Mind the gap

Last Wednesday the Education Select Committee held its final inquiry session looking at underachievement in education by white working class children. In all OECD countries a gap can be seen between the educational attainment of rich and poor. How much money you have has too large an impact on your academic success. In recent years the low achievement of white pupils from low socioeconomic groups has been further highlighted by the improvement of ethnic minority groups who had previously achieved the lowest test scores. I also come from a traditionally low achieving group whose performance has significantly improved over my lifetime. When I went to school in the 1980s Bangladeshi pupils were seen as the “lowest attaining of the principal minority ethnic groups”. My educational trajectory ended up being very different from these statistics and I have been trying to understand the reasons for this. What really influences our educational success and what role does class and race play in this story?

Last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. At the time this speech was given black children in the US lagged behind their white peers by more than three years. Whilst we have come forward in many ways since this time, ethnicity still has a strong link with academic achievement. Reasons to explain this include high levels of poverty in ethnic minority groups, poor English and literacy skills and parents who are unfamiliar with the UK’s education system and therefore are unable to support their children. Interestingly the improvement of groups such as Bangladeshi pupils has occurred whilst these barriers remain. This has led many educationalists to question their original understanding of low achievement in ethnic minorities. Research has also shown that teachers tend to have lower expectations of ethnic minority pupils, which has a negative impact on their performance in school. Last December Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw cited similar reasons for the low performance of white working class children in schools. In his annual report he claimed that England’s schools were failing white-working class children resulting in an “unacceptable waste of human potential”. He blamed this on low teacher expectation and a failure to instill the right learning culture.

For me high aspirations were a large part of why I was successful. From a very early age my parents told me that I would go to Oxbridge. I would study for hours at home with my father completing school textbooks ahead of school. They struggled in sending me to a small local private school. Whilst I did not always get high grades in school I was consistently told I had potential. But this is not all that I took away from school.  My school inadvertently taught me how to switch between the culture that I experienced at school and the culture I experienced at home. It did this through small things such as teaching me how to speak to adults that I was not familiar with, how to stand when a visitor entered the room, how to ask to go to the toilet without using the word toilet, how to eat without having my elbows on the table. Many groups including the white working class suffer at school because they are unable to adapt to and from these different cultures. A body of work has been emerging in countries such as the US to create “culturally relevant pedagogies” that result in a better link between the experiences of home and school. Whilst this work has tended to focus on ethnic minority groups, it could also have a powerful impact on the engagement and achievement of white working class children.

In 1947 Martin Luther King published an article called “The Purpose of Education” in which he stated “it seems to me that education has a two fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture”. Whilst he was speaking about the importance of both intelligence and character, his words also made me think of the individual cultures we hold and how these influence the way in which we learn and engage with schools. School taught me about a culture I did not experience at home. It taught me how to assimilate to a culture that my parents’ thought would be the key to my success. On Monday the Guardian published an article by Suzanne Moore titled “Working-class kids shouldn’t have to be more middle class to fit in’’. In this article Moore describes how success is now about acting middle class and that certain groups such as the working class may have “no desire to fit in”. In 2003 Theresa Perry communicated a similar point with reference to African-American students. She wrote “can I commit myself to work hard, to achieve in a school, if cultural adaption effectively function as a prerequisite for skills acquisition, where ‘the price of the ticket’ is separation from the culture of my reference group?” What responsibility do schools have to adapt to the culture of their pupils and should children such as white working class pupils have to assimilate to another culture in order to be successful? What role does culture have in bridging the achievement gap?

The answer for some is a meritocratic society. In 1958 Michael Young coined the word “meritocracy” in his satirical book “The Rise of Meritocracy”.  Here he described a system where the class system in England had been eroded and replaced by one of talent and ability. Throughout his life Michael Young remained frustrated with how this word was picked up and used by politicians, including Tony Blair, who failed to understand the point of his story. Even though I worked for 5 years at the Young Foundation, an organisation created out of his legacy, I too failed to understand the message that Young was trying to make about class and talent. In his book Young spoke from the point of view of a sociologist in 2034 looking back on the past 163 years of education over which time an IQ driven education system had been created. He used this story to talk about his issues with the 1944 Education Act’s 11-plus exam and selective education system, and predicts the dangers of a more polarised yet meritocratic society. He conjured up an image of a talent obsessed society where those seen as talentless were conscious of their inadequacies and deserved failure. Is this not in part about how we judge and view talent which is also determined by culture? I have recently come across the work of Psychologist Professor Robert Plomin around genetics and educational achievement which reminded me of Young’s story. Plomin was coincidently called as a witness for the Education Select Committee’s inquiry into white working class underachievement. Polmin believes that genetics should be a part of teacher training so that teachers are able to personalise their teaching to draw out individuals’ talents. He also speaks about how DNA analysis could be used to create a learning chip with a “reliable genetic predictor” of strength and weaknesses. As someone who places their success down to environmental factors such as family and education I worry about Plomin’s work and how it could be interpreted. We have enough prejudice within our system. As Young predicted this could be more damaging than existing prejudices based on class and race. Whilst an approach based on genetics could be used to address the individual needs of white working class children, it will also introduce further prejudices into our education system.

Prejudices are not a thing of the past and are yet to be tackled head on in schools. It was only in the late 1980s that our first non-white MPs were elected since 1922. Stephen Lawrence’s murder was just over 20 years ago and exposed institutional racism in the UK. In 2008 a longitudinal study was published by the Department for Education which showed that certain ethnicities suffered from low teacher expectation. But prejudice is not just about race and ethnicity. It can be due to factors such as class or perceived intelligence. More must be done to understand the issues affecting the white working class as well as the specific barriers they face in schools. The number of working class MPs continue to fall and evidence submitted to the Education Select Committee referred to the “demise of culture” and “loss identity” in white working class communities. What can be done to tackle this and how can we use cultural identity as a tool to support and engage working class pupils?  A tricky balance is required in our schools where we do not judge people’s ability based on their backgrounds but are still able to understand their experiences, values and motivations in order to create an education system that can connect to them as individuals and bridge cultural divides.

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