White privilege and schools | Why do poor white children underperform?

This week a report by the Conservative-dominated Commons Education Select Committee said that children from white working class backgrounds have been “let down for decades” by the education system.  17.7% of white British pupils eligible for Free School Meals eligible achieved at least a strong pass (grade 5 or above) in English and maths at GCSE, compared with 22.5% of all FSM-eligible pupils. 

Rather than blame policy choices made by politicians the Conservative chair of the report Robert Haflon blamed the the concept of “white privilege”

“We… desperately need to move away from dealing with racial disparity by using divisive concepts like white privilege that pits one group against another. Disadvantaged white children feel anything but privileged when it comes to education”

Personally this feels like a very unlikely claim. The idea of white privilege has only been around for a few years, while educational underperformance by poorer white pupils goes back decades – it was apparent when I was at school that there were a group of poorer pupils who were totally disengaged from learning. We didn’t think of this as a race issue because the school I went to only had one non-white pupil.

White privilege doesn’t mean that these white pupils have an advantage over pupils from ethnic minorities – it just means that while they may face multiple barriers to success race isn’t one of them.

Its a real problem so if it isn’t white privilege causing it then what?

The best performing Local Authorities for educational attainment for poorer white pupils all offer comprehensive education.

The worst performing Local Authorities for educational attainment for poorer white pupils all retain the 11 plus and grammar schools.

The educational gap for poorer white pupils really took off in the 90s when white families from London who had bought their Council Houses sold up at a massive profit and moved to places like Essex and Kent. Their kids were streamed into secondary moderns, while middle class families who could afford private primary education and tutoring got their kids into grammar schools.

Their former homes in London were sold or leased to a much more ethnically diverse, often immigrant, population who did much better at school, helped hugely by the London Schools Challenge under New Labour.   

I am sure that there are cultural issues at work here – poorer immigrant families are more likely to push their kids at school – but most of it is about school systems – pupils at an ethnically diverse comprehensive school in an urban area like London perform better than pupils at a less diverse Secondary Modern style school in the home counties.

All of this guff from Tory MPs blaming liberals talking about white privilege is a distraction from the fact that their own policies created the problem. It’s an effective strategy; it positions Conservative politicians on the side of the white working class, and presents Labour as more interested in non-white pupils – a cynical but effective bit of racial division. But it is still a lie.

People whose lives have been shaped by extreme privilege are mostly reluctant to admit the extent that privilege has shaped their lives; preferring instead to believe in their own personal qualities of hard work and intellect, combined with some kind of innate officer class mentality.

We have a Government led by people who owe their position in society entirely to wealth and privilege and who conspicuously lack any redeeming qualities of hard work or intellectual brilliance. Had Boris Johnson been born poor in Peterlee he would be exactly the kind of workless feckless bloke the Government likes to condemn loudly.

It is no surprise that they want to deny the extent to which privilege still shapes peoples lives in this country and that the policies that they advocate perpetuate this.


One thought on “White privilege and schools | Why do poor white children underperform?

  1. Interesting and thought provoking commentary once again John. Sadly culture war style provocation is a gift that keeps on giving for the privileged class and it’s not something they are likely to stop anytime soon.

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