A Conservative-dominated education committee has said schools could be breaking the law by promoting terms such as ‘white privilege’.
According to a controversial MPs’ report, White working-class pupils have been let down by decades of neglect in the English education system and says schools could be breaking the law by promoting “divisive” terminology such as “white privilege”.
MPs on the Conservative-dominated Commons committee examined why poor white children underperform compared with other disadvantaged groups and rejected the government’s view that poverty is solely to blame.
The report, called “The Forgotten: How White Working-class Pupils Have Been Let Down, and How to Change It” also urged schools to consider whether the promotion of politically controversial terminology, including white privilege, is consistent with their duties under the Equality Act 2010.
This is not the first government report on race that has attracted widespread criticism. It was published in the wake of the widely criticised Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.
The report claims that “an industry” has emerged to support disadvantaged non-white pupils but the same is not available to white pupils on free school meals, who underperform at every level of the education system from early years through to higher education.
While certain ethnic minority of pupils (such as Indian, Bangladeshi, and Chinese), on free school meals perform better on attainment than the national average at GCSE others (such as black Caribbean and Irish) still struggle. Travellers of Irish heritage and Gypsy/ Roma communities perform the lowest on all main attainment measures.
Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside and a member of the committee, Kim Johnson said: “The inquiry cherry-picked data. I think they were trying to create a bit of a culture war.”
On the surface it would appear that ethnicity plays a big part in academic success and that the support by government with the provision free school meals is a big part of this success.
Since 2006, Bangladeshi, black African and Chinese free school meals pupils have improved substantially more than the national average. During this period these three groups have improved by more than 20 percentage points on the benchmark five GCSE measure, while the national average has improved by about 13.5 percentage points.
An important point to note about the statistics they are not as useful as the government would like to suggest; it is not helpful to lump together ‘Black’ and ‘Asian’ students because there are significant differences in the achievement rates within these groups.
Across the country, for the academic year 2019-20, the percentage of pupils on free school meals getting a grade 5 or above in English and maths GCSE was 28% compared with 58% of pupils who do not receive free school meals. The figure for all pupils is slightly lower at 23% for those on free school meals and 54% for those that do not receive them.
For the same time Asians perform well above the average, with 42% on free school meals and 61% not on free school meals attaining grade 5 or above for GCSE maths and English. But even within the Asian grouping that receive free school meals there are discrepancies; for Indian origin children 52%, Bangladeshi 49%, Pakistani 38% and all other Asian backgrounds 42%.
The use of free school meals as a shorthand for working class is often adopted for practical reasons, but this could hide other factors. There is likely to be considerable variation in the circumstances of pupils within this group and this may vary systematically across different ethnic groups.
Looking at GCSE results by free school meal eligibility (roughly the poorest sixth of children) it can be seen that ethnicity still has an independent effect on achievement.
Karl Thompson believes that the government figure misrepresents what is actually going on. He said: “I think the DFE here is doing a cunning job of disguising the fact that ‘income’ has a larger effect on results than ethnicity – we are seeing here the poorest 1/6th (free school meals) compared to the richest 5/6ths (No free school meals).”
He added: “If we were to stretch this out and compare just the poorest 1/6th (which we’ve got) to the richest 1/6th my guess would be that you’d find very similar levels of achievement across what would be the upper middle classes for all ethnic groups.”
However, questions remain, such as why do pupils in some ethnic groups appear to be more resilient to the pressures of poverty on educational attainment and have seen a greater improvement in attainment compared with White working-class pupils?
Maurice McLeod, chief executive of the thinktank Race on the Agenda, rejected the report’s conclusions. He said: “The education committee report is just the latest government salvo in the culture war it seems hellbent on stoking.”
Mr McLeod added: “Instead of honestly accepting that children from all backgrounds have been badly let down by decades of neglect, this report attempts to create unhelpful divides between children based on their race.”
For the free school meals groups, white and mixed-race children are now the lowest achievers, suggesting that poor white and mixed-race children do comparatively worse than poor children from all other ethnic groups.
In supporting the findings of the report, chair of the committee, Conservative MP, Robert Halfon said: “Never again should we lazily put the gap down to poverty alone, given that we know free school meal eligible pupils from other ethnic groups consistently outperform their white British peers.”
The figures used by government to illustrate their arguments are for the country as a whole and do not take into account regional variations. London schools have had massive investment compared to provincial towns as well as a higher proportion of ethnic minority pupils.
For anyone interested enough to read to the end of the government report they will know that “the data only includes figures based on high enough pupil numbers to make reliable generalisations.”
However, the government data does show that there were significant regional variations, Trafford had the highest percentage of pupils getting a grade 5 or above in GCSE English and maths (68.4%), Knowsley had the lowest percentage of pupils getting a grade 5 or above (26.5%) and Hammersmith and Fulham had the highest percentage of White pupils getting a grade 5 or above (70.8%) with Knowsley showing the lowest percentage (26.0%).
Finally, it is important to remember that in every ethnic group, pupils who receive free school meals were less likely to get a grade 5 or above than non-eligible pupils. Perhaps the wrong comparison is being made. Maybe we should be asking why working-class children in society in general are not doing as well as middle class children and putting in the remedies & funding to ensure they do.