Gendered education policy does more harm to white working-class girls than discussing white privilege

A focus on boys has hurt white working class girls' education far more than any discussions of white privilege, argues Jessica Benson-Egglenton.

Jessica Benson-Egglenton is a PhD student at Sheffield Hallam University’s Institute of Education

After launching its inquiry into left behind white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds back in April 2020, the Commons Education Committee recently published a report on its findings and recommendations.

As someone whose research focuses on the low higher education participation rates of white working-class girls (an area of interest inspired by my own childhood experiences) the release of the report – and accompanying Twitter storm – got my attention.

Despite the report’s speculation that discussion of “white privilege” is fuelling systematic neglect of the inequalities facing poor white communities, as those working to widen participation to higher education will be aware, “white working-class boys” have been an ongoing focus of research into education inequalities, countless media reports, policy initiatives and sector events over the last decade.

White working-class boys (to be specific, white British boys in receipt of free school meals) are the only group at the intersection of social class, gender and ethnicity that have received explicit, continuing attention as an under-represented group in higher education. The claim that they are being systematically ignored just doesn’t hold up.

Rather than dialogue about white privilege, I would argue that the prevailing narrative that all boys are doing badly in education, and all girls are doing well, risks doing harm by causing inequalities experienced by some groups of girls to go unnoticed. While working-class girls across ethnic groups face inequalities in education compared to their middle-class peers, white British girls in receipt of free school meals have particularly poor outcomes and some of the lowest rates of progression to higher education, second only to girls from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller backgrounds. Data for England shows that in 2018-19, out of the 24,211 White British girls who had received FSM at age 15, just 584 individuals attended high tariff HE institutions.

Boys get all the attention

While the 2014 report resulting from the Education Committee’s previous inquiry into underachievement in education by white working class children spent some time discussing and acknowledging the inaccurate framing of these inequalities as only impacting boys, gender has received short shrift in the latest report with less than half a page of consideration. While the new report does state that it is concerned with white working-class boys and girls, it also goes on to refer to boys far more frequently – including a specific recommendation around “disadvantaged White boys accessing higher education.”

Yet repeated studies suggest that a focus on boys, at the expense of girls, is a mistake. Just as the ethnic group differences discussed in the report are marginal in some cases (such as those between white British students and black Caribbean students addressed on page 65), so too are gender differences among white working-class pupils often found to be smaller than might be assumed. Gender gaps in HE participation are far smaller among white British students from economically disadvantaged families than those from economically privileged backgrounds, and the gap in GCSE outcomes between FSM and non-FSM students actually appears to be larger for white British girls than boys.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that gender gaps between boys and girls from low-income white families were more extreme, given the scale of media and policy focus on boys’ underachievement. This includes, of course, specific direction from government in the 2016 White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy to focus on “increasing participation among young white males from lower socio-economic groups”, an instruction freshly renewed by the current Secretary of State for Education.

While for some time educators have been encouraged to consider the specific learning needs of male students, comparatively little resource has been directed at understanding the specific needs of girls from under-represented groups. Education is argued to be a “feminised” arena which privileges (all) girls and disadvantages (all) boys – a perception which obscures the large numbers of working-class girls (including a significant proportion of white British girls on FSM) who are leaving school without the kinds of grades and qualifications that open up options for future employment and education.

It was disappointing, but not unpredictable, that the eighty-plus page report cursorily skimmed over issues of gender. Thankfully, OfS guidance had shifted from a focus on white working-class boys to recognising the under-representation of both boys and girls from low-income white families, which may go some way to changing practice.

For years, research has highlighted the damage being done by an overwhelming sense that girls are “not a problem” in education. It’s time for us to move past over-simplistic understandings of gender in discussions of widening participation to higher education to ensure that girls from chronically under-represented groups, such as white British girls in receipt of FSM, aren’t further marginalised.

5 responses to “Gendered education policy does more harm to white working-class girls than discussing white privilege

  1. Let us not forget that unfortunately, young girls are also much more likely to be forced into a caring role from a young age – whether that be being forced to care for younger siblings, or for their parents/guardians themselves. I’m also under the impression (although I could be wrong) that girls are more likely to suffer physical/sexual/emotional abuse (not to discount in any way the many boys who suffer these also), and that socially a lot of girls are trained to keep quiet and keep their head down when it comes these problems, making it difficult to spot.

    Fundamentally it seems like differences in gender are ultimately minor, compared to more obvious differences like class. It feels these reports rarely recognise and actually action the social causes behind these differences, and while recognising problems is good, it needs to be followed with the systemic changes to address those underlying issues.

  2. Really important points, particularly point made about high tariff. Cohort in question is huge – about 380k pupils across primary and secondary (England, 2019 figure) – roughly 1/3rd of all eligible for FSM. Reform to nursing education has probably shifted picture in a positive way for white females eligible for FSM, but question whether that should be factored into understanding about university participation more generally (to be clear, nursing absolutely belongs at degree level, but motivation is probably specific to profession, as valid as a route to HE as it is – in my opinion, it should be offered by more high-tariff institutions). After working with deans of medical education, policy at Governmental level does shape individual perceptions of what WP candidates to “look” for, and it’s important that these perceptions are evidence-based. Great to see an article on this.

  3. this piece is great and well-argued. Something useful that came out of what I felt was a damaging and misguided report from the education select committee was excellent rebuttals like this one

  4. I very much agree with Laura, class and societal stratification are much more of an issue than gender, even race, but trying to focus of that within class controlled and dominated Universities is often obstructed by those with the least to gain and the most to lose.

    L I very much disagree, nursing at the higher levels maybe a degree level subject, but at the lower levels its more about the individuals caring abilities, something too many University degree holding nurses struggle with, as one surgeon who started out as a military nurse put it “until you’ve wiped a thousand shitty arses on the wards and done the EOL final care for 50 patients and proved you are a caring individual in the process a degree means f’ all”.

    “Education is argued to be a “feminised” arena” when ~80% of teachers are female that’s hard to dispute, and for many not just white working class boys the lack of good male role models/teachers only compounds other problems in their lives.

  5. Fantastic article highlighting a very important issue. I would really like to hear your thoughts on how this translates from conversations about policy, to conversations about how the sector could make practical changes in their approach to widening participation.

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