From education to employment

Does FE have a blind spot when it comes to talking about the attainment gap amongst the white working class?

Tom Bewick, Chief Executive, Federation of Awarding Bodies and presenter of Skills World Live radio show

It’s time for FE to have a proper conversation about white working class students falling behind, argues @TomBewick 

The further education sector has a blind spot when it comes to talking about the attainment gap amongst the white working class.

Not only that, on the day the Education Select Committee published its 83-page report on the subject, not a single FE sector leader (apart from me) commented favourably about the report.

Most chose to say nothing at all. The sixth-form college leader, Geoff Barton, criticised the committee’s attempt to debunk critical race theories like ‘white privilege’ as “unhelpful”.

In 2019, just 18 per cent of white British students on free school meals achieved grade 5 in English and maths GCSE, whereas the average for pupils on free school meals overall was 23 pre cent.

Some 16 per cent of white British students on free school meals make their way to university, compared to 59 per cent of black African pupils on free meals, 59 per cent of Bangladeshi origin pupils on free meals and 32 per cent of black Caribbean pupils.

As the select committee report noted, analysing statistical data, poverty alone cannot explain these disparities.

There is something else going on, perhaps what Owen Jones in his book about the demonization of the working class, described as:

“Being born into a prosperous middle-class family typically endows you with a safety net for life. If you are not naturally very bright, you are still likely to go far and, at the very least, will never experience poverty as an adult.

“A good education compounded by your parents’ ‘cultural capital’, financial support and networks will always see you through. If you are a bright child born into a working-class family, you do not have any of these things. The odds are that you will not be better off than your parents.” 

Entrenched inequality is holding back students

In terms of media coverage, the BBC and mainstream press did carry a lot of coverage of the report. Whilst Labour MPs on the select committee may have voted against submitting the report to the House of Commons, it didn’t stop the former Labour secretary of state for education, Lord Blunkett, penning an op-ed in which he argued: “To address the shocking educational under-achievement of white working-class children, we must start talking honestly, and banish the divisive abuse of ‘identity politics.’

The FE sector press, apart from FE News, was also largely silent on the report. Indeed, I was so taken aback by this, that I even checked the twitter accounts of all the FE sector leaders and FE journalists I know to see what they were saying online.

What I found was lots of retweets and supportive comments for Pride month. A handful of accounts stated what pronouns they’d like to be addressed by; with some other accounts regularly brandishing their support for Black Lives Matter.

I found nothing positive to say about what Robert Halfon MP had said in terms of how entrenched inequality is holding back white British students in receipt of free school meals and income support.

No retweets.

No support.

Fight burning injustices wherever we may find them

Now, to be clear, I see myself as a passionate equalities campaigner. Being a one-time resident of Brighton, I’ve revelled in more Pride marches and festivities than I can remember.

I once resigned from a political party over the way it was not taking complaints about anti-Semitism seriously enough and even published my resignation letter in a local newspaper.

As a teenager, I used to bunk off college to head down to Trafalgar Square to demonstrate against South Africa’s crumbling apartheid regime.

When the Black FE Leadership Group launched last summer, I was more than happy to sign (in a personal capacity) its ten-point plan for the FE sector. In my day job, I’m incredibly lucky to have a national platform in which to speak out about these issues, in both a personal and professional capacity.

I think it is incredibly important that FE sector leaders should do the same: straining every sinew to fight burning injustices wherever they may find them. It’s one of the reasons I have so much respect for FE leaders like Ann Limb, who since growing up in Moss Side, Manchester, has never flinched from standing up for equality.

We must avoid adopting a kind of moral hierarchy

But what we must avoid, in my view, is adopting a kind of moral hierarchy of which social injustices are worth fighting more than others. Inequality is injustice whichever part of the community it is visited on.

Why the committee was right to call out the divisiveness of phrases like ‘white privilege’, in my view, is that we cannot allow our public discourse to be hijacked by people who would seek to stoke divisions by assigning collective guilt to an entire population or ethnic group. Just as it is wrong to deny that racism in our society does not still exist. It’s the individual racists we need to go after, not brandish whole communities with trendy nonsense.

If we’re not careful, FE is in danger of going backwards: adopting a Victorian era notion of deserving and undeserving groups.

The Elizabethan-era Poor Laws, if you recall, deliberately set out to differentiate between those who were deemed worthy of social assistance and those who were condemned to the work house. These discriminatory laws were not fully repealed until the foundation of the modern welfare state in 1945.

Why the lack of positive response from the FE sector to this issue of white working class educational inequality is so important, is that it begins to suggest the disease of self-censorship, cancel culture and wrong-headed wokery may have already infected our collective outlook.

Robert Halfon and his committee has given something really important for us to talk about.

That’s why I’m keen to speak out on the issue before it’s too late.


Tom Bewick is the Chief Executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies

He also presents the Skills World Live Radio Show on FE News.

Related Articles