Local difficulties: The problems of poor white children in school

Underachievement is not just an educational problem

Editorial
Sunday 13 October 2013 20:10
Comments

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.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in