White privilege?

The forgotten: How White working class pupils have been let down and how to change it

Parliament Notes

The Lords Committee on Education published its report on White British educational underachievement on 22 June 2021.  

The Committee, led by Robert Halfon, is composed of both Labour and Tory peers, and has heard statements from witnesses from all walks of life (see Labour Affairs December 2020/January 2021, Parliament Notes here, for a number of witness statements, and a note about FSM (Free School Meals) as short hand for underprivilege).  

Poor White British pupils have the lowest educational achievement of all pupils except Roma and Travellers and the lowest numbers in higher education (see below for figures).  Other groups, including non British Whites, have higher achievement.  Surely this is a problem worth considering, and worth trying to solve.  It comes as no surprise that among the possible causes, the most prominent has to do with place.  It is where these pupils live that matters, the left behind places, the red wall, the deindustrialised  towns, places with low economic prospects.  The Conservative Party has been addressing this plight (‘levelling up’), with some success.  The Labour Party would do well to look at this in detail.  Labour Affairs magazine has run a series of articles and editorials on that very topic.

You might expect that a left-wing newspaper like the Morning Star, and left leaning at times like the Guardian would be interested in the analysis and proposals offered by the Lords Committee.  On the contrary, both dismiss the report en bloc.

The Morning Star (‘White privilege? Don’t you believe a word of itand the Guardian (How white working-class underachievement has been used to demonise antiracismhave both rubbished the report.  This is because the report has a short section, at the beginning, entitled ‘White privilege’ which explains that, considering the large number of underprivileged white children (there are more underprivileged white children than underprivileged non-white children, since they are the majority ethnic group), the phrase is misleading and divisive.  The report says: “While White British pupils are less likely to be FSM-eligible than pupils from ethnic minorities, Free School Meal-eligible White British pupils as a whole are the largest disadvantaged ethnic group.”  

We can understand that for the Guardian race is more important than class, but you might have thought that the Morning Star could at least have entertained the idea that economic prospects are more important than skin colour and nationality in determining privilege.  Unfortunately for the labour movement, an interesting report for improving the lot of the most deprived in Britain has been demonised and its detailed proposals ignored.  The detailed proposals are important, because it’s not just funds that are needed, but funds directed at the right place and the right factor, eg resurrecting careers advice, improving vocational education, creating family hubs in the worst affected locations etc.  As the report says: The problem is not caused by ethnic origin or by ‘poverty alone.11 Pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to experience poverty, yet they consistently out-perform their White British peers’.12  

On the other hand, since the concept of ‘white privilege’ does not figure in the report’s summary of causes and solutions, discussion of it was never more than an aside, which has proved a harmful distraction, and it should perhaps have been left out altogether.

Extracts from the abridged version of the report : 


“The White working class are by far the largest group of disadvantaged pupils

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

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

The Morning Star and the Guardian say the report accuses teachers of favouring black children by talking about ‘white privilege’.

This is what the report actually says about teachers as a factor in poor white underachievement:

“The best way for schools to improve disadvantaged pupils’ outcomes is to improve the quality of teaching

Schools in disadvantaged areas are less likely to have experienced teachers, less likely to have teachers in qualified subject areas, and more likely to have higher teacher turnovers.

“We know that there are issues about school teacher supply and retention, particularly around supply of subject expert teachers in those areas [where White working-class kids are focused demographically].”  (Submission to enquiry).

Way forward:

We ask the Government to:

We need a curriculum that equally values academic and vocational subjects

We support the Department’s insistence that all children should benefit from an ambitious and challenging curriculum. A culture of low expectations is damaging for White working-class children. However, too many disadvantaged White pupils are leaving school without essential qualifications, and something needs to change to re-engage these learners in their education.

The Department must reform accountability measures by reforming the English Baccalaureate, so that it includes both academic subjects and at least one technical, creative or vocational course in KS4.  By doing this, the Department could super-charge its technical and skills agenda, inspiring all young people to consider alternatives to the well-trodden academic pathways.

White working class pupils must be given more options for higher education

Strikingly, just 16% of disadvantaged White pupils went on to higher education last year. We do not believe that university is the right destination for everyone, but we also believe that disadvantaged White pupils deserve as wide a range of options on leaving school as any other group, and that should include university.

We ask the Government to:

Extracts from the full report, on the subject of place:


“Geographic disparities also affect children from ethnic minorities who live in left-behind areas. That said, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities found that geographic inequality is “in simple numerical terms” an “overwhelmingly White British problem”.102 The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities acknowledged that ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty, however “it is the poorer White people, outside London, who are the largest group to be found in areas with multidimensional disadvantages, from income to longevity of life”.103 For example, the report found that “Nearly 70% of all the social mobility ‘hotspot’ success stories are in London and the South East”, while there “are none in the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, and the West Midlands”. In terms of IDACI scores, “The worst 5 areas with IDACI scores of around 30% are all overwhelmingly White British places: Middlesbrough, Blackpool, Knowsley, Liverpool and Hull”.104

The solution is not to be found in education alone: the job market and infrastructure must improve:

57.The Government has committed to ‘levelling up’, but there remain stark differences in educational outcomes in different parts of the country, which seem likely to be exacerbated by the differential impact of covid-19. Education is a part of a larger whole with regard to geographic inequalities. Without improvements to local job markets and infrastructure (including digital infrastructure), education faces an uphill battle to raise outcomes for disadvantaged White pupils in left-behind areas. Equally, creating opportunities is of limited use if education has not equipped local people with the skills to fill them.

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