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Chasing the bus: White, disadvantaged and left behind

There is a growing unease about  the numbers of young ‘White’ people missing out on educational opportunities. It seems they are chasing after a bus they missed, or simply could not afford the fare, and are playing catch up throughput their lives. However, the problem becomes confused by constant use of the term ‘working class’ and the Education Committee fell into this obvious trap on Friday. There is a clear issue about first identifying who they are. Then there are observations from different perspectives contaminating objective evidence and how it is interpreted. The emphasis is too often put onto less tangible reasons such as lack of aspiration. But there are many different factors that must be disentangled. The Education Committee must try to do this. The first thing to do is to separate lack of resources and poverty away from the real scandal of racial discrimination. Using the term ‘White’ at the outset simply confuses the two issues. Then, accept that aspiration and encouragement from family and schools is of little value if not matched by access to resources. 

The parliamentary Education Committee finally met on Friday to inquire into ‘Left behind white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.’ This was the first evidence session of the inquiry into the educational disadvantages of what is otherwise known as the ‘white working class’ in many quarters. The inquiry was launched back in April 2020 and it has taken until now to take evidence in its first session. Those providing the evidence in the first part were academics with considerable knowledge of how disadvantage applies the brakes on opportunity. 

They were Lee Elliot Major (Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter and former CEO of the Sutton Trust), Diane Reay (Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge) and Matthew Goodwin (Professor of International Relations at the University of Kent. 

The second part concentrated on the views of practitioners with sound experience in access to education. Becky Francis (Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation), Mary Curnock Cook (former CEO of UCAS) and Sam Baars (Director of Research and Operations, Centre for Education and Youth). 

The proceedings ‘Formal meeting (oral evidence session): Left behind white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds’ are available as a Parliament Live TV video or as a full transcript.

Experience colours our views of what disadvantage means. 

There appeared to be a degree of tension between Robert Halfon in the chair and the academic experts in the first session. His life experience and education differs from those questioned. Halfon was educated in an independent school and comes from a well-off family; albeit his parents, of Italian ancestry, fled Libya in the 1960s. This formative understanding might have influenced his emphasis and assertion that “You have working-class people from ethnic groups who are doing much better”. 

Facing him were three experts who each had a very different experience of the education system. They each share similar credentials about what disadvantage means. Each has some direct experience of rising from various levels of working class or disadvantaged backgrounds themselves. Lee Eliot Major attended what is now a comprehensive school and his Wikipedia entry notes that he “lived in a shared house on social security after his parents split up”. Diane Reay is the daughter of a coal miner and was raised on a council estate and relied upon free school meals while a young student. In her Wikipedia entry she is quoted as saying "I learned as a small child I had to work at least twice as hard as the middle-class children to achieve the same result.” Matthew Goodwin declared his credentials in the session with “I do not like reducing this to anecdote, but as a kid from a single-parent background and a low-income family, I can say that, for me, mentorship is incredibly important”. 

The committee is however blessed with a good degree of diversity in the disadvantage stakes. Ian Mearns, MP for Gateshead, is a good example occupying the other end of the educational spectrum from Halfon. They clearly show considerable respect for each other. Equally successful, Mearns attended a Technical School and did not to university. His observation that “White working-class people are not a homogenous group? There are many shared traits among people in particular communities, but there is a huge amount of divergence” illustrated the essence of the ‘problem’. 

Approaching this objectively as a definable ‘problem’ is difficult enough. But coming at it from radically different vantage points must be disentangled somehow. Yet there must be hope in the idea that appreciating the experience of others, alongside objective analysis, might led to a better understanding. In the end Democracy is always served well by such committees at the heart of government despite the possible shortcomings. 

Defining the ‘problem’. 

As usual WONKHE was one step ahead of TEFS with an article today by Matt Grogan who asked, ‘Who exactly is this white working class?’ It is a good question. The inquiry was addressing ‘Left behind white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds’ yet the term ‘working class’ kept cropping up. In the meeting, this was a solid nineteen times. It was not helped by the Chair, Robert Halfon, starting the session with “Good morning, everyone. It is good to have you here for our first evidence session on White working-class boys and girls left behind”. Ouch! This coloured (apologies for the pun) the whole session which seemed to confuse poverty, ethnic background, and family history in one boiling pot. Regardless of ethnicity, family background and support, or ability, without resources to match the aspiration, there is no success. The outcome is simple as is the answer to the question why? 

Why? 

