The poor whites that politics forgot

June 23, 2021

A poor white pupil in Barnsley today – unless they get into the A-level stream and on to university – is likely to feel much more peripheral to the national story. They might have every right to feel pessimistic about the transformative potential, or even point, of education in a town crushed under the weight of better yesterdays.

There are many Barnsley-like towns in Britain – and many poor white pupils who refuse to play an academic game they feel is stacked against them.

So who will champion poor whites in modern Britain? Step forward the House of Commons Education Committee and its chair, Robert Halfon MP, whose report, published Tuesday, on the educational failure of disadvantaged whites, fumed with impatience at official failure to focus on the problem. It said that white working-class pupils have been badly let down by decades of neglect and “muddled policy thinking”, and describes them as a “long forgotten disadvantaged group”.

But the thinness of the report’s own recommendations suggests that this is, in part, a cultural problem that no amount of fiddling with the curriculum or teacher incentives will resolve.

White working-class educational failure is hardly a new story. But it has become more visible and started to attract more attention for two reasons. First, because it compares so badly with the educational success of ethnic minority Britons, including poor ones, all of whom (excluding Roma) do better than poor whites in the Progress 8 scores that measure progress made in secondary school. And all of whom progress to university in higher proportions.

The second reason is that, in too many places, there is no longer a decent alternative for those who do not succeed academically. A generation or two back, there were various ways of leading an achieved life that was recognised by the wider society in skilled manual labour, conscientious office work, the armed forces, or just being a good parent or member of the wider community.

Many of those things are still, of course, possible – but the terms of trade have turned against the non-academic from lower income backgrounds: there are fewer good jobs for those without academic qualifications; fewer than 10 per cent of school leavers now go into apprenticeships and non-academic post-school education and training has, until recently, been neglected; practical and creative subjects have largely disappeared from the school curriculum and schools are judged on how many pupils they send to university.

More open immigration – at least until the Brexit vote – has also reinforced a sense of displacement for many poor whites and a sense that one’s national citizenship confers less value than it used to.

It often feels that those who have driven the liberalisation of Britain in recent decades have looked with dismay on poor whites and their apparent failure to abandon some traditional attachments—they are the community that progressive politics forgot. The autonomy, mobility and openness that is generally favoured by the highly educated can grate against the priorities of the more rooted who often prefer familiarity (and family), community and stability and tend to be indifferent to the concerns of Radio 4 Britain.

The dismay works both ways. Anti-school attitudes and parental indifference to, or even suspicion of, academic success was widespread even in the heyday of working class Britain in the early post-war period. But as the working class has shrunk and, in many places, lost the work that gave shape to its collective life (the report’s definition of white working class pupils is the nearly 1 million who are poor enough to qualify for free school meals) there has been little incentive to abandon these attitudes.

A study by Steve Strand and Joe Winston, looking into the educational aspirations of 12- to 14-year-olds in inner city schools, found that poorer white British children had the lowest aspirations of all. Another study by Strand found that white British and black Caribbean pupils were the least likely to report doing homework.

Strand found that children from white British and black Caribbean backgrounds were most likely to report feeling school was a waste of time, and boys, especially from black Caribbean and white working-class backgrounds, often experience peer pressure to adopt the norms of a street subculture where more prestige is given to unruly behaviour than to academic achievement.
He also found that white British parents were least likely to want their children to stay in education after they turn 16. Furthermore, white British (along with black Caribbean) parents were more likely to report regular quarrels with their children, and to admit to not knowing where their children are when they are out.

Poverty, the report stresses, is a factor for disadvantaged whites, but clearly one that can, in principle, be overcome with sufficient encouragement, as so many ethnic minority pupils show. The great success of London schools, partly driven by ethnic minority aspiration, is helping to pull up poor whites, too – but while more than 40 per cent of the total ethnic minority population lives in London, less than 10 per cent of the total white British population does.

And the scale of the UK’s geographical inequality is seldom appreciated. According to Professor Philip McCann of Sheffield University about half the population in the UK live in areas where prosperity is no better than the poorest parts of the old East Germany, or the poorest US states like Mississippi. For 30 years, says McCann, the country has been decoupling. London and the South East, plus pockets of affluence and dynamism elsewhere, have been pulling away from the rest.

In simple numerical terms, this is, unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly a white British problem. It is true that non-white Britons are more likely to live in persistent poverty and overcrowded housing – and Pakistanis three times more likely than white British people to live in the very poorest 10 per cent of neighbourhoods – but that translates in absolute numbers into 345,000 Pakistanis compared with 3.8m white British.

Nearly 70 per cent of all the social mobility “hotspot” success stories are in London and the South East. There are none in the North East, Yorkshire and Humber and the West Midlands. The top 65 worst performing local authority areas for social mobility are almost all overwhelmingly white British places.

There is a sense of “stuckness” about poorer whites, which is less the case with most ethnic minority groups, who have had a national narrative, usually based on educational success, of overcoming disadvantage. The report fully supports what it calls the “industry” that has emerged to support minorities but can only lament its absence for poor whites.

There is, however, a sense of change in the air with the current Government’s focus on the “left-behind” areas, and with “levelling up”, which might be seen as a sort of coded narrative for poorer whites, signalling that you do not have to “leave to achieve”. The new Red Wall voter base for the Tory party is likely to mean this is not just a temporary fashion. Indeed, the attempt to shift the emphasis away from university as the only road to success, combined with the outlines of a better funded vocational and technical education system, is already shifting opinion among British parents more of whom now want their child to get a vocational qualification than a devalued university degree.

The report also draws heavily on Dr Tony Sewell’s recent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which found that Britain is no longer a place “where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”, and shares its scepticism about the concept of “white privilege” – not something felt much in Dudley or Middlesborough.

The report recommendations feel rather puny beside the great weight of negative history bearing down on poor whites—essentially, better directed social support and some school reforms. (One recommendation that I would like to have seen, that would benefit all pupils but especially those in areas where academic achievement is low, is that every pupil should leave secondary school having mastered to a reasonable level one practical skill, from carpentry to coding.)

One of the dangers of a report like this is that it starts to see poor whites as almost a distinct ethnic group in its own right, reflecting the group’s own sense of embattlement. It might have been useful to find a social scientist with data on how stuck white people with children on free school meals actually are. The movement in and out of the group might be surprisingly high.

Yet the fact that the report has attracted so much attention is welcome in itself and surely a sign that poor whites can no longer be regarded as the embarrassing relatives of British society, best not invited to the party.


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