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Tackling white working-class underachievement

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"They feel forgotten … they have been abandoned and let down.” These were Sir Michael Wilshaw’s comments on white working-class families and their children at a recent event hosted by the Sutton Trust. He pointed out that two-thirds of pupils on free school meals are from white working-class low-income backgrounds, and proclaimed: “That’s the greatest challenge. If we don’t resolve that, we’re not going to close the gap.”

It sounds a bit like a call to arms, but this issue has been part of the education debate for a while now. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation back in 2007 found that “white children in poverty have on average lower educational achievement and are more likely to continue to underachieve”.

Skip forward to 2014 and the Education Select Committee’s report on the issue found that white British children eligible for FSM are consistently the lowest-performing ethnic group of children from low income households. So why haven’t things improved, and what can we do about this?

My take is that some of the most successful recent policies on school improvement won’t necessarily translate well to white working-class contexts, and that we either need to better understand those contexts (which look neither like this, nor this), or focus on strategies which will work for all pupils.

Example: the London Challenge is much trumpeted as one of the most successful policies for improving the achievement of underprivileged groups. However, according to the DfE’s 2014 school census, white British pupils make up less than a fifth of pupils in inner London primary schools, as well as less than a fifth in inner London secondary schools. This is compared to around three quarters in all English primary and secondary schools. That is before you work out how many of those pupils in London are actually eligible for FSM.

The London Challenge will therefore have only affected a handful of the country’s white working-class pupils.

Nonetheless, the Education Select Committee’s report recommended that government “carefully assess what positive impact the London Challenge may have had and what its key features were” when deciding how to tackle the issue of white working-class underachievement.

I think there are some potentially awkward questions about this approach. While interning at Child Poverty Action Group I wrote a book review of The Tail, which features a chapter on the success of the London Challenge in Tower Hamlets. Part of the strategy adopted by schools in the borough was to use the local mosques’ Friday prayers to help promote a message of the importance of education to parents. The mosque also used community radio broadcasts during Ramadan to emphasise the importance of school attendance.

I wonder how this could be replicated in a deprived coastal town with white working-class school intakes. What civic institutions are there with which schools can build partnerships to help raise the profile of education in the community? The Church no longer plays the role it once did in local communities. Would football clubs be an option? I’m clutching at straws.

Every major school in Tower Hamlets has a “corporate partner” as a result of the proximity of the City of London. Volunteers from firms support schools and pupils gain precious opportunities to experience work in a top employer’s office. Obviously, this is fantastic, but can we really go to schools in less metropolitan areas and promote this as a viable strategy?

I think this illustrates that it is hard replicating measures which work in one part of the country in another, very different place, especially when they are focused on the strengths of the school’s socio-economic and cultural context.

A lot of this and other policy (academisation, for example) has focused on what happens outside the classroom, rather than the actual teaching and learning.  With this in mind, I spoke to Robbie Coleman, Research and Communications Manager at the Education Endowment Fund (EEF).

Robbie said that we should be “careful not to miss what the evidence consistently says, which is that quality first teaching is the most important thing. High-quality teaching benefits all pupils, and it should be the first priority of schools looking to improve the attainment of this group of pupils.”

While there may be differences in the surroundings in which children grow up, “there is a danger in only focusing on the differences”, Robbie thought. “White working-class children are more similar to other children than they are different; the influence of pedagogy is something all children share.”

The EEF is currently funding over 100 projects, working with schools across the country to find out more about this particular problem. It doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that some of this research is focused on how to better engage parents, but Robbie made it clear that high-quality teaching is what schools should be prioritising if they want to improve the attainment of white working-class children.

I think this is right. Without wanting to be too defeatist, there isn’t a lot we can do about the lack of world-class businesses in certain parts of the country with which schools can link up. Neither can we replicate some of the other measures taken in Tower Hamlets I mentioned earlier. But we can implement what we know works in making classrooms a place where all children thrive, whether that’s providing meaningful feedback or getting behaviour in good shape.

I welcome the attention this section of pupils is receiving. I think they have been forgotten about for too long (read this), and I don’t think we should be too squeamish in having policies designed specifically for them if they work (we’ve had guidance on improving the attainment of ethnic minority pupils, for example), but the quickest way of raising the attainment of white working-class children is refocusing policy onto where the learning really takes place: the classroom.

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