The new report on white working-class pupils is a masterclass in divisive rhetoric and scapegoating.
Updated: Jun 27, 2021
The new report on white working-class pupils is a masterclass in divisive rhetoric, data manipulation, and scapegoating.
The new report from the Education Committee “The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it” claims that “[d]isadvantaged White pupils fall behind their peers at every stage of education”, which is true… apart that it is not. The report is based on government data which uses free school meal eligibility as a proxy for disadvantage and purposefully manipulates how it presents that data to tell its own narrative. While disadvantaged White British pupils do fall behind in many aspects of education, and behind many other ethnic groups, there are aspects and groups which this report purposefully either omits or pays little attention to. Moreover, the supposed reasons for this underachievement are misplaced and pit groups against each other, through coded terms such as ‘geography’, ‘culture’ or ‘aspirations’. The report’s recommendations for the improvement of the situation are just as questionable. One of such recommendations is for schools to stop teaching about “white privilege”, because, as the report claims, it is the anti-racist “industry” that is responsible for the underachievement of the disadvantaged White British pupils. In this post I breakdown why this is not the case.
Manipulating data presentation:
First of all, the report is based on the intersectionality of ethnicity and socio-economic status, in which ethnicity (not the socio-economic status) is portrayed as the disadvantaging factor. This is despite the fact that ALL ethnic groups from economically disadvantaged backgrounds do worse than their non-disadvantaged counterparts. It also conveniently glosses over the fact that most ethnic groups have higher rates of free school meal eligibility than White British pupils and instead the report concentrates on the fact that they are *numerically* the biggest disadvantaged group. To acknowledge the reasons for the higher rates of disadvantage among other ethnic groups would be to acknowledge systemic racism, which the report is the antithesis of, with its narrative of “reverse” racism.
Next, in several places in the report, it uses the phrase “this is the lowest percentage for all ethnic groups…” referring to disadvantaged White British pupils. However, it is always followed by “…other than [name of other ethnic groups]…”. Using this phrase has a purpose of foregrounding the narrative of White disadvantage, and downplaying the fact that in all key metrics used in the report [ (1) 4-5-year olds’ Development Goals, (2) Attainment 8 scores at GCSEs, (3) Progress 8 scores at GCSEs, and (4) progression to higher education] it is the Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller communities that are by far the most disadvantaged. Additionally, Black Caribbean pupils are very close to White British pupils in their scores (according to the report there are Attainment 8 scores of 34.1 for Black vs 31.8 for White pupils and Progress 8 scores of -0.54 for Black vs -0.53 for White, where the higher the score the better). This is captured by the graph used in the report (see below). However, both the graph and the report’s overall narrative pay very little attention to the fact that these scores are very similar. If the authors of the report were truly concerned with underachievement in education, they would have to acknowledge that the disadvantaged Black Caribbean pupils were in the same situation as the disadvantaged White British pupils, and that the Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller communities were the ones who needed support the most.
(Source: www.parliament.uk 2021)
Furthermore, there are aspects of education that the report almost completely omitted as they did not serve its narrative. One of those aspects are exclusions – in terms of both permanent and temporary exclusions from education (as per governmental figures) it is the Black Caribbean, Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller pupils that face disproportionate rates of exclusions. Another aspect that the report downplayed was the disparities in higher education degree classifications – which unfortunately are lower for all non-White ethnic groups.
Shifting the blame onto communities of colour:
Through a coded language, the report tries to shift the blame for the underachievement of White British pupils from governmental policy failings onto communities of colour. In particular, the report highlighted two supposed reasons for the underachievement:
(1) “Place-based disparities, not just relating to income deprivation but also poor infrastructure, struggling job markets and lack of opportunity, and multi-generational poverty and unemployment, are more likely to affect disadvantaged White pupils due to the distribution of ethnic diversity in the country. Tackling these requires highly tailored local solutions.”
This coded language of “geography” is a reference to the fact that most minority ethnic pupils (and communities as a whole) are concentrated in London, where educational outcomes are overall higher than in the rest of the country. However, the report fails to recognise that in the last 11 years (so most of the time in which the pupils in question participated in education) consecutive Conservative governments cut funding to education and other services, particularly outside of London. Thus, the report tries to blame people of colour rather than governmental austerity.
(2) “Cultural factors, including family structure, experience of education, and access to community assets (including places of worship, youth groups and other social organisations), may also disproportionately impact attainment for disadvantaged White pupils.”
The report then follows by explaining what it means by cultural and family factors:
“‘Aspirations’ and ‘culture’ are recurring themes in the debate about how to help the White working-class. We heard evidence of an ‘immigrant paradigm’ that leads some families to place greater value on education.”
With this narrative, the report aims to blame communities of colour for their resilience in the face of racism and xenophobia (which, ironically, it denies exist), instead of fully examining why the education system and society at large strip White British working class/ disadvantaged communities off aspirations. This is a classic 'divide and conquer' tactics, deeply embedded in the neoliberal discourse of individual responsibility.
The recommendations of the report call for improved data in order to better target solutions. That is to say, the authors of the report would like to see £14 million investment in geographic areas which would help only (or predominantly) White families. Moreover, they would like to see a reform of the Pupil Premium (money given to schools to help support disadvantaged pupils) so that it cannot be used freely by schools but only to support White students… so much for the Conservative values of giving autonomy to schools.
The report claims that improved career advice and guidance, as well as targeted outreach from university widening participation (WP) teams would boost access to higher education. This line of reasoning has been tried before (under the Labour government with the Aimhigher initiative in early 2000s) and it brought only limited results. Moreover, White working-class pupils are already the biggest target group in WP efforts. While the report points to the “disengagement from the curriculum” as one of the reasons for the underachievement of the disadvantaged White British pupils, it does not offer any recommendations for solving this issue. From a logical point of view, it seems pointless to be encouraging more advice and guidance on accessing education in the current format, when it is the current format of education (i.e. its curriculum) that is the barrier, not information about it. The cynic in me thinks that, perhaps, the authors of the report are scared to suggest changes to what is taught, particularly as, at the moment, decolonisation seems to be a popular discourse, which provides challenge to the status quo of the knowledge cannon. “Worse” yet (for the government and report's authors), a curriculum that effectively engages working class students risks waking up class consciousness which cuts across racial boundaries… and I’m pretty sure that this would be Tories’ biggest nightmare.
And finally, the report claims that there is an “industry” which encourages other ethnic groups to do better, and that a solution to this would be to not allow teaching on “white privilege”. This is an extremely divisive rhetoric, which is not based in facts – as most support goes to White students, and it has been the case for many years. The report claims that “In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, terms such as ‘White Privilege’ became increasingly common”… but the report fails to account for how one year of BLM discourses can be responsible for decades of “[p]ersistent and multigenerational disadvantage” and in particular, how it could singlehandedly do more harm than the 11 years of educational austerity under Conservative rule.
The report’s authors claim that it fights divisive rhetoric (by which they mean teaching about systemic racism) by… ironically… engaging in the most divisive rhetoric possible. In many places the report refers to and agrees with the widely criticised report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities which claimed that there was no such thing as *systemic* racism in the UK, and yet by talking about a systemic disadvantage of White British students the authors try to convince us that there is systemic “reverse” racism. The term “white working class” is not used by the government in any discourse other than education and there are no governmental efforts or policies to address the problems that the white working-class struggle with. This is because the government does *not* care about white working-class people, it is only using them to further antagonise the public against minority ethnic communities, and has done so for many years (Gillborn, 2008).