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Use of the term White privilege is divisive and sets different groups against each other 

White working-class pupils 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, MPs say today (22 Jun).

The Education Committee’s report "The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it", highlights how White British pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) persistently underperform compared with peers in other ethnic groups, from early years through to higher education.

Writing for FE News, Robert Halfon says, "The specific problems faced by the White working class have been brushed under the carpet for far too long."

Department for Education has failed to acknowledge extent of problem 

The report notes the Department for Education’s failure to acknowledge the importance of investigating the reasons for the disparities, instead relying on muddled thinking and an insistence that pursuing the same policies will somehow provide a solution.

In contrast, the Committee highlights the reasons behind the disparities and identifies five key solutions.

Statistics on underperformance:

  • Early years: In 2018/19, just 53% of FSM-eligible White British pupils met the expected standard of development at the end of the early years foundation stage, one of the lowest percentages for any disadvantaged ethnic group.
  • GCSE performance: In 2019 just 17.7% of FSM-eligible White British pupils achieved grade 5 or above in English and maths, compared with 22.5% of all FSM-eligible pupils. This means that around 39,000 children in the group did not achieve two strong passes.
  • Access to higher education: The proportion of White British pupils who were FSM-eligible starting higher education by the age of 19 in 2018/19 was 16%, the lowest of any ethnic group other than traveller of Irish heritage and Gypsy/Roma.

The Committee found these disparities particularly striking because White people are the ethnic majority in the country and, while White British pupils are less likely to be disadvantaged, FSM-eligible White British pupils are the largest disadvantaged group.

Reasons for persistent underperformance of disadvantaged White pupils

During its inquiry, the Committee heard of many factors that may combine to put White working class pupils at a disadvantage.

It was not convinced by the DfE’s claim that the gap can be attributed to poverty alone, with pupils from most ethnic minority backgrounds more likely to experience poverty, yet consistently out-performing their White British peers.

Among the many factors that may combine to put White working-class pupils at a disadvantage are:

  1. Persistent and multigenerational disadvantage
  2. Placed-based factors, including regional economics and underinvestment
  3. Family experience of education
  4. A lack of social capital (for example the absence of community organisations and youth groups)
  5. Disengagement from the curriculum
  6. A failure to address low participation in higher education

Action needed from early years through to higher education to tackle persistent disparity - Five Key Solutions: 

  1. Funding needs to be tailor-made at a local level to level up educational opportunity. (page 45) A better understanding of disadvantage and better tools to tackle it is needed – starting with reforming the Pupil Premium.
  2. Support parental engagement & tackle multi-generational disadvantage. (page 33) To boost parental engagement and mitigate the effects of multi-generational disadvantage, a strong network of Family Hubs for all families is needed. These should offer integrated services and build trusting relationships with families and work closely with schools to provide support throughout a child’s educational journey.
  3. Ensure the value of vocational training and apprenticeship options while boosting access to higher education. (page 49) Reform the Ebacc to include a greater variety of subjects, including Design & Technology. Ofsted must be stronger in enforcing schools’ compliance with the Baker Clause, to ensure they allow vocational training and apprenticeship providers to advertise their courses to pupils. Where there is non-compliance, schools should be limited to a ‘Requires Improvement’ rating.
  4. Attract good teachers to challenging areas. (page 43) Good teaching is one of the most powerful levers for improving outcomes. Introducing teaching degree apprenticeships and investing in local teacher training centres may support getting good teachers to the pupils who need them most.
  5. Find a better way to talk about racial disparities. (page 14) 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.

Sector Reaction to Education Committee Report on White Working-Class Pupils 

Robert Halfon 100x100Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Committee, said:

“For decades now White working-class pupils have been let down and neglected by an education system that condemns them to falling behind their peers every step of the way. White working-class pupils underperform significantly compared to other ethnic groups, but there has been muddled thinking from all governments and a lack of attention and care to help these disadvantaged White pupils in towns across our country.

"If the Government is serious about closing the overall attainment gap, then the problems faced by the biggest group of disadvantaged pupils can no longer be swept under the carpet. Never again should we lazily put the gap down to poverty alone, given that we know free school meal eligible pupils from other ethnic groups consistently out perform their White British peers.  In 2019, less than 18% of free school meal eligible White British pupils achieved a strong pass in English and Maths GCSEs, compared with 22.5% of all similarly disadvantaged pupils. This equates to nearly 39,000 White working-class children missing out.

