Local difficulties: The problems of poor white children in school

Underachievement is not just an educational problem

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The observation that “it is being white that is the problem in schools at the moment” is, perhaps, rather unfortunately phrased. Even more so given that the policy adviser who made the remark has controversial form; Tim Leunig once caused a storm with the recommendation that regeneration efforts be scrapped because many northern cities were “beyond revival”. Notwithstanding the messenger’s communication skills, however, his central message is a sadly accurate one.

Except, of course, that the problem is not all white children; it is white, working-class children – in particular boys. Nor will Dr Leunig’s analysis come as a shock to the educational establishment. Official statistics repeatedly bear out the suggestion that, while children from many ethnic minority groups are steadily improving their performance, white Britons are too often going the other way.

Over the past five years poor white pupils have dropped to the bottom of the educational league, their qualifications advancing at barely half the rate of, say, their Bangladeshi counterparts. And earlier this year David Willetts, the minister for universities, suggested that white, working-class boys should be classed alongside other disadvantaged groups when encouraging applicants to tertiary education.

Attempting to tilt university admissions to redress social imbalances is to be resisted. But there is more to be done to address the question before it arises. Some of Britain’s better inner-city schools, for example, now set half-termly targets for under-performing boys, monitoring their progress and trying to identify and address problems in a systematic way.

Finding mentors and role models, particularly from among schools’ alumni, can also help to inspire children who lack such support from home. Equally, wrenching the education system’s focus away from purely academic achievement is crucial if children of all aptitudes and propensities are to be engaged in their schooling. With the opening of another 12 university technical colleges last month, progress is being made. But a total of 17 institutions offering vocational education to secondary-school-age children is far from enough to ensure access for all.

Ultimately, however, for all that schools can do their bit to counter the under-performance of sub-groups of pupils – of whatever ethnicity – the problem is a social, more than an educational, one. Poverty may be the single most determinant factor in education. But it affects indigenous white children more than their ethnic-minority peers – pointing squarely to cultural factors and family backgrounds of poor schooling, low aspiration and, in the worst cases, multi-generational unemployment. As teachers often note: “There are no problem children, only problem parents.”

Dr Leunig is, then, highlighting a very real issue. But it is a symptom of a much larger problem that schools alone may not be  able to address.

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