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White under-achievement in education

  • 2 November 2020
  • By Mary Curnock Cook

Mary Curnock Cook casts an eye over the Education Select Committee’s inquiry into Left Behind White Pupils from Disadvantaged Backgrounds. You can find Mary on Twitter @MaryCurnockCook

Earlier this month, Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow and Chair of the Education Select Committee, launched an inquiry into Left Behind White Pupils from Disadvantaged Backgrounds

In my years at UCAS, I observed the outcome of relative disadvantage in education expressed through the data about who did and who did not apply and enrol in higher education – the end of an education funnel which narrowed so much more for some groups than for others. I was always concerned to see the white ethnic group showing the lowest progression rates to university, particularly white students from poorer backgrounds and even more particularly, poor white boys. Against a backdrop of heightened sensitivities about ‘white privilege’, race and identity, this enquiry was bound to be controversial. But the Committee is right to try to establish whether there is some kind of systemic under-privilege for white children from poorer backgrounds because the data show incontrovertibly that the white ethnic group mostly underperforms all other ethnic groupings with the exception of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. This is true from early years through primary and secondary and on into higher education.

The colour of your skin, your sex or your social background should not make a difference to your education prospects. That is what equality and fair access are about – we are all trying to make sure that these immutable background characteristics don’t make a difference and that an individual’s motivation and potential are the things that do matter. 

The white group in this country makes up about 86 per cent of the population and includes 3.4 million foreign born citizens who identify as White British or ‘Other White’. The sheer size of this ethnic majority means that inequalities (in both directions) are amplified because even small percentages mean big numbers of human beings. These ethnicity and Free School Meal (FSM) cartograms produced by SchoolDash are instructive.   

Here we can see that ethnic minority populations (top map) are predominantly clustered in clearly identifiable regions, especially London and the West Midlands, as well as in certain cities such Leicester, Birmingham, Manchester and Bradford.  From the second map, we can also see strong correlations between ‘ever 6’ free school meal pupils (FSM) in these regions. Less easy to see, because they pervade both maps, are the underlying high (but not necessarily highest) FSM levels in the large swathes of the country where the population is more highly predominantly white, such as the North East and many coastal and rural areas.  

The population density of London is more than a hundred times the density of some rural areas and population density makes a big difference as you can see from the cartograms, for example in London, which shows as an overly large area on the map, with over 40% of its population from BAME groups. The number of 16 year olds in London is nearly 3.5 times as large as that in the North East, as shown on the ONS interactive chart below.

The ‘London Effect’ is well-understood as is its primacy in educational outcomes, with proportionately more positive effects for its concentrated ethnic minority population in the national statistics. The opposite is true for whatever measure you look at for poor education outcomes in other parts of the country, with poor white children often proportionately more affected. This is true for a whole range of measures including lower per school funding, poorly performing schools, higher teacher vacancies, longer travel times, worse digital infrastructure, fewer role models, higher unemployment and worse educational outcomes.  It amounts to structural disadvantage for large proportions and very large numbers of white children.

This is not to disavow the disadvantages for children of colour from poor backgrounds and, undoubtedly, children from ethnic minorities face additional barriers from racism and ‘othering’.  White children generally do not face barriers related to the colour of their skin but rather from poverty and all the social and educational disadvantages that go with it for all young people living in poverty. If you are from an ethnic minority, you are more likely to be poor, but if you are poor then you are more likely to do badly at school if you are also white.  And there are a lot of these white children from low-income backgrounds, disproportionately more in areas that regularly report poorer educational outcomes, lower access to higher education and where there is less access to high quality employment opportunities.  Rural and coastal areas provide a good example – a relatively low proportion of the population with a high proportion of white families and therefore with high numbers of white pupils caught in the statistics.

While geography matters a lot in tracking down the cause of educational underperformance of the white ethnic group, it doesn’t explain all of it.  But here the trail goes a bit cold.  I know from my time at UCAS that within POLAR Quintile1 (lowest HE participation areas) the entry rate to higher education for the White ethnic group is around half that for BAME groups.  But I can’t find any data sets which look at the intersections between ethnicity, social background and education achievement. 

Many respondents to the enquiry also criticised access to meaningful data.  Several evidence submissions regretted the lack of access to the National Pupil Database to inform research in this area.  Much of the written evidence rehearsed the data on the under-achievement of white pupils from disadvantaged pupils that has prompted this enquiry, but there was sadly little that really nailed the cause of the problems, and solutions were similarly thin on the ground.  In both the written and oral evidence to the Committee several people mentioned cultural differences, with a general acceptance that first and second- generation immigrant communities place a much higher value on education to support individual success and social mobility for their children than white British communities.  Related to this is the known positive predictor of English as an Additional Language (EAL) in better educational outcomes, especially ‘progress’.  A better understanding of these social and cultural correlations is needed if we are to understand fully the under-achievement of white pupils in this country.

