There is no quick fix for white working class underachievement

The bell does not dismiss you – the whole culture dismisses you. David Davies/PA

Last week a report from the Education Select Committee called new attention to an old problem: white working-class children consistently do especially badly at school.

In response to a persistent cycle of underachievement – only 31% of white British children entitled to free school meals got five A* to C grades in 2012, fewer than poor children from any other ethnic group – influential MPs have proposed so-called “revolutionary” solutions such as longer school days to improve test scores, incentives to get better teachers into disadvantaged schools and free schools targeted specifically at the white working-class population.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, always a fan of “no excuses” solutions, has even called for head teachers to be given the power to fine parents who fail to ensure their children turn up to school on time or complete their homework.

These are all nothing more than tweaks to much larger and more complex problems. There is no avoiding the fact that white working-class underachievement is symptomatic of much larger social, cultural and economic issues with the British education system, in which pupils’ performance has an extraordinarily strong positive association with social class.

Think bigger

Typical explanations of why white working-class pupils in particular underachieve usually point to uninvolved parenting, the effects of poverty, low literacy, low aspiration, post-industrial generational unemployment, and the relative absence of targeted support. These are, of course, all significant factors – but what gets left out of the equation are the larger structural factors.

The majority of white working-class children attend persistently inadequate, low-calibre schools. The UK’s education system is beset by deep problems: a lack of progress and innovation, pessimism about students’ ability, a fetish for never-ending surface-level change, and inadequate teacher training (to name a few). While some initiatives have been implemented (for example London Challenge and Teach First), there is nothing in United Kingdom similar to the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) model in America, which consistently takes low-income students and pushes them to Ivy League universities.

This chronic lack of innovation fosters class prejudices and a pervasive, pernicious complacency – “what will be, will be”.

Even if effective teachers were fittingly rewarded and school days were meaningfully extended, the UK school system, with its relentless (and misguided) emphasis on exam results, pass rates and league tables, confounds what these accountability measures were originally intended to achieve.

Within the state sector, all students contend with what has been called bureaucratic, institutional, and classroom “educational triage”, where some students benefit from dedicated attention while many others are written off from the moment they enter the school building. Too often, education is rationed.

And to compound things further, that all-too-obvious rationing sits within a system that stacks the deck against most pupils anyway. As has been known to the Department of Education for a long time, while the white working-class may perform particularly poorly on national exams, nearly half of all young people in the United Kingdom still do not achieve five good GCSEs, while even more do not reach that standard in English and maths.

Even those who do achieve those precious grades and intend to pursue a university qualification hardly have it easy – especially with the Coalition government cutting financial support to families from poorer backgrounds, trebling university tuition fees and failing to acknowledge the stagnant development of professional and managerial jobs.

In a situation like this, underachievement, in many diverse forms, can hardly be considered surprising.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

As the report sees it, compared to other ethnic groups, white working-class British children are less resilient in the face of poverty, deprivation and low socio-economic status. After all, students of other ethnic backgrounds attending the same schools and experiencing the same poverty do perform marginally better on national exams. While this may or may not be true, in my own research on white working-class boys’ aspirations, conducted in South London schools, I saw things in quite a different way.

The boys in my study were fully aware of their disadvantaged socio-economic status, and, furthermore, they knew they were getting a deficient education. In response, they excluded themselves from the school’s “aspirations” agenda. Internalising their potential failure, they preferred employment that was for “the likes of them”, where they would feel comfortable.

My time spent with these white working-class boys in an era of high-stakes testing and extreme pressure showed me how fear and shame can haunt working-class relationships to education.

I also saw how the boys were caught between two kinds of stigma and risk: they clearly had a fear of academic failure – and, given the deprived state of their school, that fear was entirely rational. But on the other hand, they also feared academic success. Good exam results would mean pressure to further their education, and to enter fields that would make them uncomfortable.

This clash left the boys I knew consciously fighting to guard and protect their self-worth against the dominant school culture, which threatened to stigmatise them whether they succeeded or not.

So while the Education Select Committee’s report should be commended for proposing any solutions at all, there is little hope for tweaks and nudges. The core structural and cultural issues must be acknowledged if the white working-class children that worry the government so much are to make real progress.