher Phil Beadle, arguing that white working-class failure in schools is caused by a failure of middle-class teachers to address white working-class culture.

Disproportionate time, he argues, is spent addressing the cultural needs of black and Asian communities. As he says: "I've sat through whole rafts of assemblies about Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks and Jesse Owens and yet the only white person mentioned was Adolf Hitler." I can recall being accosted by white parents with National Front sympathies making the same case when, in the 1970s, we began to introduce black culture into the classroom and assembly hall. It was anathema then, so why should I give Phil the air time to express such sentiments in 2007?

There is a lot more statistical evidence to prove that poor white children are doing disproportionately worse in schools than Ms Hodge can muster to support her claims on housing. Of the 263,000 pupils who failed to get five good passes at GCSE in 2005, 83 per cent were white, most of them from poor homes. It is true that the 17 per cent that were black and Asian were a disproportionately large number from their communities and indicate unacceptable levels of failure. But if we are to tackle the attainment gap, we must focus attention and resources on the 200,000-plus poor white children, and poor white boys in particular.

Over the past 20 years, significant extra resources have been made available to meet the cultural and learning needs of black and ethnic-minority pupils. There were powerful arguments for this. The failure rates among Afro-Caribbean boys in the 1980s and 1990s were an outrage, and it was clear that part of the problem was an abject failure to reflect their cultural identity in the curriculum or in the school community.

Targeted learning support and determined efforts to reflect other cultures have made a difference, although there are similar levels of failure now among Bangladeshi children in the inner cities.

Yet, in the context of overall educational failure, the numbers are small.

The truth is, no such resources have been made available to support the significant majority of failing children and evidence suggests that if we are to reverse the trend for this group, there needs to be a similar injection of resources.

Arguing the case for redressing the balance and diverting resources to white working-class children who are being failed by schools should not be seen as racist. In part, it is the fear of that accusation that accounts for the failure of policy-makers and educationists to address the issue, divert resources and implement policy.

Phil Beadle and the contributors to the film argue that the root of this problem is not race, but class. The schools that are doing better with their white working-class pupils are those that acknowledge class as a determinant and value white-working class culture. Thus, they raise attainment and aspirations. "Valuing white-working class culture" should not be twisted to mean "devaluing black and Asian culture" and allowed to keep this pressing issue from being debated. Ms Hodge is using the same arguments to defend her right to say the unsayable and for that she deserves respect, but I remain a lot less convinced by her arguments than I am by Phil's.

School Matters: White Underachievement is being transmitted on Friday, June 1 at 6pm and Sunday, June 3 at 7pm

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