How White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it

The Parliament Education Committee

This was Parliament Notes published in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Labour Affairs.

[The Parliament Education Committee, chaired by Robert Halfon, Conservative, is composed of 11 MPs.  The 4 Labour MPs on it are Fleur Anderson, Kim Johnson, Apsana Begum and Ian Mearns.

The problem under scrutiny ‘Left Behind White Pupils from Disadvantaged Backgrounds’ is why White working class boys have the lowest education achievement of all boys in Britain (except Roma and Travellers).  Despite the title, it is boys who are being discussed.

The number of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds is estimated from the number of pupils on free school meals (FSM). 

There are 1,2m pupils on Free School Meals, so let’s assume 600 000 boys.  Around 65% of children in schools are ‘white British’.  Assuming there are fewer middle class children from minority ethnic background the assumption is that there could be 225 000 disadvantaged white boys.  One of the witnesses to the Committee claims 66% of pupils on free school meals are white, but the statistics on FSM that I could find did not include ethnic background, except in the case of university entry.

A note on free school meals.  Receiving free school meals is short hand for ‘from a disadvantaged background’ or ‘from a low income household’.   It is a rough and ready short hand.  Free school meals on its own does not give us enough information. The length of time on free school meals is more significant: was the pupil on FSM all his school life, or temporarily?  Also, not all eligible pupils actually apply.  Further, other pupils not on FSM are not much higher on the income scale.  Middle class parents will keep their children away from schools with 50% FSM pupils.  This means the non FSM 50% in such a school will not be far off that level, but not be counted as ‘disadvantaged’.

The Committee explored causes and remedies for this problem.  I include below comments that seemed to me to give an interesting picture of the geography, history and economic situation of Britain.  What struck me is the idea often repeated by witnesses and members of the Committee, including Labour MP Ian Mearns from Gateshead, that the level of school success depends on the prospects the children see around them.  The greater the unemployment and absence of job opportunities in the area where the children live, the less their school achievement.  It’s not so much that they are white, it is that they live in areas that have poor economic prospects.  Such areas include coastal towns, small towns and villages in previously industrial areas.  Immigrants tend to live in big cities with greater economic opportunities.   However, longer term immigrants may have experience of unemployment and low income, and become less ambitious.  In places like London and Birmingham that are economically doing well, white disadvantaged pupils do worse at school than non whites.

The other striking fact is the absence of choice for pupils: basically all pupils are expected to sit the same exam at age 16.  This exam, GCSEs, is in reality a gateway to A levels and university.  Half the school population is not served by this system, which might explain the lack of engagement with school.]

 I have not included names of contributors.  They can easily be found at

Parliament Education Committee
Oral evidence: Left Behind White Pupils from Disadvantaged Backgrounds, HC 279 

13 October and 3 November 2020

Numbers of Left Behind White Pupils

The Department for Education’s national pupil database, which suggest that if you look at the percentage of 15-year-old state-funded pupils who were in higher education four years later—by the age of 19, and those children having been children on free school meals— then the figures for White British kids are 13% for boys and 19% for girls. They are eclipsed by, for example, Chinese kids on free school meals, at 66%, Black African boys on free school meals, at 51%, and Pakistani boys on free school meals, at 42%. 

White pupils make up around two thirds of children on free school meals. 

The data for White pupils from poorer backgrounds show that they make worse progress and they have worse outcomes and this really matters because White pupils are, of course, the ethnic majority in this country. That means that there are very, very many children in this group who are underserved by the system. 


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. 

The historical aspect of class

The one aspect of class I would say is history, the historical element to class. That is something that is carried in and through families. We often focus on kids’ current position or what jobs parents currently do, but we forget about the fact that, for most people, class implies some sense of history and that is why it continues to have a lasting effect even though we are now in a new century. 

Causes of poor school performance

We know that white British pupils who are eligible for free school meals perform less well than free school meal-eligible pupils from every other ethnic background throughout their educational career. The statistics are there for all to see. What do you think are the principal causes of this? 

Even if they are a smaller population, why is it that the ethnic minorities in those areas do better? They have the same poor quality housing, often worse, and the same low income. 

Areas of low economic prospects 

That is something that I see in my working life here in Sunderland. I see that students who have a similar level of disadvantage to students I taught in London are on a double disadvantage of being in a region, in an area that lacks that sense of hope from job opportunities and other opportunities around that. 

These particular spots of really low social mobility seem to coincide with certain demographic groups. 

 It is a hypothesis. It is hard to prove. I have taught in London for 12 years and I have taught in the north-east for six. What you see is different sets of aspiration in different cultural contexts. I think that the context of marginalised communities, particularly deindustrialised communities, is one where there is not that settled sense of education necessarily being a route out. 


There are 122 local authorities where you get more than one ethnic group coming out with more than 20 children, so you can actually do some statistics. White British children are the worst-performing cohort in only 55 of those 122 local authorities. 

it is not quite as clear cut that there is this underperforming white British community everywhere. It does vary from place to place. 

For me anyway, the white disadvantaged children are not particularly white. They are children in particular areas and in particular disadvantaged localities within those areas. That is the kind of dimension that I would particularly like to focus on. 


North Tyneside is where I get to 45 points on Attainment 8 compared with Reading, Leicester, Oldham, Isle of Wight and Cumbria all at 33, 35, 36, so there is this huge variation in performance regionally. This is the same cohort of children. This is the free school meal children, white British, and they vary from 30-odd points at Attainment 8 in Reading, Leicester and Oldham to 47, 48, 51 in Rutland, Westminster and Wandsworth, so there is a fantastic variation in performance among white British. [Attainment 8 measures a student’s average grade across eight subjects at age 16.]


