The culture wars come to the Education Committee

Anyone that’s been following the progress of the Commons Education Committee's inquiry into the “educational underachievement of white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds” would probably have been able to write the final report for the committee before hearing much of the evidence.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It says that white working-class pupils, in particular boys, have been “badly let down” by decades of neglect and muddled policy thinking, and only a “proper targeted approach” will reverse the educational underachievement of this “long forgotten disadvantaged group”.

It is, simplistically, a “group”? There’s not much in the report that responds to the sort of subtlety and complexity offered by my colleague Matt Grogan on what we “mean” when we say “white working-class boys”, although the report does note the Department for Education’s failure to investigate the reasons for disparities – instead relying on “muddled thinking” and an insistence that “pursuing the same policies will somehow provide a solution”. The report itself uses free school meals as a proxy for “working class”, so there are clearly definitional problems to be addressed somewhere.

Five solutions are on offer in the report. Funding (and data) needs to be tailor-made at a local level to level up educational opportunity, there should be support for parental engagement to tackle multi-generational disadvantage, we should value vocational training and apprenticeship options while boosting access to higher education, and we should attract good teachers to challenging areas. These are sound recommendations, but they’re not very attractive from a headline writer’s point of view. Hence the other one.

“Find a better way to talk about racial disparities” is recommendation number 5, and it’s over this section where today’s row kicks in. It says:

The Committee agreed with the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities that discourse around the term ‘White Privilege’ can be divisive, and that disadvantage should be discussed without pitting different groups against each other. Schools should consider whether the promotion of politically controversial terminology, including White Privilege, is consistent with their duties under the Equality Act 2010. The Department should issue clear guidance for schools and other Department-affiliated organisations receiving grants from the Department on how to deliver teaching on these complex issues in a balanced, impartial and age-appropriate way.

It’s fairly uncommon for select committees to split down party lines and for opposition members to disown a report, but that’s what’s happened here. Conservative chair Robert Halfon argues:

The term ‘white privilege’ is wrong-headed because it implies collective guilt over individual responsibility. It’s wrong-headed because it implies that all white people, whatever their circumstances – particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds – are privileged. And it is wrong-headed because white working-class boys and girls underperform in every stage of the educational system compared to most other ethnic groups.

But Labour members on the committee branded the argument over terminology a “red herring” designed to distract attention from the true causes of educational under-achievement, which they identified as “the systematic deindustrialisation and underinvestment of successive Conservative governments”.

In the Independent this morning, Ian Mearns (Labour MP for Gateshead) says that he hasn’t seen such a “strident attempt to use a report for political purposes” in his 11 years on the cross-party committee. He says the issue of “white privilege” terminology was not raised by witnesses to the inquiry, but by Conservative MPs who “seized on a blog by the charity Barnardo’s” offering advice to parents on how to explain the idea to their children:

The inclusion of that section is unfortunate and unnecessary… With all the culture wars stuff that is going on at the moment, we were concerned that this would be seized upon as though it was central to the discussion… We were concerned that it would be a distraction from the real issue, which is that poorer children whatever their background are underperforming at school.”

And another Labour member on the committee, Apsana Begum, adds:

Is it a coincidence that Downing Street seem to have a bit of an agenda on this specific area in electoral terms, in terms of which party represents the white working class? I think there is a specific agenda here which borders into aligning itself with legitimising narratives which are quite dangerous around white supremacy.”

The report itself positions access to higher education as the “end of the funnel”, which is mildly frustrating given that the Sewell Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities at least looks at entry to higher education and labour market outcomes while dodging questions surrounding racial inequalities in degree awarding. The one line in this report that picks up the issue ironically seems to want OfS to avoid overreacting on race per se and instead focus on place:

On the issue of higher education, while relatively high numbers of students from BAME backgrounds do go to university, not only are they more likely to drop out without completing their degree, but even when achieving the same or better degree outcomes they are still less likely to be represented in the workforce. The Office for Students should focus its efforts on geographic-based targets, which will be more effective at targeting the barriers faced by working-class communities, including majority White communities, in left-behind areas by identifying the challenges they’re facing and dismantling the existing barriers.

Although we are promised some focus here in future work:

The proportion of Black Caribbean and White and Black Caribbean students entering a higher tariff institution is the lowest of all groups, even lower than White British. We will pursue these issues in our future work.“

In terms of recommendations of relevance to the sector, there’s not a lot we haven’t seen before – access to higher education is to be boosted through improving careers guidance and specifying (OfS) targets for disadvantaged white pupils, and a chunk of the money that universities spend on access and participation (the committee has latched onto an £800 million figure aggregating university investment) should be “sent upstream” to “inform pupils about the opportunities offered by higher education earlier in education” or to “encouraging more students to consider degree apprenticeships”.

Once that’s done, OfS should “review how it holds providers to account for ensuring all low participation groups are equally supported into higher education”, and should ensure “disadvantaged white pupils are also completing their courses and progressing on to skilled work and satisfying careers”.

The ongoing debate about funding is interesting – although it’s surreal that the report makes no mention of OfS’ Uni Connect (ie the National Collaborative Outreach Programme) and the one third cut that it’s about to have to endure thanks to the government’s annual funding letter. As for the mood music on white working class boys, OfS’ Chris Millward has already been attempting to signal progress in this area, but it’s clearly not been enough – expect his replacement to be a little more strident on the rhetoric.

One response to “The culture wars come to the Education Committee

  1. Much of this comes as no surprise, my late father, a card carrying communist for much of his life, stated in his latter years that the University educated/indoctrinated Labour MP’s were losing the confidence and would lose the votes of the working classes, due to their constant focus on importing ‘new’ voters who as cheap labour were undercutting the already established ‘working classes’. What he also saw, that many in Labour still can’t get a handle on is the ‘established’ working classes were often multi-coloured, consisting of many races from the former empire, and those former empire members of the working classes were the most undermined by the new immigrants, the racially motivated ‘taxi wars’ along the M4 from reading to London is a prime example on non-white interracial hatred and violence that it spawned.

    Thus the Tories offer to many, not just the ‘white’, in the working classes a hope that immigration will be controlled and the undermining of their position reduced, and I suspect is why the Labour MP’s rhetoric about ‘white privilege’ continues unabated. They’ve lost the votes of the ‘white’ working classes, but worse still the votes of many of the 2nd/3rd generation non-white working and now middle classes too and they appear to think the only way to get those votes back is to further denigrate the white working classes.

    As a former school governor in one of the poorest coastal areas in the lowest quintile of deprivation I saw many reports about deprivation, free school meals is a very blunt measure and not helpful when trying to drill down as to why so few white working class children would not go on to further let alone higher education. One of the biggest stumbling blocks was and probably still is parental experience and ambition, with many white working class parents, now becoming grand parents, being the product of the pre-comprehensive education system, streamed and rubbished from an early age their children/grand children have to overcome both poverty and a home life that doesn’t value education beyond the very basics of life. So unlike many of their established immigrant working class peers who are encouraged to seek better a education than their parents by their parents.

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