If something is wrong, do you dare say so?



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

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul falls: Talk of Iraq retaking the town, held by IS since June, is unconvincing  

Isis on the run? The US portrayal is very far from the truth

Patrick Cockburn
Ed Miliband:  

Ed Miliband: I pledge to make Britain a more just and equal country

Ed Miliband
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk