Here’s a heretical thought. What if some of our worries about schoolchildren having fallen behind during Covid-19 are misplaced: because some of what they missed wasn’t much use to them anyway?
I don’t mean to sound flippant. I know that kids at private schools and ones with devoted parents are likely to have had an advantage during the grim months of home-schooling. Some schools’ online provision was woeful and some children in overcrowded homes don’t even have a quiet corner in which to study. But it’s not just during the pandemic that we neglected some of those who struggle most. After years of reading reports about the poor educational performance of working-class children, I have begun to wonder whether part of the problem is that they and their families are rejecting a model which doesn’t work for them.
The latest report, from parliament’s education select committee, confirms that almost 1m white working-class children, especially boys, are seriously struggling. They now fare worse in education than every other minority group except Gypsy/Roma and Irish Travellers. If you look at children on free school meals, a measure of deprivation, only 18 per cent of white pupils gain a grade 5 in GCSE Maths and English, compared with 23 per cent of all pupils on free school meals. Only 16 per cent go to university compared to 32 per cent of black Caribbean pupils, 59 per cent of black African pupils and 73 per cent of Chinese pupils. This suggests that poverty is not the whole story, because impoverished whites are now outperformed by equally deprived minority groups.
Where you live matters. London, whose inner city was a sink hole for schooling in the 1990s, is now a powerhouse of achievement, with children there doing better than elsewhere in the country. Overall, ethnic minority groups are more concentrated in cities, where per pupil school funding has been higher and where poverty often lives close to wealth, perhaps reinforcing aspiration.
Go north and to coastal towns which are predominantly white, and you can find a sense of hopelessness that comes with a fading of relevance. If you grew up in Grimsby in the 1950s, you were living in Europe’s biggest and most successful port. If you were a child in Wakefield in the 1970s you knew that nearby Kellingley was the largest deep pit coal mine on the continent. You didn’t have to be academic to get secure work and feel a sense of pride. While it’s dangerous to romanticise the past, it is important to understand how much those places have changed, and what has been lost: a sense of identity, of contributing to the nation.
To engage with school, you have to believe you have a future; and you need to feel that your education is relevant. The reality, for many children and families I have interviewed over the years, is that they don’t. I’ve met bright teenagers who don’t aspire to university because they don’t want to leave home and who think the only university they’d get into would offer a nonsense course with poor job prospects. I’ve met bright boys who’d prefer to try plumbing to earn a decent living. To them, much of the school curriculum doesn’t feel relevant. They are offered geography but not financial literacy. Their schools don’t even advertise the university technical colleges (UTCs) that offer a more practical curriculum from the age of 14 because they are looked down upon.
Don’t get me wrong: I want all our children to have broader horizons. I know that local job prospects are shrinking, that maths is increasingly vital, that we need to prepare all of the nation’s children for a volatile labour market. But I also wonder if we have served these children well by providing an increasingly narrow vision of education in which university is the pinnacle and the dignity of non-graduate work has been eroded.
Shortly after the Brexit vote I went to Boston in Lincolnshire, where 75 per cent of the population had voted to leave the EU. It is still a centre of agriculture, but the best jobs are now in sandwich-packing and food processing. The production lines in those factories were sorted by language — Polish, Romanian, Hungarian. The local English felt they came last.
The story of white working-class educational failure is nothing new. The latest report has stoked controversy because of its suggestion that teaching poor white kids about “white privilege” might be at best inappropriate, and at worst stoke resentment. But the culture wars should not obscure the big issue: that governments have consistently failed this group.
It is natural for policymakers to try to solve problems through the institutions they control. Recruiting good teachers and tilting funding to needy regions are vital. But we also cannot escape the fact that more hours are spent outside school than inside, and that parents who were let down by their own education can be very reluctant to walk through a door marked “School”. Charities, churches and youth groups have had more success, and the report suggests creating family hubs to engage parents from the early years. But why not also ask parents their views and get them involved in developing new UTCs?
The row over “white privilege” is a distraction, but it could serve a purpose: finally focusing attention on a group of children who are truly The Forgotten. We should start, perhaps, by accepting that some of their scepticism is justified.
The writer, a former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, is a Harvard senior fellow