I have written before about boys’ underachievement in education and again it is the white boys who tend to be at the bottom of the league tables for attainment and progression.  What is interesting about boys’ underachievement compared to girls is that we can rule out the rich/poor gap, the north/south divide, white/non-white gaps and cultural differences because boys and girls are roughly equally distributed.  These underperforming boys come from the same families and communities, they go to the same schools and are taught by the same teachers – yet somehow their education progress is quite different.  So much so that by age 18 there are nearly 40,000 boys ‘missing’ from our universities.  And that’s because boys do worse than girls in early years, and in all the key stages.  Boys on FSM do significantly worse than girls on FSM.  If we sorted out boys’ education, we’d go some considerable way to sorting out a whole range of achievement and progress gaps, including those that look so stark for white pupils from deprived backgrounds.

There was much in the written evidence submitted to the Committee about the importance of role models and I took the opportunity in the oral session to mention the highly female dominated teaching profession, positing that the absence of male role models for boys might be a contributing factor to their under-performance compared to their female peers.  This hypothesis has been regularly debunked, for example in HEPI’s Boys to Men report and again by Professor Becky Francis giving evidence to the Committee.  Yet, just a few days later, the Education Policy Institute published a short report showing the continuing decline of recruitment of men to the teaching profession (particularly white men).  ‘This is an important consideration in areas where there is a prevalence of underperforming white working-class boys’, the report said, citing evidence from the US that students who had ‘a teacher like me’ (sharing the same race, ethnicity and/or gender) typically achieved higher learning outcomes.  I continue to wonder why, when we so readily accept that girls and young women need female role models, we are so quick to assume that the same is not true for boys and young men. 

Following the Select Committee’s evidence session on 13 October, there were a number of newspaper articles which picked up on what I felt were unhelpful lines of argument about a ‘status deficit’ for white pupils, and social resentment from white communities.  I can accept that there might be a status deficit and social resentment in, for example, a post-industrial area with generational unemployment and precarity. But I don’t accept that this is because these young people are white.  It’s because they live in a poor area, with poor opportunities, few role models and generational poverty. And there are plenty of young people of colour who also feel a ‘status deficit’ and just as deeply – for some similar and some very different reasons. 

This was also the conclusion drawn by Matt Grogan in a powerful piece for Wonkhe.  Matt describes himself as a ‘member of the white working class who did make it university’.  He wrote:

These structural questions, about who lives where, with what infrastructure, and what opportunities, these are the things that come to mind when I think about what my chances of getting in higher education were. The colour of my skin doesn’t.

So, I applaud Robert Halfon and the Education Select Committee’s search for the truth about the under-achievement of white pupils from deprived backgrounds. And I’m confident that they will find that it is mostly about the deprived backgrounds and not about the whiteness.  But that doesn’t mean that the problem should be ignored. We either believe in equality or we don’t, and we should be active in calling it out wherever it exists in our society.


  1. Sandra Soer says:

    I started my career in secondary schools in 1975 and taught for 37 years. During that time the subject of white working class boys underachieving was often discussed . Also during that time extra funding and focus was given to other cohorts e.g Afro Caribbean boys, Somali girls, Afghani boys, MELLS general funding which originated directly from the Home Office but never any funding or focus specifically for white working class underachieving boys. This cohort has always been passed over whilst more politically sensitive equal opportunities cohorts were financially supported. The fact it is still bring discussed in 2020/21 suggests that situation has been perpetuated over the years. Now is obviously the time to appropriately fund and support this cohort once and for all after years of neglect . They deserve to be recognised.

  2. Claudia Lundt says:

    Yes, all disadvantaged groups deserve to be recognised and supported. However, I have not yet found a convincing explanation why GIRLS from the same background/region/culture continue to do so very much better than boys, and that in spite of millennia of girls and women being disadvantaged in absolutely every area of their lives.

    Teachers have been accused of being prejudiced in favour of girls and responding to them more positively. If this is not simply a subjective impression on the part of the boys, is it possible that girls are indeed the better pupils, that THEY have a more positive attitude to school, do not expect as much individual attention and immediate advantages? Do they have different priorities from the boys?

    It seems to me that it would be more helpful to investigate this angle than to pursue further research into material and class differences, which have not led to an effective solution to the problem.

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