Who has found the white working class?

The House of Commons Education Committee writes Jon Duveen, has made one progressive step: it has at last realised that classes exist.

The report, The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it, attempts to show that the education system – and schools and teachers in particular– have been ignoring white working class pupils and failing to ameliorate their disadvantages.

The report tries to show that all through the education system white working class pupils fail to succeed in their education. Because the Education Committee has no way of assessing the class background of the children and young people, it uses as proxy those eligible for free school meals (FSM). Whilst this group has significant overlap with the working class, it doesn’t include all the working class, and consequently the use of the FSM group as a proxy for the working class has to be treated with care, which the report doesn’t seem to do with consistency.

The data shows that white students eligible for free school meals are not the most successful in the examination and assessment system that the government has established. But it also shows no significant difference between this group and all students eligible for FSM.

In fact it does show that the outcomes of two other groups are significantly different from the all FSM group, those are the groups defined as ‘Gypsy/Roma’ and ‘Irish Traveller’. Surprisingly, the rest of the document is silent on these two groups except to record that they are always lower than the other groups. It seems that these groups, under particular attack by the government already through the Police, Courts and sentencing Bill, are not worthy of investigation even though their attainment in the present system should be causing concern the Department for Education (DfE). Or is it that the Education Committee does not follow up these issues as it would not accord with their stance in the culture war?

There are other issues with the data and the conclusions the committee draws from it. The evidence is that in all cases females outperform males. So the issue of the underachievement of white working class children and young people might be more profitably looked at as to why males underachieve in relation to females throughout the present education system. But the Education Committee has chosen to select the white working class and in particular white working class males to focus on.

Why have they chosen to look at this group? Is it because the data shows that this group is underachieving more significantly than any other group? Well no. It’s a political choice and has two aims. First, it is part of the framework of ‘levelling up’ that the Prime Minister is so committed to. In the ‘red wall’ constituencies in the north of England where the working class seems to be breaking from the Labour Party, telling the voters that the reason why their children are not as successful in the education system is the fault of schools and teachers is a way of sowing divisions in the working class and hopefully drawing more of them towards the Tory Party. Secondly, it is a continuation of the policy of denying that racism has real effects in society and in this it follows hard upon the heels of the report produced by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities in March of this year. The flavour of the report can be seen in the following extract:

It was noted during our evidence hearings that a lot of children in these disadvantaged white communities aren’t aware of their own disadvantage. This is a problem. As a committee we believe that the use of terms such as ‘White Privilege’ doesn’t help this matter. This is coupled with the fact that there is an industry which has emerged to support these other groups in a form that isn’t available for disadvantaged white pupils.  

What would an ‘industry …. for disadvantaged white pupils’ look like? Isn’t this a call for a reactionary or even fascist group based on the ‘disadvantages’ of being white?

What should our response be?

First we have to take issue with the whole system of education that the Tories are pursuing in England. Their concept of a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum is stifling the resourcefulness of teachers. The adherence to a rigid examination and assessment system is stifling the creativity of the children and young people in our schools and colleges. The ‘accountability system’, making everything a teacher or support staff worker does be subject to a detailed scrutiny, and the role of Ofsted makes the system toxic for all. We need to put forward a radical alternative, based on an assessment of what a working class education would look like, on the needs of the children and young people and the centrality of creativity in the curriculum. We need to demand adequate resourcing of the pupil premium and of non-educational services for young people such as youth clubs. We need to continue to shout about the fact that that the catch up funding this government is allocating to students impacted by the pandemic is way behind other comparable countries.

Secondly, we need to see the necessity of building coalitions in support of our alternative. Such a coalition should involve the education unions, parents’ organisations, community groups, campaign bodies, Constituency Labour Parties and other trade unions. It is particularly important in the current context to be working with Gypsy Roma Traveller groups, with Black groups, with feminist groups and with student groups.

Thirdly, we need to take every opportunity to challenge the government’s view of education and put forward our alternative.


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