"So far, the Department for Education has been reluctant to recognise the specific challenges faced by the White working class, let alone do anything to tackle this chronic social injustice. This must stop now.

"Economic and cultural factors are having a stifling effect on the life chances of many White disadvantaged pupils with low educational outcomes persisting from one generation to the next. The Government needs to tackle intergenerational disadvantage, inbuilt disadvantages based on where people live and disengagement from the curriculum.

"What is needed is a tailor-made approach to local funding and investment in early years and family hubs. This should be alongside more vocational opportunities, a skills-based curriculum and a commitment to addressing low participation in higher education.

"We also desperately need to move away from dealing with racial disparity by using divisive concepts like White Privilege that pits one group against another. Disadvantaged White children feel anything but privileged when it comes to education.

"Privilege is the very opposite to what disadvantaged white children enjoy or benefit from in an education system which is now leaving far too many behind.”

Lee Elliot Major 100x100Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter, said:

“White pupils eligible for free school meals have for many decades made up the majority of education’s left behind. Many fail to reach national school benchmarks at age 16. This failure leads to lifelong scarring: low earnings, poor job opportunities, poor health, and greater likelihood of depression and imprisonment. It has a lasting national legacy: creating deeper divides in society and damaging the nation’s economic productivity. I am concerned the Covid-19 pandemic will worsen the prospects for this neglected group of children, amid growing economic and education divides.

“Poverty, instability, inequality and unemployment are as profoundly important to white pupils on free school meals as any other pupils. We also need to challenge the assumption that the white working class is one homogenous cultural group.

“Approaching the issue by imposing middle class, academic-oriented values, identifying what is wrong with this group of children and the various ways they, their families and communities are believed to be lacking, doesn’t work. Shoehorning children into a narrow academic system doesn’t work for all. We need to improve the education-work interface, and opportunities for retraining throughout people’s careers, with better opportunities for high-quality vocational education.”

mary boustedDr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

"It is important to understand that social class is the biggest determinant of educational success or failure. Too many children and young people are disengaged from the curriculum. It is time to acknowledge the link between our current curriculum and assessment approach and the de-motivation of thousands of students.

“We believe the experiences of working-class students in education do merit much greater focus. They suggest a case for an overhaul of the assessment system and bold thinking on issues such as extended schools and restoring the services around a school which families need. We need to extend youth clubs, boost mentoring programmes, and think about vocational pathways and getting a much better balance back into the curriculum.

"With 4.3 million children trapped in poverty, the report should do more to acknowledge the impact of poverty and the huge challenge that poverty poses for schools. Whilst schools can make a difference, they can't make the difference on poverty.

“The NEU believes that experiences and stereotypes around class and ethnicity are inter-related, and we must therefore support schools to think about sex, class and ethnicity. Indeed, from the report’s own evidence, it is Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children whose attainment and entry to higher education needs the most attention, and findings for Black Caribbean children on Free School Meals are insignificantly different to white children on FSM.

"Making critical statements about teacher quality in poorer areas, as this report does, obscures the real discussion about what heads and teachers in high-poverty schools actually need in order to champion and empower learners. The school accountability system must understand the context for different schools. We certainly don't support more punitive sanctions as a route to retain teachers.

"The report should have explored whether an average of £50 per pupil will be enough to support their recovery. This does not match the commitment our international neighbours are making to their children - the Netherlands and the United States are investing £2,500 and £1,600 per pupil respectively.

"We are worried about the stealth cuts to Pupil Premium funding that will leave almost all schools struggling financially, with pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds being the hardest hit. This will undermine the life chances of working-class students.

"It is deeply unhelpful to try and make it harder to talk in schools about racism, which seems to be one intention of the report. Racism is endemic across society and in workplaces and nearly half of Black children are living in poverty. Racist content is being targeted at young people online in working-class areas across the country and so all schools must talk proactively about racism, including tackle racist bullying, in age-appropriate ways. We think a proper role for Government would be to share good practice about how to tackle racism using education, and how to develop teachers' skills around poverty-proofing the school day. The NEU has published guidance on this.

"Both challenging racism and empowering all working-class students should be at the heart of this next phase of recovery education, after Covid. We should be prepared to ask big questions about how to redesign education to respond to these inequalities."

