A Department for Education adviser has sparked debate by claiming that “being white” is now a problem in state schools – because ethnic minority children do so much better.
Tim Leunig, an aide to Liberal Democrat Schools Minister David Laws, told a conference of headteachers that more needs to be done to tackle under-achievement of the “dominant racial group” if standards are to improve.
“If your school happens to have a lot of Chinese students you are likely to do well on progress measures – that is the reality,” Dr Leunig told the conference organised by the Association of School and College Leaders.
He added: “It is being white that is the problem at the moment. For the future of Britain it obviously matters more to tackle white under-performance just because there are more white people.”
Dr Leunig’s comments come at a time of growing concern about the academic achievements of white working-class pupils. Figures cited in a report by the think-tank the Centre for Social Justice last month showed only 26 per cent of white boys who received free school meals gained five A* to C grades, including maths and English, last year. This compared with 40 per cent of black boys and 63 per cent of all other pupils on free school meals.
But Dr Leunig was criticised by a fellow academic for being “too simplistic”. Tony Sewell, an expert on education in disadvantaged communities, said that while Dr Leunig was right to draw attention to underachievement amongst white working-class pupils, it was not correct to suggest all other ethnic groups were doing better.
“What he (Dr Leunig) hasn’t done is look at the differentiation between black groups,” he added. “For example the top group, outside of Asian students, in London at the moment I would say are girls of a West African background who are doing phenomenally well. Yet we still have issues with, for example, Somali boys and, though it has improved, Caribbean groups still struggle a bit.”
But Brian Lightman, general secretary of Association for School and College Leaders, said: “It is well known that the achievement of many white working-class boys is a particular cause for concern. Dr Leunig was absolutely right to emphasise that it would be absolutely wrong to tolerate under-performance of any group.”
Dr Leunig, an economist on secondment from the London School of Economics who is working on new secondary school league table measures for the Department for Education, is no stranger to controversy. In 2008, he was the co-author of a controversial report which appeared to suggest giving up on regeneration attempts in Liverpool, Bradford, Sunderland and Hull and abandoning them to permanent economic decline.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: “The Government wants all children to succeed, whatever their background.”