Parents are not to blame for the failure of white working class kids

Why are white working class kids falling behind?
Why are white working class kids falling behind?
Adam Bienkov By

White working class parents can be forgiven for feeling under attack this morning.

An investigation by MPs into the underachievement of white working class boys and girls has led to calls for their parents to be fined and even for their kids to be held in permanent after-school detention.

The tone of the coverage is stark. White working class parents are failing their kids and should be fined at best and kept away from their children at worst.

But if you delve into the education committee's report it becomes clear that this is less a story about race and class than it first appears.


While it's undeniably the case that white working class kids do worse than kids from immigrant families overall, this has as much to do with where those kids live, as the colour of their skin.

The committee found that white working class children in London significantly outperformed children in other parts of the country, with underachievement greatest "in deprived coastal towns and rural, less populous regions of the country".

So is the difference simply a matter of London's wealth vs rural poverty? Not exactly.

MPs found that kids from London did better than their rural counterparts in both poor and rich areas of the capital, with white kids on free school meals doing better in both Kensington and Lambeth.

The real difference is the quality of the schools. According to a study by Ofsted, the leadership was judged as 'outstanding' in over four fifths of London schools. This compares to just over a third of schools in the North East. This difference becomes even more stark when you look just at schools in deprived areas. In London, the leadership was judged as outstanding in 38% of schools in deprived areas.  This compares to four per cent (just one school) in the entire North East.

This matters. Ofsted found that 50% of kids on free school meals in outstanding schools achieve five good GCSEs, compared to just 25% of kids in schools judged to be inadequate.

So why are London schools so much better than the rest of the country? A big part of the reason is staff. Talented, well-educated teachers are much more likely to be drawn to London and other big cities than to deprived costal towns and rural areas. High levels of immigration to London have also massively increased the talent pool that schools here can draw upon.

But the difference is also a result of deliberate government policy. In 2003 the then Labour government set up the London Challenge which sought to turn around what were then widespread failings in London schools.

The scheme, which targeted assistance at failing schools and set up leadership networks across the capital led to a dramatic increase in the performance of London schools. Over a decade later and London schools are now the best in the country, with around twice as many judged to be outstanding and very few failing outright.

There have been some attempts to extend the London challenge across the country, with similarly successful trials in schools in Greater Manchester, the Black Country and elsewhere.

But if we really want to tackle the problem of underachievement among white working class kids, we must first look at how schools have been able to tackle it in London and why we have failed to do the same elsewhere.

The coverage today has focused largely on colour and class. But before we start fining white working class parents, or locking their kids away in permanent after-school detention, we should first look at where the real failures lay.

If white working class kids can succeed in London, they can succeed elsewhere. The failure to make that happen lies largely at the government's door, not in our children's homes.

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