If something is wrong, do you dare say so?

 

Share

My car stopped in traffic the other day by a bus stop at which a young mum sat, earphones in, checking her messages. Her toddler sat in a buggy, unable to see his mother, staring blankly at the road. On the car radio, some expert was talking about how many children were arriving at school with language difficulties because their parents no longer chat to them. Electronic gadgets, the radio voice intoned, may be to blame for a 70 per cent jump in speech problems in six years.

A few days later, the news was of how thousands of children turn up for their first day at school wearing nappies. In 5 per cent of cases, this lack of toilet training extends beyond the age of seven. Some parents are too busy, idle or selfish to bother with potty training, one teacher was quoted as saying. Many children arrive at school unable to hold a knife and fork or brush their teeth.

Last week, Ofsted said that white working-class children in British schools are “consistently the lowest performing group in the country”. The gap has grown over the past five years. Today 26 per cent of white boys on free school meals get five good GCSEs compared with 40 per cent of black boys and a national average of 63 per cent. Teachers’ unions say poverty is the problem. But poor Indian, Pakistani, African and Caribbean kids do much better. In poor Chinese families, 76 per cent get the benchmark GCSEs.

So what is going wrong? Select your prejudice and it comes with a ready explanation. It is 60 years of multiculturalist bias towards ethnic minorities, say the right. It is a white working-class culture with “low aspirations and negative attitudes towards education”, says Ofsted. No, says the anti-poverty Joseph Rowntree Foundation: it’s not poor aspirations but a lack of self-belief among whites in areas where traditional industrial jobs disappeared three generations ago.

It is, cultural conservatives suggest, a soporific prole culture in which the Xbox is the new opiate of a jobless caste marooned in their own homes, and for whom Jeremy Kyle is the new bread and circuses. These are the folk Tesco in Cardiff banned from shopping in pyjamas – which have also been forbidden on the school run in Middlesbrough, where one teacher told me she overheard children playing house, saying: “It’s the police. Hide the drugs in the washing machine.”

And yet it is not the working class, or underclass, that needs demonising here. A study by the Runnymede Trust entitled Who Cares about the White Working Class? argues persuasively that populist narratives about the plight of poor whites largely leave the hierarchical and highly stratified nature of Britain out of the equation. The wider problem is something more general in our atomising culture.

Someone who had been an au pair told me a disturbing counter-story. After three weeks, the mother of her affluent Home Counties family left her four- and eight-year-old daughters in the hands of a comparative stranger while she flew out for a week to join her airline pilot husband during a stopover. The recently arrived au pair, having exhausted her limited knowledge of things to do, took the kids to the cathedral where there was a Christingle service. Afterwards, clutching her clove-studded orange, the eight-year-old commented sardonically: “Well, I’m glad to know that someone loves me, even if it’s only God.”

“We are Oxford classicists,” one couple told a teacher, to explain why their child was not toilet trained. Neglect by middle-class parents can be covered by the purchase of nannies and boarding schools. It may leave deep emotional scars but the problems are largely private. They do not, at any rate, seem to land on the desks of government ministers who see underachievement by poor whites as a threat to Britain’s chances of keeping up in a global market where education is the gateway to employment more than ever before.

There are many education department responses to that: longer school days, texting parents to engage them with homework, financial incentives for pupils, and educating parents in the skills they need to help their children learn. There are even plans for classroom dictation software so kids can read on their tablets what the teacher just said when they weren’t listening. “The technology enables this to be non-judgemental,” the sales blurb claims.

Yet perhaps it is the insistence on being non-judgemental which is the problem. A friend who is a teacher in a poor area recently went with a social worker to visit the home of a pupil who was giving cause for concern. When they got there they found him running naked round a house in which there was no food and where there were maggots in his bed. When the teacher expressed horror, the social worker pronounced: “It would be better if you didn’t bring moral outrage into this.” Perhaps it would be better if we did.

Paul Vallely is visiting professor of public ethics at University of Chester

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Trade Counter Sales Assistant

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Driver / Warehouse Operative

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£15000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for on...

Recruitment Genius: Strategic Solutions Director

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Their digital community is one of the fastest ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A protestor from the 'Robin Hood Tax Campaign,'  

The Robin Hood Tax is a more sensible and fairer way of helping our economy to recover

Jeremy Corbyn
 

It's not Corbyn who has failed to adapt to the 21st Century. It's his critics

Martin Williams
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works