There has been enough anecdotal evidence that children from certain ethnic minorities do better in our education system than poor white kids (and good for them too). Now we have the evidence. And it might be worse than we thought.
The Centre Forum opportunity think tank has published it’s first annual report, “Education in England Annual Report 2016” showing that poor white kids who start school above average and with good achievements still leave 11+ years later with below average attainments. By comparison, pupils with English as an Additional Language (EAL) make significant progress during their school years. Three groups do worse than white poor kids – they are White Irish travellers, White Roma and mixed-heritage Caribbean children. Four groups do better: Black Caribbean, White Irish, Chinese and Indian children. Two other features also leap out of the report: there is a north/south divide with pupils in the north generally achieving lower standards and pupils in coastal areas are also similarly disadvantaged.
Paul Mason, writing in the Guardian, makes some very relevant observations as he tries to make sense of the causes of this trend. Referring back to the messages of the 1969 film Kes, about a working class boy learning to love and train a Kestrel, and the purpose that gave to his life, Paul Mason describes the annihilation of the ‘life story’ of the working classes in British society that started with Thatcherism and continues today. Mason writes:
“It was not always the case that ethnic-minority children did better than white English ones, but the reason why some of them do now is pretty obvious: their problem – racism – is defined; their language skills tend to be well-developed; their culture is one of aspiration; they have social and religious institutions that promote cohesion.
By contrast, the problem of poor white kids cannot be properly defined: not in the language of freemarket capitalism, at least. It has nothing to do with being “overtaken” – still less with any reverse discrimination against them.
It is simply that a specific part of their culture has been destroyed. A culture based on work, rising wages, strict unspoken rules against disorder, obligatory collaboration and mutual aid. It all had to go, and the means of destroying it was the long-term unemployment millions of people had to suffer in the 1980s.
Thatcherite culture celebrated the chancers and the semi-crooks: people who had been shunned in the solidaristic working-class towns became the economic heroes of the new model – the security-firm operators, the contract-cleaning slave drivers; the outright hoodlums operating in plain sight as the cops concentrated on breaking strikes.”
As I look back over my memories of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and since, I recognise the changes Mason is describing.
But what is the answer? If you agree with Mason then it’s not entirely in the education system. The education system has been tinkered with in so many ways over the years, and the debate between selection and non-selection continues in some parts of the country. Academisation (or privatisation) has been declared as the way forward, even though many academies continue to ‘fail’. University education for all has been heralded as the answer, even though clearly that cannot be achievable. The raising of school leaving ages to the point of legal adulthood is considered by some to merely infantalise our young people and delay emotional and experiential adulthood. Our children have been ‘tested’ beyond endurance over recent years, resulting in league tables and a different kind of segregation. Our education system has had so much attention lavished on it, yet still the ‘problems’ are not going away.
Mason concludes his piece with these words:
“To put right the injustice revealed by the CentreForum report requires us to put aside racist fantasies about “preferential treatment” for ethnic minorities; if their kids are preferentially treated, it is by their parents and their communities – who arm them with narratives and skills for overcoming economic disadvantage.
If these metrics are right, the present school system is failing to boost social mobility among white working-class kids. But educational reforms alone will barely scratch the surface. We have to find a form of economics that – without nostalgia or racism – allows the working population to define, once again, its own values, its own aspirations, its own story.”
We can’t go back, and for plenty of reasons we wouldn’t want to. We have to find a way forward that enables ALL our children to have a decent education and access to opportunities. As Mason says, it’s not about league tables, as useful as they are as measures. Having taken the time to travel in other cultures I can step back and see what our society has lost, and it’s not education. Identity and narrative, through culture, work, family and community are what gives children the framework on which to build their lives. It’s what social workers do for individuals they work with. It’s what society now needs to do for itself.