Tory austerity wrecked our education system – the term ‘white privilege’ has nothing to do with it

Conservative MPs have hijacked the education committee and its report, focusing on the term ‘white privilege’, in order to continue fighting their reductive ‘culture wars’

Diane Abbott
Tuesday 22 June 2021 15:15 BST
Today's daily politics briefing

Today’s Education Select Committee report on the position of white working-class children shows just how ruthless the Tories are prepared to be in pursuance of electoral advantage through divisive “culture wars”.

Tory MPs have hijacked the education committee and its report in order to continue fighting these wars. It is a crude and partisan attempt to distract from the effects of the Tory government’s underfunding of education and its failure to address so many of the serious issues in the school system.

This report frequently quotes Tony Sewell’s discredited Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report. To me, the fact that it quotes this, rather than any serious work on race and education, is a clue that its motivation is about party politics rather than a meaningful effort to raise the achievement of all working-class children.

The Tory MPs on the committee call for an end to the use of the term “white privilege”. This is completely gratuitous. No serious academic discusses education policy in terms of “white privilege”, and in my view, anyone who believes the problems of working-class children – including those who are white – are caused by too much education about racism needs to reconnect with planet Earth.

The reality of course is that the education system has failed whole cohorts of pupils because of factors including austerity, underfunding, and efforts to homogenise the curriculum, as well as the underpayment and mistreatment of hardworking teachers and staff.

It is galling to hear Tory MPs talk about poor outcomes. But they only seem concerned about poor outcomes for white working-class children. Yet it is the Tory government that has cut per-pupil funding in real terms. The Conservatives also cut the lifeline that was the educational maintenance allowance (EMA), and trebled tuition fees, as well as cutting funding for libraries.

When they had an opportunity to level up educational outcomes, they chose to direct the money to their own constituencies in more prosperous areas. They have also presided over a surge in unemployment among younger workers during the pandemic. This is the party that recently mounted a huge defence of its disgraceful policies on free school meals. It clearly does not have the interests of working-class children at heart, of whatever colour.

Instead, this aspect of the report fits in with its denial of the existence of institutional racism. Today is Windrush Day. It is absolutely obvious that institutional racism does exist and the Windrush scandal is a product of it. But, for me, the government’s denial means that ministers feel under no obligation to tackle it. At the same time, as a recent Tory adviser confirms, this government promotes “culture wars”, which include overt racism, purely for electoral purposes.

It appears to me that this is an abuse of the committee system and its reports. Usually, these committees try to gather, sift and weigh evidence objectively. Their purpose is to improve policy and, if necessary, hold the government to account. Frequently they arrive at recommendations by consensus. But not a single Labour member voted for the report. It is extremely rare to divide a committee in this way, and I pay tribute to my excellent colleague Kim Johnson, in particular, for offering an alternative and for drawing attention to the Tories’ determination to cherry-pick data.

Education, with its vital role for our children’s future, is of the utmost importance. The government is failing on this issue, as on so many others, and must not be allowed to fuel “culture wars” as a distraction from that.

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