It is partly north-south, but it is also a metropolitan-periphery sort of issue. 


It is very much the experience of certain left-behind communities and left-behind towns that have been discussed before in this Committee and elsewhere in this debate. Young people and their parents within those communities often have very limited life chances, so children rationally sometimes do not believe there is much point applying themselves at school because it will not lead to anything. 

The simplistic point is that there are some stark differences. If you take your County Durham ex-mining community, there is definitely a poverty of aspiration that comes from living in that community. That effect is less pronounced if you live in a more prosperous place, but communities are very tightly bounded. The point is that for the white working-class kids who are in a very prosperous area it is a very different experience of what your future could look like. The social mobility dream applies for that child. The reality is that the social mobility dream does not operate in many parts of the north of England. It is not true that, if you work hard and really apply yourself, everything will happen for you, because for many young people who do that, it does not happen. 

The change that we would see, compared with some other groups in certain cities in the north, is that there definitely are recent immigrant communities with very strong social and economic problems but with very high levels of parental support towards success academically. That does not exist in communities where there are cycles of economic decline, where parents and grandparents have perhaps not had successful work outcomes or family members and those in the streets they grew up in have not been good role models for them in terms of what success looks like.

 But I would say the real difference—the really important distinction—is between white middle-class kids in more prosperous places and white working-class kids in less successful ones. That is where the starkest divide is because the generic difference in ethnicity hides the working-class problem. Obviously, overall, black and other groups have fewer middle-class kids, relatively speaking. 

if you are in a very concentrated part of the country where there are larger numbers of these schools—in the north of England we have about half the schools where you have the most long-term disadvantaged white kids, and most of the rest are in the West Midlands—those schools get much worse outcomes, particularly secondary schools. 


In the north of England what we have in many places, on a sub-regional basis even, is significant areas of poverty but with pockets of prosperity. What we have in other parts of the country is significant areas of prosperity but with pockets of poverty. 

Other disadvantages in coastal and rural areas

Broadband availability in coastal and rural areas is much less good. Education has made huge steps forward using digital resources, not least during the pandemic. Having those extra tools available to help children who are falling behind is another important point. 

Also, teachers are not attracted to these run down, less diverse areas.

Schools only offer the academic route

It is as if we have created a narrow academic race and we have said that is the only game in town, which I think it is, at the moment, in terms of status. And then we are saying to many communities, “By the way, it is going to be almost impossible for you to win this race unless you are middle class and have all the resources to win that race, and by the way, if you are living in those communities, you are going to have to move out to get a decent job.” I am being provocative, but I think we have created a system that is unwinnable. In many ways, it is a rational response to step out of the race, rather than try to compete in it. 


I think it is about place. It is about where communities live. It is about the fact that there are few job opportunities in many of the communities that we are talking about. As I keep going on about, these are multi-generational issues. Where parents and grandparents have also had poor experiences of education, it leads to a choice—in some ways, I believe it is rational—to reject the education system, which is not winning for them at all. 

[…] for many, they have looked at university and said, “That seems to be the only thing we are hearing about at school: we need to go to university. We do not really think university is a route for us or for me. It is not achievable for us to get there and there is not really anything else.” 

Careers advice and signposting should start from a very early age. There should be parity of esteem and there should be multiple pathways. 


The schools can make all the decisions they like, but the children are always going to be making the decisions in the worlds in which they live. When they see the education system is providing them with a ladder, I think most children are ultimately sensible and will use that system to climb the ladder. When you are in Leicester, Oldham, Isle of Wight, Cumbria, Nottingham, Knowsley—and I go through the list of these places—these children, however good the schools are, are thinking, “Well, what is really the point?” 


We have made GCSEs a preparation for A-levels, which are a preparation for university. 

The reality is they are not an accessible qualification for people who do not have lots of experience in the family of people who have gone to university. 

The curriculum that is being provided is only appropriate for the 50% of youngsters who are destined for university. 

Unwillingness to move away from an area

I mean, for example, if we say an available career is a theatre technician and there are no theatres. There are certain careers to which you might aspire but in your local area it is very difficult to do. In terms of the white working class as well, there is an issue here—I think someone alluded to it earlier—about the willingness to move away from an area. When your family has a very strong root in an area, where all your cousins, everyone, lives in that one area, it is a difficult thing to move away from it. 

There was a report in the summer, “Moving out to move on”, which suggests that mobility is actually literal in lots of ways, in that people who are able to be socially mobile are people who are able to move, 

A key narrative that we need to move beyond to make progress in this area is this idea of needing to move out in order to move on. It is absolutely right that for so many young people, as they get older it is a chance to fly the nest and see other parts of the world. The research I have done on White working-class areas shows that young people are very locally rooted, with a strong attachment to families and place. I think we somewhat ride roughshod over that when we have a system and society in which you have to move out of certain areas to get on. 


The education system is not the answer on its own. The answer is education plus work with employers, actually building local infrastructure, et cetera. 

[Degree-apprenticeships to train teachers; this would be cheaper for students and encourage people from disadvantaged background to go in for teaching]:

I feel that this whole view of the problem of doing apprenticeships can be down to intellectual snobbery, that everyone has to have a full academic degree at university, and not have a partial experience at university and do a degree apprenticeship. I think we would make a big difference to White working-class boys and girls if we can get more teacher recruitment in disadvantaged areas. That would be quite a route. 

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