education

How white working-class underachievement has been used to demonise antiracism | David Gillborn


There is a tragicomic element to the title of the latest report by MPs: The forgotten: how white working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it. If there is one group that has featured consistently in newspaper headlines, thinktank scare stories and government rhetoric about education over the last decade, it is the “white working class”.

Since 2010 the education select committee has conducted dozens of formal inquiries; only two have focused on a single ethnic group and both were about the white working class. This gives a clue as to why the report is so controversial and so dangerous; it is the latest step in an ongoing campaign to use the underachievement of poor white people as a weapon to demonise antiracism and keep the same people angry at the wrong target.

Let’s be clear: a genuine focus on the underachievement of children who receive free school meals (FSM) is long overdue. These kids are less likely to succeed academically and more likely to be excluded than children of average wealth – which puts them at heightened risk of long-term unemployment and involvement in the criminal justice system. Many inequalities in performance are already present when kids enter schooling at the age of five, and the gaps tend to get bigger as they move through the education system. Governments of every political shade have proclaimed a desire to “close the gap”, but none have delivered. Instead, in recent years we have been served a constant stream of misinformation and distraction.

Back in 2007 the BBC aired the White Season. The series was advertised with a trailer showing a white man’s face being slowly obliterated by black ink, as numerous hands (mostly Brown and Black) wrote non-English script across his face. The scene dissolved to a black screen with the tag line: “Is white working class Britain becoming invisible?” The image was visceral at the time and, after Brexit and the rise in race hatred that accompanied the 2016 referendum, it now feels inflammatory and reckless.

See also  Reaction: councils and unions to defy government over school reopenings

So what’s wrong with a focus on white working-class pupils? First, “working-class” children are not the same as those on free school meals. The latest report – as well as almost every headline on this topic over the past decade – has reported data on this group of children in poverty under the banner “working class”. This makes for impressive soundbites, but it grossly misrepresents the scale of the issue. In Britain around 60% of adults think of themselves as working class; but free school meals kids make up only around 15% of white pupils in state schools. Simply by replacing “FSM” with “working class”, the MPs’ report exaggerates the size of the issue by a factor of four. Not only that, it makes 60% of adults feel that their children are being held back unfairly.

And, contrary to the reporting, white children on free school meals are not the lowest attaining group. FSM children in every ethnic group do less well than their wealthier counterparts.

In fact, Gypsy and Roma children consistently achieve much lower outcomes than any other group; in the latest figures white FSM children are four times more likely to achieve good passes in English and maths GCSEs than children from Gypsy/Roma backgrounds. In addition, there is negligible difference in attainment between white FSM children and Black Caribbean or dual-heritage (so called “mixed-race”) students, with one white parent and one of Black Caribbean heritage.

A decision to focus on poor white children, to the exclusion of all others on free school meals, is perverse at best, racist at worst. In fact this is noted in the minority report, put forward by the select committee’s Labour members, who say: “Only addressing the barriers facing disadvantaged white students would systematically disadvantage other ethnic groups and increase racial educational inequalities.”

It is revealing that the majority of the committee ignored the fact that their focus on white FSM children may be in breach of the Equality Act 2010. Indeed, their report argues that focusing on race inequities for ethnic minorities runs the risk of schools contravening their duty to be politically impartial. They especially criticise the notion of white privilege – a line of attack made by equalities minister Kemi Badenoch last October, and repeated in the government’s infamous Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.

“White privilege” is a convenient target because the word “privilege” is easy to pillory when talking about people who live in poverty. But to imagine that antiracism boils down to a single concept, while ignoring the actual meaning of that concept and the multiple examples of racism all around us, is to wilfully shut down discussion of the subject. Is it really so difficult to understand that white people, no matter how poor, don’t suffer disadvantage from being white in a racist society? Do the massive racial disparities on stop and search, death in custody and exclusion from school – which all impact negatively on Black people – count for nothing?

This is where the hypocrisy of the select committee report is so blatant. It echoes the government line that antiracism – all antiracism – is divisive. Whether it’s teaching about Black history, asserting the simple claim that “Black Lives Matter”, or silently taking the knee before a sporting event; there is no antiracist act that white racists find acceptable.

And here is the remarkable double standard of the report: it argues that talking about racism is divisive, while imagining that “by highlighting the hardships faced by many white people from disadvantaged backgrounds, our inquiry may help advance a new way to discuss disadvantage without pitting different groups against each other”. And so the committee imagines that by targeting resources on poor white children, division can be avoided. If that’s not privileging white people, I’d like to know what is.

David Gillborn is emeritus professor of critical race studies at the University of Birmingham



READ SOURCE

Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.  Learn more