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.

You may also be interested in these articles:

Sponsored Video

Register, Login or Login with your Social Media account:


Upcoming FE Events

Advertiser Skyscrapers

Newsroom Activity

AELP Webinar Team added a new event 59 minutes ago

Recognising and supporting learners who are at risk of, or...

Overview This webinar is intended to explain the nature of harm and abuse caused to learners who may be at risk of, or have experienced sexual...

  • Wednesday, 06 October 2021 10:00 AM
  • Online

Latest Education News

Further Education News

The FE News Channel gives you the latest education news and updates on emerging education strategies and the #FutureofEducation and the #FutureofWork.

Providing trustworthy and positive Further Education news and views since 2003, we are a digital news channel with a mixture of written word articles, podcasts and videos. Our specialisation is providing you with a mixture of the latest education news, our stance is always positive, sector building and sharing different perspectives and views from thought leaders, to provide you with a think tank of new ideas and solutions to bring the education sector together and come up with new innovative solutions and ideas.

FE News publish exclusive peer to peer thought leadership articles from our feature writers, as well as user generated content across our network of over 3000 Newsrooms, offering multiple sources of the latest education news across the Education and Employability sectors.

FE News also broadcast live events, podcasts with leading experts and thought leaders, webinars, video interviews and Further Education news bulletins so you receive the latest developments in Skills News and across the Apprenticeship, Further Education and Employability sectors.

Every week FE News has over 200 articles and new pieces of content per week. We are a news channel providing the latest Further Education News, giving insight from multiple sources on the latest education policy developments, latest strategies, through to our thought leaders who provide blue sky thinking strategy, best practice and innovation to help look into the future developments for education and the future of work.

In Jan 2021, FE News had over 173,000 unique visitors according to Google Analytics and over 200 new pieces of news content every week, from thought leadership articles, to the latest education news via written word, podcasts, video to press releases from across the sector, putting us in the top 2,000 websites in the UK.

We thought it would be helpful to explain how we tier our latest education news content and how you can get involved and understand how you can read the latest daily Further Education news and how we structure our FE Week of content:

Main Features

Our main features are exclusive and are thought leadership articles and blue sky thinking with experts writing peer to peer news articles about the future of education and the future of work. The focus is solution led thought leadership, sharing best practice, innovation and emerging strategy. These are often articles about the future of education and the future of work, they often then create future education news articles. We limit our main features to a maximum of 20 per week, as they are often about new concepts and new thought processes. Our main features are also exclusive articles responding to the latest education news, maybe an insight from an expert into a policy announcement or response to an education think tank report or a white paper.

FE Voices

FE Voices was originally set up as a section on FE News to give a voice back to the sector. As we now have over 3,000 newsrooms and contributors, FE Voices are usually thought leadership articles, they don’t necessarily have to be exclusive, but usually are, they are slightly shorter than Main Features. FE Voices can include more mixed media with the Further Education News articles, such as embedded podcasts and videos. Our sector response articles asking for different comments and opinions to education policy announcements or responding to a report of white paper are usually held in the FE Voices section. If we have a live podcast in an evening or a radio show such as SkillsWorldLive radio show, the next morning we place the FE podcast recording in the FE Voices section.

Sector News

In sector news we have a blend of content from Press Releases, education resources, reports, education research, white papers from a range of contributors. We have a lot of positive education news articles from colleges, awarding organisations and Apprenticeship Training Providers, press releases from DfE to Think Tanks giving the overview of a report, through to helpful resources to help you with delivering education strategies to your learners and students.


We have a range of education podcasts on FE News, from hour long full production FE podcasts such as SkillsWorldLive in conjunction with the Federation of Awarding Bodies, to weekly podcasts from experts and thought leaders, providing advice and guidance to leaders. FE News also record podcasts at conferences and events, giving you one on one podcasts with education and skills experts on the latest strategies and developments.

We have over 150 education podcasts on FE News, ranging from EdTech podcasts with experts discussing Education 4.0 and how technology is complimenting and transforming education, to podcasts with experts discussing education research, the future of work, how to develop skills systems for jobs of the future to interviews with the Apprenticeship and Skills Minister.

We record our own exclusive FE News podcasts, work in conjunction with sector partners such as FAB to create weekly podcasts and daily education podcasts, through to working with sector leaders creating exclusive education news podcasts.

Education Video Interviews

FE News have over 700 FE Video interviews and have been recording education video interviews with experts for over 12 years. These are usually vox pop video interviews with experts across education and work, discussing blue sky thinking ideas and views about the future of education and work.


FE News has a free events calendar to check out the latest conferences, webinars and events to keep up to date with the latest education news and strategies.

FE Newsrooms

The FE Newsroom is home to your content if you are a FE News contributor. It also help the audience develop relationship with either you as an individual or your organisation as they can click through and ‘box set’ consume all of your previous thought leadership articles, latest education news press releases, videos and education podcasts.

Do you want to contribute, share your ideas or vision or share a press release?

If you want to write a thought leadership article, share your ideas and vision for the future of education or the future of work, write a press release sharing the latest education news or contribute to a podcast, first of all you need to set up a FE Newsroom login (which is free): once the team have approved your newsroom (all content, newsrooms are all approved by a member of the FE News team- no robots are used in this process!), you can then start adding content (again all articles, videos and podcasts are all approved by the FE News editorial team before they go live on FE News). As all newsrooms and content are approved by the FE News team, there will be a slight delay on the team being able to review and approve content.

 RSS IconRSS Feed Selection Page