It is important to look at why places with low social mobility coincide with certain demographic groups, says the SMC.

The Education Select Committee’s report The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it 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.

In response, Sammy Wright, Social Mobility Commissioner for Schools and Higher Education and vice principal of Southmoor Academy in Sunderland, said:

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.

Published 22 June 2021