Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee

Children from White working class communities are being held back in life and vocational education has a huge role to play in setting them free. 

All disadvantaged groups struggle, but the picture for White British children eligible for free school meals is particularly bleak, right from the start of their lives.

Compared with their peers from most other ethnic groups, they are behind at the age of four and five, perform worse in their GCSEs and are less likely to go on to study at university.

There are a number of factors at play, from under investment and lack of opportunities in areas of the country where White British families are more likely to live, through to the particular struggles of White working class parents to engage with education and the absence of community groups that play such a vital role in our societies.

The House of Commons Education Committee, which I chair, is committed to fighting social injustices faced by all groups, wherever they are and whatever their ethnicity.

The specific problems faced by the White working class have been brushed under the carpet for far too long.

Create a parity of esteem for vocational subjects 

A culture of low expectations is damaging for White working-class children and too many disadvantaged White pupils are leaving school without essential qualifications. Something needs to change to re-engage these learners in their education.

It is time to start valuing vocational and skills-based subjects and recognise their untapped potential for engaging otherwise disengaged groups.

We want to see the Department for Education widening the range of subjects that count towards the Ebacc, to include those that have been declining this past decade such as Design and Technology.

Schools should be celebrating all their pupils’ aptitudes and create a parity of esteem for vocational subjects alongside a rigorous academic offer.

Comply with the Baker Clause

Good careers education is important for disadvantaged White pupils to plan their future and focus on what they need to achieve in school, and schools should begin educating pupils about the options available to them from a young age.

For too long many schools have failed to fully deliver their obligations under the Baker Clause, which requires them to allow vocational training and apprenticeship providers to tell students about non-academic options. This must be more uniformly enforced to prevent many disadvantaged pupils, including disadvantaged White pupils, missing the opportunity to access a variety of careers.

Ofsted inspectors need to be much tougher on those schools that are failing their pupils.

It is not enough just to state in the report that requirements are not being met. Ratings should be limited to ‘Requires Improvement’ if they are failing to comply with the Baker Clause.

Direct the apprenticeship levy to disadvantaged learners 

It is worrying that the number of apprenticeship starts in the most deprived areas has fallen year on year since 2015 and the Department for Education needs to wake up quickly and find out why.

Level 2 apprenticeships are a vital stepping stone for disadvantaged learners.

Those from White working class areas deserve to have equal access to the huge benefits that they undoubtably bring, such as earning while they learn.

The apprenticeship levy should be directed to disadvantaged learners or to courses meeting the skills needs of our nation and skills tax credits could be introduced as a real incentive to businesses to retrain their workers.

Encourage more students to consider degree apprenticeships 

Higher education providers must also do more to help disadvantaged White pupils access their institutions. We were concerned to hear that universities are failing to tackle the problem of low participation proactively through their Access and Participation plans.

The money that universities spend on access - around £800 million in 2019 - should be used to tell pupils about the opportunities offered by higher education earlier in education, or on encouraging more students to consider degree apprenticeships.

Degree apprenticeships also have a key role to play in boosting the quality of teaching in White working class communities.

Good teachers who understand disadvantaged White students’ needs and who can be good role models are central to raising this group’s outcomes.

We know that teaching quality is worse in disadvantaged areas than in wealthier areas, with schools less likely to be rated good or outstanding by Ofsted for their quality of teaching.

Teaching degree apprenticeships could help more disadvantage pupils access the opportunity to become teachers and go on to become real role models in the areas where they grew up.

Talk about racial disparities in a better and more constructive way  

Finally, we also must find a better and more constructive way of talking about racial disparities in this country.

Far from promoting racial harmony, using terms such as “white privilege” pits one group against another and does more to damage race relations than enhance them.

The use of the term use “white privilege” is fundamentally wrong for three reasons:

  1. First, the concept of “white privilege” implies collective guilt when it should be individuals who are responsible for acts of racism.
  2. Second, if you use the words “white privilege” you are basically telling a poorer white community that they are privileged. You are saying to a single parent, who might live in a tiny flat, doing their best to bring up their child, that they have “white privilege”.
  3. Third, the use of the term is factually incorrect. All of the data shows that, far from being privileged in education, disadvantaged white working-class students are doing worse than almost any other ethnic group. Just 17.7 per cent of white British pupils eligible for free school meals achieved a pass or above in GCSE English and maths and only 16 per cent go on to university.

There are many reasons for the gap in attainment between disadvantaged White children and their peers from other groups. They won’t be easy to fix and action needs to be taken at each stage of development.

But if we are serious about addressing this great social injustice, then rocket boosting further education and skills is going to be key to unleashing the potential of disadvantaged White children and ensuring they finally get the chance to climb the educational ladder of opportunity.

Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee

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