In this blog Dr Jonathan Barnes & Catherine Carden reflect upon the recent Parliamentary report highlighting how white working-class children are being let down by the education system.
On the 22nd June, the UK Parliament’s Education Committee published its report ‘The forgotten: how white working class pupils have been let down and how to change it.’ Such a revealing and uncharacteristically ‘parliamentary’ title with words like ‘forgotten’, ‘let down’, ‘working-class’, - even ‘white’ rarely finding their way into the titles of such reports. Each key word of the title having its critics even from within the committee that wrote and accepted it.
The report makes it clear from the outset that the worryingly large percentages of young people failing to thrive educationally is not new news. In fact, Ofsted reported on it nearly 10 years ago in their Evidence Report, Unseen Children (Ofsted 2012) and a Government Select Committee reporting on exactly this issue in 2014. Something also acknowledged by Sam Baars in a recent report in The Times, with Baars reminding us all “We’ve been talking about education inequalities for what seems like for ever”.
Neither has the issue exactly been forgotten. The underachievement of white disadvantaged children has rather been neglected through years of government ‘muddled thinking’, over-simplification of problems, significantly diminished investment and ever-weakening support. The choice that the government has made to neglect the issue is the ‘let down’. The report makes it clear that successive Departments of Education are to blame.
The term ‘working class’ is also unhelpful, though used by many commentators on inequalities. According to the Office of National Statistics 60% (including large numbers in managerial and professional positions) refer to themselves as ‘working-class’ – so perhaps the reports alternative – ‘disadvantaged’ is more useful.
The strongly worded first paragraph of the report sets the tone:
The educational underachievement of White working-class pupils is clear. They are among the most likely to not achieve a pass in English and Maths GCSE and the least likely to go to university. White pupils are the country’s ethnic majority, with 982,950 White pupils eligible for free school meals in 2020.1 Consistently poor outcomes for disadvantaged pupils in this group is a significant challenge in closing the overall disadvantage gap.(UK Parliament , 2021, Introduction Para.1 p.9)
In a current climate in which the term ‘white privilege’ has belatedly become legitimate currency, the sufferings of ‘white working class pupils’ might initially seem contradictory. The report however, makes it clear that despite greater economic, cultural and social disadvantage, Black, Asian and mixed-race children tend to outperform their White, Gypsy, Roma and traveller peers. Poor white children are disproportionately represented in lists of those not in higher education, unhappy at school and not achieving developmental goals in health and well-being. They are more likely to be trapped in what the committee calls, ‘cycles of disengagement’. Even using a crude measure of economic deprivation, like Free School Meals (FSM), where 20.8% of all children are eligible for FSM (2021) - 20 % of all Black children, and 11% of all White children are eligible - poor Black children generally outperform their poor White age-mates.
The roots of this problem are complex and contested. Poverty and unemployment are causes, yes, but it seems that white disadvantaged children are also open to a greater accumulation of intergenerational disadvantage, geographical inequalities, poor family experience of education and uncertainty about its relevance, and government failure to target support or address low participation in higher education; just 16% of White FSM pupils accessed higher education in 2018/19, the lowest participation of any ethnic group, other than Traveller of Irish Heritage and Gypsy/Roma.
The solutions offered by the Education Committee are predictable: more money, better training and greater incentives for teachers, more attention to health and well-being, more support targeted on the most vulnerable….. but we have heard all these before.
It is evident from many sources that education in England does not afford success for many children. Compared to most countries in the rich world British young people are among the most unhappy in school between 11 and 16, more dissatisfied with their lives, more often bullied and less trusting of their peers (WHO, 2020, OECD, 2012) with the happiness of children between the ages of 10 and 15 continuing to decline (The Children’s Society 2020).
In 2012 41% of English young children were judged as, ‘not achieving a good level of [health] development’ (Marmot, 2012). Since then, the general rate of child poverty with its attendant well-being and social/mental/intellectual development problems has improved by almost 7% to between a quarter and a third (Institute of Health Equity, 2020). However, Ofsted has, and continues to make us aware that large numbers of mostly poor and disadvantaged, ‘unseen children,’ show significant and widening gaps in achievement from age five (Ofsted, 2013), with the recent lockdowns potentially seeing a widening of such gaps. These drags on development are general, but particularly prevalent in disadvantaged white children, especially those outside London and the big cities.
The pandemic has put a magnifying glass on our educational failings. Solutions need to come from structural, philosophical and cultural directions.
The forgotten children need schools to change. Of course, pedagogical and curricular change requires well-trained, enthusiastic teachers committed to their subject specialisms and to the holistic development of all young people; but teachers are not enough. Schools must be given the opportunity to develop a fresh, professionally informed revision of curricular and pedagogical approaches. Schools need to pause and reflect, asking themselves some key questions: What values guide, unite and enervate the programmes they follow? What range of methods should teachers use to communicate, motivate and engage? What generates and sustains their and young people’s well-being? How do teachers and children create environments where the chances of positive experiences are greater than the chances of negative? How do schools build relevant, motivating and sustainable cultures for all within their walls? Such questions must asked and answered because schooling is not working for more than just the white working class.
Schools have been driven to limit the palette of options open to youngsters. Class sizes are too big for teachers metaphorically and physically to get alongside and truly support each individual learner. The arts and humanities have been side-lined too often and too few young people have school-based experiences that light up their eyes. The Pandemic has given us the perfect opportunity to stop and reflect in order to move forward in a more positive direction that affords education success for all, where nobody or group are forgotten.
There is little space here to give detailed answers to these fundamental questions but Jonathan’s forthcoming book “Positive Pedagogy across the primary curriculum,” to be published by Sage next year, offers some thoughts on an affirmative direction of travel under the following headings:
Be clear about values: Every school should agree, establish, frequently revisit and consistently live a set of genuinely chosen and shared values. Teachers, Learning Supporters and children should work to identify them. These values will be different in each school, constantly referred to and policed by parents, governors and other stakeholders.
Ensure values inform how the curriculum unfolds: Values agreed within the daily community of the school should define what aspects of the standard curriculum subjects are highlighted throughout the year. For example how will the concept of sustainability affect the detail of the history curriculum? How will our belief in community alter the way we learn in art or Music? How might our understanding of the importance of beauty affect children’s experience of PE or mathematics?
Create positive social, emotional, physical and spiritual environments within and beyond the school: This means paying close attention to teachers’ well-being as well as students’, caring about their personal and family lives, supporting them in difficulties, publicly appreciating large and small scale contributions. Schools should carefully consider how to use or construct positive social and physical environments where feelings like security, wonder, curiosity, gratitude, joy, fascination, collaboration and care arise easily.
Get outside more: the ‘real’ world starts outside the classroom. Schools should use their local environments much more. Streets, parks, woods, supermarkets and car parks are real environments filled with opportunities for learning in literally any subject. Newly learned skills and knowledge applied to genuine elements of the locality that all share are more likely to be relevant and motivating.
Take inclusion seriously: Inclusivity involves every member of the school community – adults and children alike. The truly inclusive school sees diversity as fundamental to our humanity. Recognising and honouring this diversity within our schools helps build an working, authentic model of a culture where all lives matter, every child and adult can flourish.