28 January 2021

White working class kids are being left behind – we need to be honest about why


Though much of our commentariat obsesses about racial equality, one of the most striking facts about modern Britain is that poor white teenagers in England’s former industrial and coastal towns are among the least likely to go to university.

MPs are now, thankfully, investigating this baleful phenomenon, which has also been highlighted by the Office for Students, the body charged with ensuring fair access to higher education.

Chris Millward, the OfS director of fair access, has bluntly described the way white working class communities have missed out.

“The expansion of educational opportunities, and the belief that equality of opportunity would flow from this, have not delivered for them,” he notes. “So, they are less likely to see education as the way to improve their lives.”

The statistics on educational attainment tell a stark story. For a range of outcomes, white working-class children trail behind their peers in a number of ethnic-minority groups: including those of Indian, Chinese, Bangladeshi, and Black African origin. For 2018/9, the Average Attainment 8 score for Indian and Bangladeshi-origin pupils on free school meals (FSMs) in England was 48.2 and 46.4 respectively. The corresponding figure for white British pupils on FSMs was only 31.8.

It’s also worth noting the disparity between different groups of black Britons. Black Caribbean-origin pupils are some way behind their Black African-origin peers in terms of academic achievement and are notably more likely to be excluded from school. The overall Attainment 8 score for Black African-origin pupils for 2018/9 was 47.3, compared to 39.4 for peers of Black Caribbean heritage.

While there is a discussion to be had over the extent to which higher education institutions have engaged in outreach to different communities, we must not ignore important social and cultural dynamics which drive educational outcomes.

Many of Britain’s South Asian and Black African communities – at varying degrees of affluence – are deeply family-oriented and intergenerationally cohesive. Civic associations within such communities continue to flourish, with places of worship providing a spiritually-uplifting sense of belonging. Whether it was at the local newsagents or the Asian greengrocers, my community elders would take an interest in how I was performing at school, college, and university. Not only does this make a young person feel valued – it provides a healthy pressure where one does not want to disappoint their own parents, but also wishes to avoid potential embarrassment in the wider local community. Personal pride and family honour are important in this context.

The unfortunate reality is that too many coastal and former industrial towns have seen the collapse of the family unit and the atomisation of local communities. Research from the Centre for Social Justice found that children who experienced family breakdown were twice as likely to fail at school. Against a backdrop of substance misuse and alcohol dependency, responsible and inspiring adult role models are a relatively scarce commodity. And, starved of meaningful public investment for decades, their chronically under-resourced education systems are bursting at the seams.

This is the story of predominantly white working-class ‘left behind’ coastal towns across Britain – whether it is Blackpool in Lancashire or Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. Indeed, coastal areas have been identified as ‘divorce hotspots‘ (with material deprivation and economic decline cited as major factors). But the same goes for white working-class areas of cities such as Nottingham, Sheffield, Stoke-on-Trent, and Hull. These parts of the country are not only materially deprived, but also socially disconnected and spiritually damaged. 

But there also needs to be a broadening of this debate, where university is not viewed as the only respectable and fruitful route to social progress and economic self-sufficiency. An over-saturation of university graduates, many of whom then struggle to get well-paid jobs, suggests the conventional academic route can too often be a road to nowhere.

The UK is in need of a skills revolution. German-style vocational institutions and high-quality apprenticeships need to become embedded features of a dynamic multi-route education system. A new set of institutions and qualifications is not enough though: whatever the programme they are on, young people must learn to be responsible, hard-working, and disciplined. That task is made infinitely harder by dysfunctional families and socially isolated communities devoid of hope, opportunity, and a sense of belonging.

It’s impossible to overestimate the value of a stable and caring family environment – a well-ordered household where aspirational parents work hard to support their families and take a genuine interest in both their children’s successes and failures. And neither should we ignore the positive role of local cohesive communities, characterised by strong bonds of social trust and mutual regard, for they provide key sources of cultural capital which spur on various forms of life progression. 

Family structure plays an integral part in shaping a range of outcomes – including school attainment, cognitive development, and mental health. The breakdown of the family unit and the disintegration of the community needs to feature more in current debates over youth achievement and progress – otherwise we will do white working-class kids a grave disservice.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.