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White working-class children are UK’s most deprived pupils and they’ll be hardest hit by Covid fallout too, researchers warn MPs  

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White working-class children are UK’s most deprived pupils and they’ll be hardest hit by Covid fallout too, researchers warn MPs

  • Research was submitted to the Committee Education Select Committee
  • Children eligible for free school meals half as likely to do well in GCSEs as poor people from ethnic backgrounds
  • One Oxford University don said plight of working-class white children was seen as ‘unfashionable’

White working-class children are being left behind by the school system, face a lifetime of economic disadvantage and will be hit hardest by the coronavirus crisis, new research reveals.  However, help to raise educational standards is often targeted at ethnically diverse areas and pupils from minority backgrounds further stacking the cards against poor white boys and girls, academics said.  One Oxford University don said the plight of working-class white children was seen as ‘unfashionable’ and ‘not worthy’. And he suggested that even raising the issue was ‘taboo’, particularly in academic circles, as it was associated with ‘hard-Right political thinking’.  The research, submitted to the Commons Education Select Committee, reveals that white pupils eligible for free school meals are half as likely as their peers from poor ethnic minority backgrounds to achieve strong passes in the eight GCSEs used in school league tables. They are also more likely to attend a failing school and live in struggling communities in the North and Midlands.  Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at Exeter University, warned MPs that these pupils will suffer most from the effects of the pandemic and face ‘permanent educational and economic scarring’.

Despite the weight of evidence highlighting this group as the underdogs of the school system, schemes to raise standards often overlook them.  Researchers at Plymouth University cited a Government-backed tuition pilot targeted at large cities with diverse populations, and charity rules which demand a percentage of participants from ethnic minorities.  They say such schemes effectively exclude predominantly white areas, such as deprived coastal towns. Dr Alex Gibson, senior research fellow at Plymouth, told The Mail on Sunday the lack of help for white working-class children might be explained, in part, by ‘a wish to be colour-blind’.  Professor Peter Edwards, head of inorganic chemistry at Oxford, said the research left ‘no question whatsoever’ that white working-class children, and boys in particular, were being failed.  ‘The plight of white young disadvantaged children is being largely ignored,’ he said. ‘It is still a taboo subject in many areas where it must be addressed.  The economic shock of the Covid crisis and potentially the emerging Brexit situation brings an urgent need for new thinking and new actions.’

He added that the progressive mantra that being white confers ‘inherent advantage or privilege’ had contributed to poor white British boys being at the bottom of the educational heap.  Prof Edwards warned of ‘grave socio-economic and socio-political consequences if this large cohort of young people in the UK see that they are not afforded the sort of “positive actions” and obvious advantages that other groups have in the name of inclusion, diversity and equality’.  ‘This will lead to a disturbing narrative and a vicious spiral downwards,’ he said. ‘I believe this is an utterly critical point; not only to utilise the huge untapped potential there surely must be, but also the real threat of the destabilisation of the very fabric of the country.’

Prof Elliot Major said policymakers should concentrate on vocational alternatives to the ‘middle-class, academic-oriented’ route of university degrees.  Academics from Bristol said the £1,300 schools receive for each child on free school meals could be adjusted to direct more funding to poorer white pupils.  The Commons committee set up its inquiry into ‘left-behind groups’ earlier this year when its chairman, Robert Halfon, said there was a ‘worrying trend of white pupils from poorer backgrounds underperforming compared with their peers’, adding: ‘More must be done to tackle this very real social injustice.’

In last year’s GCSEs, the so-called ‘progress score’ for white pupils slumped while that for most other ethnicities improved.  The government's national tutoring programme, worth £350 million, will pay for tuition for the most disadvantaged pupil.