Sid Madge 100x100Sid Madge, founder of Meee (My Education Employment Enterprise) which draws on the best creativity and thinking from the worlds of branding, psychology, neuroscience, education and sociology, to help people achieve extraordinary lives, said:  

“We all need to believe (adults, teachers, children) that every pupil matters and has the magic, skills and ability to achieve more and to be more; that no child or young person should ever be excluded from education. Unfortunately, this isn’t yet happening in our education system, and it appears it has very little to do with poverty, and more to do with the role models children are exposed to, both at home and within the education system. We focus on teaching children ‘about’ things (maths, history, English etc.) when we need to start by helping them understand who they are and what they are capable of. Once they believe in themselves then all other learning follows. Children with ambition and the belief they can be more, are children who are engaged and motivated in the classroom. 

“There is always a solution, one that centres around the person and not the system, that shows that where you start in life shouldn't determine where you end up, and that you are your education, your own teacher and in control of your future. A new 10-hour programme, called FUEL, has just completed its pilot in four colleges in Wales helping hundreds of disadvantaged children. The programme is specifically designed to enable all pupils to increase their ability to see and achieve possibilities and students showed an 82% increase in feeling and believing they can achieve more, and now felt as though their future possibilities had improved. For example, one student said, “I’ve never felt that I would be any good at anything, but I now feel that I could do anything if I work hard and focus. The course has helped me a lot, and I now feel that I want to go to Uni which I didn’t think I would be good enough to do before”. Another college reported that 19 students had listed their participation in the FUEL programme on their university applications, with 13 (to date) receiving a conditional or unconditional place on their chosen course.

“Every school, college and university needs to focus on helping students believe in themselves by running at the start of each new academic intake a programme, like FUEL, dedicated to the student themselves, not just the curriculum.”

Sammy Wright 100x100It is important to look at why places with low social mobility coincide with certain demographic groups, says Sammy Wright, Social Mobility Commissioner for Schools and Higher Education and vice principal of Southmoor Academy in Sunderland:

"Our response to the Education Select Committee’s report The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it, which found “White working class underachievement in education is real and persistent”. The Committee has called on the government to take steps to ensure disadvantaged White students fulfil their potential.

"There is a vital issue here - there is significant underachievement amongst the long term disadvantaged in many areas of the country, and we welcome the attention given to it.

"To focus on the fact that it is the white pupils identified here that are underachieving is to put the cart before the horse. The significance is in place and context - ex-industrial marginalised communities that have experienced decades of underinvestment. Most of these communities are predominantly white, and one of the reasons they have remained white is precisely because there has been so little investment or opportunity.

"Many people reading this will identify as white working class and think this is about them - but it’s not. The underachievement is by white pupils on free school meals. Working class is not the same as poor - and poverty takes many different forms. A smaller proportion of white children live in poverty than any other group.

"To say that use of the term ‘white privilege’ (which has really only become part of the discourse in the last few years) has a role to play is to ignore how long term and systemic these issues are, and risks minimising the challenges of poverty for all ethnicities.

"Educational underachievement is only part of the picture. Our report, The Long Shadow of Deprivation, shows that even if students beat the odds and get good qualifications, in the least socially mobile areas of the country they still face a wage gap at age 28 of up to a third. The answer to these issues is about thinking about investment in jobs, transport, housing, welfare and wider opportunities as well as in schools."

Kate Green MP 100x100Kate Green MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, said:

“Last year, Labour’s Lawrence report highlighted that eligibility for free school meals correlates with lower educational attainment, with white children performing the worst followed by mixed race and black children. 

“The Conservative have turned its back on these pupils who need most support, from knowingly underfunded free childcare places in early years to cutting the pupil premium.

“The Conservatives’ recovery proposals will support fewer than 1 in 10 children. In contrast, it’s welcome that the Committee has supported Labour’s recommendation to invest in enriching activities alongside targeted learning support.”

Labour’s 2020 Lawrence report highlighted that, across all ethnicities, eligibility for free school meals correlates with lower educational attainment, with white children performing the worst followed by mixed race and black children.

FoIs have revealed that 2020-21 early years funding rates for the Conservatives’ free childcare offer for three-and four-year-olds are less than two-thirds of what the government believed was needed to fully fund the scheme.

