The Tory-dominated Education select committee released a report, The Forgotten: How white working class pupils have been let down, on 22 June.
The main conclusion of the report should have been: poor students are disadvantaged at school and New Labour and Tory education “reforms” coupled with cuts, austerity and increasing inequality in the UK have made matters worse.
Labour members of the committee commented, “The evidence we received clearly indicated that the main determining factors of poor educational outcomes were class and regional inequalities caused by more than a decade of austerity. Put simply, where a child is born and raised has much more of a bearing on educational outcomes than ethnicity does.”
But rather than blame themselves, the Tory-majority committee has blamed woke educationalists and the idea of “white privilege” for the educational underachievement of poor white kids.
The first time I heard a school worker use the term “white privilege” was during discussions that followed the recent Black Lives Matter protests.
The idea that white people must abandon “white privilege” to tackle racism was popularised in the US in the late 1980s by the white US academic Peggy McIntosh. But the phrase has not been commonly used in Britain until very recently. Indeed the report does not give a single example of a UK school promoting the term or the ideas that underpin it.
Blaming radical anti-racist educators for the plight of white working-class kids is a crude and unpleasant diversion, cynically inserted into an important discussion to distract and divide.
I teach at an inner-London Academy. Most of the students are from poor homes, with over 60% of the kids eligible for free school meals. A majority of the students are not white. (Their backgrounds are diverse, the biggest single contingent West African). The worst performing group of students (by exam grades) in the school are white working-class.
So how to explain that? Compare the white families with the families of the West African kids at the school. That many parents are unemployed, or working in minimum wage jobs, and living on local estates, is common across both groups. But the differences are important too. The West African families largely have middle class origins in countries like Nigeria. And these families have middle-class attitudes, habits, and aspirations which affect the kids’ learning and exam grades.
What appears as a question of race, is actually largely a matter of class.
The exam results of Asian kids from East African families and Chinese students in British schools are also better than average for similar reasons.
And what all these families of children at my school have in common is important too. If your family does not have much money, buying books, violin lessons, theatre tickets, internet connections and laptops is hard. If four kids and two parents live in a three bedroom flat, then studying is difficult, as is learning under lockdown.
So, some of the ways to improve educational outcomes for all working class kids have got nothing at all, directly, to do with education. Well-paid jobs for all workers and high quality and affordable housing would have a big impact on our kids’ education.
Finally, on the general issue of rebranding anti-racism as an issue of “white privilege”. It is interesting that, faced with a practical problem of racial discrimination in my school, the demand to end “white privilege” has not made the transition from US academic articles to a usable idea.
Recently we found the school management has discriminated against black teachers, putting disproportionate numbers on performance-improvement plans. What did the union say in response? Black teachers must not be discriminated against. We want equal treatment for black workers. These are the ideas of equality and the French revolution, not of US academia.
Thinking back to the 1990s and campaigning against the fascist BNP in Millwall, on London’s Isle of Dogs, if we had proceeded by demanding white workers on East End housing estates end their “white privilege”, we would have created a backlash. Demanding equality and levelling up is better. So let’s do that in education, too.