White working-class students have been let down – just not by a debate over “white privilege”

Alex Blower is less than impressed by the Education Committee's debate over "white privilege", but calls for deeper thinking if work is to be focussed on its concerns.

Alex Blower is Access and Participation Manager at Arts University Bournemouth

The Commons’ Education Committee, chaired by Robert Halfon MP, has published the fruit of the government’s latest attempt to address the issues relating to educational underachievement in “white disadvantaged” communities.

Entitled The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it, the report set out what the committee believed to be the main challenges facing white working-class students in education.

As we saw in the significant amount of media coverage over the last couple of days, talk of “white privilege” in access work focussed on race and racism was touted as a reason for feelings of alienation experienced by deindustrialised working-class communities.

Interestingly, reasons such as the systemic removal of employment opportunities in deindustrialised localities over the last 50 years leading to intergenerational poverty, or commentary in the media and policy which, for the past two decades, has repeatedly framed white working-class individuals as culturally deficient “chavs” didn’t cut the mustard as evidence.

Nor did a comparison with other white individuals who do not face such significant socio-economic challenges. Instead, it was talk of “white privilege”, and the fact that in this instance some white people do less well educationally than people of colour, which took the headlines.

Blowing in the wind

As the introduction of this giant straw man was made so early in the report, it’s understandable that many colleagues may not have read past its shadow. However, there were some interesting higher education policy noises that came in toward the end of the document. And as such, for me it’s important to interrogate both the headline framing of the report, and the actions it suggests will fix the problems.

If you successfully navigated through the inflammatory rhetoric and made your way down to page 54, you may have seen the following:

The OfS should also implement a target for inclusion of pupils from disadvantaged White backgrounds, to ensure that White working-class students’ participation in HE is a key priority for all universities.

Let’s set aside the fact that the committee has somehow missed the government taking a third out of the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP) budget – known to many as UniConnect. If the call to OfS is heeded, regardless of how divisive some in the sector would regard that call, once a new director for fair access and participation is in post it may be that specific targets related to access and participation for engagement with white working-class communities are on the way. But, if they do emerge, would they make a difference?

Let’s hope so. It would certainly mean an increase in activity around social disadvantage and place, both of which are sorely needed. Data from OfS in 2019 stated that of 838 targets set out in Access and Participation Plans, only 11 gave mention specifically to white working-class boys. But there is a danger that doing it wrong would be worse than not doing it at all.

Targeting the problem

If every university in the country set an access target related to “white working-class” young people, how many of those higher education practitioners delivering activity would have any lived experience of navigating the challenges these young people face? Probably not many.

We could potentially see a flood of activity based on assumption – underpinned by cliched guesswork of what white working-class communities “need” from individuals who have no lived experience of the challenges the group face, and with very little grounding in evidence.

Back in 2016, HEPI produced a report on progression to higher education for white working-class boys with a recommendation that there needed to be a “take your sons to university day”.

A new take on a simple idea, parents and carers could take their young men to a higher education campus at a dedicated time to hear tailored information, including on the non-academic benefits of attending university. As with Take Your Daughter To Work Day, schools, colleges and employers could be encouraged to provide time off.

In my view recommendations like that demonstrate a seismic misunderstanding of what life is like for individuals who are at the sharp end of these inequalities. I’ll leave you to make your own mind up about that particular suggestion. However, if we rolled out with similar types of activity on a national scale, there’s a very real risk we’d do more harm than good.

Unknown unknowns

As a sector I hope our first step would be an acknowledgment of what we don’t know, and meaningful engagement with those groups that do. There are third sector organisations like RECLAIM doing amazing work, and youth services which have survived the sledgehammer taken to their funding. We need to be talking to these groups and organisations. We need to be consulting with the experts.

Believe it or not there are also groups already in existence within higher education. If it were me, I’d definitely want to be opening channels of communication to the 93% Club, the Association of Working Class Academics and PURSUE (Practitioners from Underrepresented Sections United through Education).

Where we should start is opening dialogues and learning from those who understand – those who “get it”. That might be through research, practice or lived experience.

A colleague spoke recently at a conference describing a “missionary model” often deployed in widening participation work, one in which we assume we know “what’s best” for working-class students and communities. Parachuting in to “raise aspirations” based on an assumption that the version of a young person’s future we promote is the only legitimate choice. Instead of lazy accusations about white privilege if, through our work, we want to truly alienate white working-class young people, this would be a very good way to go about doing so.

There are also bigger things we could do. In 2019 a NEON report highlighted that a significant proportion of white working-class students attended FE Colleges and studied BTEC qualifications. Imagine the difference it would make if all institutions across the UK were transparent about BTEC entry requirements and even, dare I say it, encouraged BTEC students to apply.

In any event, if there is to be a focus on white working-class young people, the onus on the sector will be on the sector to do all it can to drain the work of its divisiveness and redouble efforts to understand and partner with the places such work will purport to be “levelling up”.

One response to “White working-class students have been let down – just not by a debate over “white privilege”

  1. The Office for Students setting explicit targets for white working-class students will make very little practical difference.

    At present, most funding and effort is concentrated on the 20% of areas with the lowest HE participation (POLAR Q1). This are predominately white working-class areas in provincial towns and – for example – ethnic minorities are only half as likely to live in these areas as those from white backgrounds.

    One issue with the current use of POLAR-based targets for individual universities is that the reason why many ethnic minority groups have higher participation rates is that they are more likely to attend “recruiting” universities, with significant underrepresentation at selective universities. This means that the current incentives to focus on recruiting students from POLAR Q1 does little to improve “fair access” issues at these universities in terms of ethnicity.

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