Pupil Premium is the mechanism by which schools get extra government funding to help them improve the outcomes of pupils classed as disadvantaged (including pupils eligible for free school meals). The government have moved the date for calculating pupil premium eligibility back from January to October, meaning schools are missing out on additional funding for any child who started claiming free school meals for the first time after 1st October 2020.

Department for Education statistics released today confirm that the number of pupils eligible for free school meals has risen from 1,633,698 in October 2020 to 1,737,598 in January 2021 – an increase of 103,900  

Using £1,150 as the average of the disadvantage pupil premium rate for primary and secondary, the total impact of the cut is as follows:  

    • £1,150 x 103,900 = £119,485,000 (£119.5 million)  

Waiting this to account for higher numbers of primary age pupils on free school meals this cut could be up to £129millon.

The Conservative’s tutoring plans will reach just 8% of pupils next year, and are reaching less than 3% of pupils this academic year.

Ministers questioned on the educational underachievement of white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds

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9th Feb 2021: The Education Committee session is likely to cover the extent of the educational underperformance of disadvantaged white pupils and the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic. It also explores the influences of factors such as the home environment and regional inequalities and the Government’s policies on early years provision.


Tuesday 9 February, virtual meeting

At 10am

  • Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP, Minister of State for School Standards
  • Vicky Ford MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families

The Committee’s inquiry has previously heard from policy experts, teachers and school leaders, and children’s charities and the session will be a chance to raise the evidence heard with the Ministers.

In the second part of the session from around 11am, Vicky Ford also faces wider questions from across her brief during a general accountability hearing. She could be asked about early years, the Government’s SEND review and children’s social care.

Committee to hold session on the effect of home environment on white working-class educational achievement 

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27th November 2020: The Education Committee will hold its fourth evidence session as part of its inquiry into the educational outcomes of white working-class pupils. The session will focus on the role of the home environment as well as youth and community organisations in raising educational achievement.

Purpose of the session

Previous evidence sessions have heard from school leaders and governors about their experience of working with white working-class students. They have also focused on the importance of early years provision, regional differences in attainment and whether where white working class children live affects their life chances.

As well as examining the influence of the family and home learning environment and support organisations, the Committee may also explore the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on disadvantaged white pupils.


Tuesday 1st December

At 10am 

  1. Edward Davies, Director of Policy – Centre for Social Justice
  2. Matt Leach, Chief Executive Officer – The Local Trust
  3. Katie Sullivan, ‘Get Active’ Youth Work Co-ordinator – Regenerate UK
  4. Miriam Jordan Keane, Chief Marketing and Sales Officer– The National Citizen Service

Committee to hold roundtable on educational outcomes for white working-class pupils Image representing news article

13 November 2020: The Education Committee will hold a roundtable discussion with school leaders to explore the educational outcomes for white working-class pupils, and how the school system can best support this group. This will be the third session in the Committee’s inquiry into the educational underachievement of disadvantaged white pupils.

Purpose of the session

In this session the Committee is likely to hear first-hand from school leaders and governors about their experience of working with white working-class students. The Committee is also likely to cover how factors external to the education system impact these pupils’ outcomes, and what the impact of the coronavirus pandemic will be.   


Research shows that educational underachievement is complex, and in order to fully understand the causes, the Committee is examining the effects of factors outside school such as the home learning environment, as well as the impact of family and local cultural factors, which have become more prominent during the coronavirus pandemic.  


Tuesday 17 November

At 10am 

  • Claire-Marie Cuthbert, CEO of the Evolve Trust  
  • Nick Hurn OBE, Chief Executive Officer of the Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust  
  • Clementine Stewart, Local Governing Board Vice Chair for the Langford and Wilberforce Partnership  
  • Helena Mills CBE, Chief Executive Officer of BMAT Education  
  • Andrew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of the Learning Pathways Academy  
  • Ruth Robinson, Executive Principal for the Swindon and Nova Hreod Academies  

Left behind white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds 

27th Oct 2021: The Education Committee is to investigate the issues faced by disadvantaged groups, with an initial inquiry into the educational underachievement of white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds including white working class pupils.

This inquiry will examine the extent of the achievement gap between this group and their peers and how it is measured, alongside a consideration of the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak. It will also look at what the priorities should be for tackling this issue.