Simple demographics determine why there are many more ‘White’ disadvantaged young people missing out. Yet chair, Robert Halfon, was persistent in asking “Why is this going on?" He was frustrated by reference to “solutions”. The suggestion that “a narrow, elitist, exclusive curriculum does not work well in enabling working-class children to succeed through the system” did not convince him since “That does not explain why some groups are doing better under that. You have working-class people from ethnic groups who are doing much better”. Indeed, but approaching it as a ‘White’ issue alone doesn’t help either. It is much more than that. 

Mary Curnock Cook hit the nail on the head with her observations about why with, 

“I think it would be easier to think that deprivation and poverty is the issue rather than the whiteness of pupils, but I saw also that there is evidence of lower funding, more poorly performing schools, higher teacher vacancies, longer travel times, worse digital infrastructure, fewer role models, higher unemployment and, of course, worse educational outcomes in the areas of the country that are predominantly White. I think that is evidence that, in effect, amounts to a structural disadvantage for large numbers of White pupils in those areas”. 

A personal viewpoint. 

In his article today, Matt Grogan asked “Are we all talking about the same group when we discuss the white working class?” Answering this question would clear the mists away. Grogan asks this from a position of experience, being from a ‘White’ working class background himself. But the ideas of ‘disadvantage’ and ‘working class’ seem to have become conflated. One does not necessarily mean the other. I also take a much simpler view that aligns with that of Grogan. His assertion that, “who lives where, with what infrastructure, and what opportunities, these are the things that come to mind when I think about what my chances of getting in higher education were. The colour of my skin doesn’t.” is an uncomfortable one. Yet he also says that “there are a multitude of ways in which my race helps me without my always being aware of it. But the material factors remain vital, and are what we should focus on”. There is no doubt that prejudice and racial discrimination must be tackled. But equality of access to education must also be based upon access to resources. 

Defining the resources position. 

Grogan makes another telling observation that also resonates with me “Like so often in British life, it feels like I’m being spoken about without having been spoken to”. It seems the experiences of those of us affected are being studied from afar with little transference of actual understanding. It might be that we would set out a different agenda for defining the ‘problem’ using the principle of ‘Occam’s Razor’. That is, the simplest explanation is usually the right one. 

It's a matter of resources.

If access to resources becomes the main approach at the outset, then other things will fall into place. But defining the resources is also not a simple matter of money, although central. I grew up in a low-income family. There were no books at home and communication was hampered by lack of a telephone to contact friends across the city. I shared a bedroom and had no desk or study space. An old TV that could not show BBC2 limited my cultural experience throughout my O-levels and A-levels between 1968 and 1972. The equivalent today might be trying to study in a home with little no internet access and no smartphone. But before you break out the violins, I did have a major resource to fuel my success. My mother was determined to see us do well at school. With the freely offered help of a retired teacher nearby, I passed the 11-plus and set off for a grammar school every day. Immediately, I became acutely aware of a deficit in another resource, time. Travel time each way, using two buses and significant walks in between, ate into a long working day. Homework was conducted in an exhausted state every evening. Part-time jobs further consumed my energy and time for studying throughout O-levels and A-levels. A surplus of determination and support from my mother had to compensate for a lack of intellectual resource, time, and money. It is shocking to conclude that little has changed. Those with more resources of all kinds find the road to success is smoother and easier. We might be forgiven for thinking that those with more advantages would like to keep it that way. 

The late Jimmy Reid called out this self-serving behaviour back in 1972, just as I sat my A-levels. In his electrifying, and widely publicised, Rectoral speech to students at Glasgow University, ‘Alienation’, he spoke of “The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies”. Having left school at 14, he was of course himself an 'alien' speaking to mostly ‘middle-class’ advantaged students at that time. Something he, and the students alike, were aware of. 

He asked them to abandon the idea of self-interest and the societal advice of “bang the bell, Jack, I’m on the bus” with “A rat race is for rats. We're not rats. We're human beings. Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement". 

Courtesy of STV.  

It will take nothing less than a seismic shift of attitude amongst the privileged to reach equality of opportunity for all with ability. The resulting prejudice, and the alienation it engenders, is a powerful force. But overcoming it will come at a price and should not be avoided. Ian Mearns would be unimpressed by the story today of students from his part of the country in the North East being mocked for their accent by advantaged students from elsewhere in the country (The Guardian 19th October 2020 ‘Students from northern England facing 'toxic attitude' at Durham University’). It encapsulates how far we still must go. My Coventry accent mostly dissipated a long time ago, but at least I am aware of that. I suspect Ian Mearns would effectively put down such mocking if they dared to try. Equally, I suspect none of them would dare to try the same to me.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.

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