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.