Education Committee to hold session on the impact of place on white working-class pupils, and the importance of early years provision - Tuesday 3rd November at 10am 

The Education Committee will speak to experts about the impact of regional differences and whether where children live affects the attainment and life chances of white working-class children. Members will also consider the importance of high-quality early years provision for this group, and how best to support families and children in their formative years. 

This is the second session in the Committee’s inquiry into disadvantaged white pupils.   In the Committee’s evidence session on 13 October , witnesses highlighted regional differences and the impact of location on children and young people’s educational outcomes.  The Centre for Education and Youth’s place-based research has found ‘stark differences in aspirations… school effectiveness… and pupil attainment… between ethnically mixed, inner city area types, and ethnically homogenous (predominantly White) neighbourhoods.

The previous session also highlighted the importance of high-quality early years provision, given the gap between white working-class pupils and their peers emerges early and widens throughout students’ school careers. The committee is likely to ask the panel questions regarding the challenges of ensuring early year and childcare professions can meet the needs of disadvantaged children.

Witness schedule

Tuesday 3rd November at 10am

Panel 1

  • Henri Murison, Director – Northern Powerhouse Partnership
  • Sammy Wright, Social Mobility Commissioner - The Social Mobility Commission
  • Dr Alex Gibson, Senior Research Fellow - University of Plymouth

Panel 2

  • Jonathan Douglas, Chief Executive – The National Literacy Trust
  • Ed Vainker, Chief Executive – The Reach Foundation
  • Liz Bayram, Chief Executive Officer – Professional Association of Childcare and Early Years (PACEY)

Inquiry on white disadvantaged pupils launched 

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17 April 2020: The Education Committee investigates the issues faced by disadvantaged groups, with an initial inquiry into the underachievement of white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Committee's call for written evidence will run alongside the continuing work on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the education system and the implications for the most vulnerable in society.

This is an initial step in a series of inquiries that the Committee will undertake on the issues faced by disadvantaged and left behind groups and how they can best be supported.

This work will be all the more important given that these groups are likely to be disproportionately impacted by the implications of COVID-19 on education and children's services.

In addition to the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak, the inquiry will focus on the reasons behind the differences in attainment and the impact this has on society. It will also look at what the priorities should be for tackling underachievement.

The Department for Education's 2018 GCSE performance statistics show that while the national average Attainment 8 score is 46.5, white boys who are eligible for free school meals score an average of just 28.5.

The inquiry fits into the Committee's theme of supporting disadvantaged groups and the ladder of opportunity.

Chair's comments

Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Committee, said:

“Everyone's current focus is rightly on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and how we adapt to the challenging new circumstances faced by our dedicated learners of all ages and hardworking teachers and staff.

The outbreak will have a particularly heavy bearing on those from disadvantaged groups. It is therefore vital that we continue to work to ensure they are properly supported and remain absolutely determined that this unprecedented national crisis does not set back efforts in tackling the social injustices faced by too many groups.

There is a worrying trend of white pupils from poorer backgrounds underperforming compared with their peers. Such gaps in learning seriously limit young people's potential to get on in life and more must be done to tackle this very real social injustice.

While our initial focus is on white working class pupils, we will not forget other disadvantaged groups and the Committee will be looking across the board at those being left behind. At this difficult time for families, everything possible must be done to ensure the most disadvantaged children do not fall off the education ladder of opportunity completely.”

Terms of reference

The Committee is  inviting submissions on the following questions:

1. The extent of underachievement for white pupils who are eligible for FSM (free school meals), and how well the DfE's statistics (including Progress 8 measures) capture that

2. The variation within the cohort of white pupils who are eligible for FSM (including regional variation, and variation between the five specific ethnic groups that sit under the broad ‘White' category), and how well the DfE's statistics capture that

3. The principal factors that contribute to this underachievement, with reference to: 

  • The availability and quality of early years provision
  • The role of place (reflecting regional variations)
  • The home learning environment
  • The impact of role models

4. The effects of COVID-19 on this group

5. The impacts of this underachievement, both for individuals and for communities

6. Priorities for the Government in terms of tackling this issue, with reference to:

  • The value of locally-tailored solutions, including youth groups and community organisations
  • The school system

The deadline for submissions Friday 5 June.

The Committee last month launched  an inquiry on the impacts of COVID-19 on education and children's services.

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