Thank you Chair, and can I start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for providing me with this opportunity to make a statement on my Committee’s report ‘The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it’.
Our Committee is dedicated to championing left-behind groups, and as a first step we decided to examine the decades-long neglect of disadvantaged White pupils.
This is seven years on from a previous Education Committee’s report that found that “White working-class underachievement in education is real and persistent”. We appreciate that this is a second report from an Education Committee on this specific group, but the large number of disadvantaged White pupils that underachieve in education remains a significant obstacle to closing the overall attainment gap.
Our Committee is fully aware that other groups also experience disadvantage and discrimination in education and deserve support, and we understand the justified anger that people feel about racism, prejudice and discrimination.
It is vital that we work together as a country to address those issues and we commit to investigating those in our future work on left-behind groups. All disadvantaged groups struggle, but the picture for White British children eligible for free school meals is particularly bleak.
In 2019, just 53% of FSM-eligible White British children met the expected standard of development in early years, and in the same year only 17.7% of FSM-eligible White British pupils achieved a strong pass in English and Maths GCSE. Free school meal eligible White British pupils also have one of the lowest rates of participation in higher education, with just 16% of this group going to university by the age of 19 in 2019.
There are many reasons for this gap, and there will be no simple fix. We are certain that it is not due to any ethnic trait: a person’s ethnicity bears no relation to their natural ability or potential. Neither is it solely an issue of poverty, as the Department seems quick to assert.
Children from ethnic minorities are more likely to experience poverty, and yet many of them consistently out-perform their similarly disadvantaged White British peers.
During our inquiry we heard about many possible factors that may combine to put disadvantaged White pupils at a particular disadvantage, including these key areas:
1. Persistent and multigenerational disadvantage
2. Place-based factors, including regional economics and underinvestment
3. Family experience of education
4. A lack of social capital
5. Disengagement from the curriculum
6. A failure to address their low participation in higher education
No-one could deny that children from other ethnic backgrounds also experience these challenges – and in their case, these challenges are often compounded by racism. However, we believe that White working class families may be afflicted by a greater accumulation of these problems, putting their children at a grave disadvantage when it comes to learning.
Many of the solutions to these issues that we heard are likely to benefit all children from low-income families: for example, the importance of high-quality early years support and ensuring all pupils have excellent teachers. However, the evidence that our inquiry received also pointed to two key areas which we think are central to understanding the relative underperformance of disadvantaged White pupils:
1. Place-based disparities
2. Cultural factors
To tackle this, the Department for Education must first acknowledge the extent of the problem and recognise that its current approach is not working. What is needed now is a tailored approach, with targeted actions.
First: funding and support must be tailor-made at a local level to level-up educational opportunity.
To do this, we need a better understanding of disadvantage and better tools to tackle it. We need data that pinpoints barriers, and areas that need more support, so we can always get extra help to those pupils, schools and neighbourhoods that need it most.
The Department must also consider reforming funding mechanisms such as the Pupil Premium, with weighting for long-term disadvantage and better accountability measures to ensure the funding is always spent on the most disadvantaged.
Second: Disadvantaged White families must have access to strong early years support and Family Hubs, to support parental engagement and tackle multi-generational disadvantage.
The Department must set out a bold vision for every town to have a Family Hub, using existing community assets where appropriate. These should offer integrated services, build trusting relationships with families and work closely with schools to provide support throughout a child’s educational journey.
We also heard that some disadvantaged White families may struggle with low levels of adult education, making it more challenging for those parents to help their children in school. In my Committee’s previous report, A plan for an adult skills and lifelong learning revolution, we highlighted the decline of adult learning. To support disadvantaged White parents who want to improve their own level of education in order to help their children, in this report we call for there to be a community learning centre in every town, and for a skills tax credit to incentivise employers to train their staff.
Third: We must ensure the value of vocational training and apprenticeship options, while boosting access to higher education.
We are clear that this does not mean introducing a two-tier system, with practical subjects a second-rate alternative for children perceived to be less able. The Department must reform accountability measures by reforming the Ebacc, with a curriculum that includes both academic subjects and at least one technical, creative or vocational course in Key Stage 4.
We also need a better approach to widening participation in higher education for disadvantaged White pupils. Disadvantaged White students deserve to know about all their options on leaving school – including higher education. The Office for Students found in 2019 that “around £800 million is spent by universities on improving access and outreach”.
We call for some of the money that universities spend on outreach to be sent “upstream” in pupils’ educational journeys, teaching them about the opportunities of higher education and particularly encouraging take-up of degree apprenticeships. We also call for the Office for Students to do more to encourage providers to treat disadvantaged White pupils as a priority, given that they have such low rates of participation in higher education.
Fourth: All students must have access to the very best teachers, as good teaching is one of the most powerful levers for improving outcomes.
We need teaching degree apprenticeships, and more investment in local teacher training centres to help get good teachers to the pupils who need them most.
Fifth: We have to learn to stop pitting one group against another and find a better, less divisive way of talking about racial disparities in this country.
The notion of White privilege can be hugely damaging by giving the perception that the disadvantaged do not need support. It has however worryingly gained credence and exposure in recent months.
It remains a completely meaningless concept to the young boy or girl growing up in an area without opportunities from one generation to the next. They feel anything but privileged.
It is time to end the neglect and muddled thinking that has characterised the last few decades when it comes to helping and supporting the White working class.
The disadvantaged in this country face an unacceptable attainment gap, which the covid-19 pandemic will only have worsened.
By finally facing up to the problems faced by such a large group in society, and doing something about it, the Government can really bring about a step change in efforts to close the chasm and ensure everyone has the chance to climb life’s ladder of opportunity.