It’s not racist to want to help white working class kids

Labour leadership hopeful Liz Kendall came under fire over the weekend for comments about white working class children.

The outrage followed a speech by Kendall in which she claimed that more needed to be done to help children "particularly from white working class communities" to get on.

These comments were widely attacked as somehow being a dog-whistle to Ukip voters. But were they?

I guess it's possible. It's always tempting to ascribe the worst possible motives to politicians, especially those currently seeking higher office. However, I think it seems unlikely in this case. For one thing Kendall is reportedly the most pro-immigration of all the Labour leadership contenders.

She also made the comments during a speech about education. It therefore seems far more likely that Kendall was actually referring to a very real, but little discussed problem – the underperformance of white working class (WWC) children in the UK.

Multiple studies have raised concerns that white children in poorer families are doing significantly worse than those from similarly deprived ethnic minority families.

According to a report by the Education Select Committee last year, just 32% of white British children on free school meals achieve five good GCSEs compared with 42% of black Caribbean children and 61% of disadvantaged Indian children.

This underperformance was found among both sexes and even in parts of the country like London where pupils have higher than average outcomes.

There are several possible reasons for this imbalance. The first and most obvious is that it is the result of generations of inequality in poorer areas. Poorer children do worse at school because they don't have access to the same resources and opportunities as their better off friends. Middle and upper class parents are also much more able to move within the catchment of better schools, especially as the housing crisis has deepened. This inequality of opportunity is being passed from generation to generation and becoming entrenched within communities.

However, none of this explains why ethnic minority children from areas of similar deprivation, are doing so much better. One reason for this is possibly cultural. Migrants, almost by definition, are typically highly motivated and determined to succeed. They are therefore more likely to pass this attitude down to their children and grandchildren.

It is also possible that we are not really comparing like with like. Many migrants, like my own grandfather, were highly educated and would have been considered middle class in their country of origin, but became working class because of their job and income once they arrived in the UK. It is perhaps not helpful to compare the children of a recently settled but struggling Asian small businessman in a big city, with the children of a white family in a poverty-stricken former mining town.

But whatever the causes, it is undeniably a problem that more politicians should be talking about.

As the National Union of Teachers commented in their report on the problem: "Action to improve white working class pupil achievement is vital. Failing to address the issue appropriately and effectively can fuel racism and prejudice and undermine local communities."

Far from being a racist dog-whistle, Liz Kendall was actually trying to deal with one of the issues that fuels the resentment and racism which has created Ukip in the first place. Indeed one recent study found the problem of underperfomance by WWC kids is something that has been found especially in coastal towns, precisely where Ukip have most support.

Of course there will be some who say that it is wrong in principle to target resources or political attention towards one racial group or another. This is a fair argument, but when white working class kids are doing so much worse than their black and Asian counterparts, it is at least sensible to have a debate about why that is and what we can do about it.

Unfortunately Kendall's solution, which is to raise the 'aspiration' of WWC kids, seems far too simplistic. This is a problem that has been caused by generations of inequality and lack of opportunity. Holding 'aspirations week' in schools as Kendall suggests is not going to be anywhere near enough to solve the problem.

However, it is certainly welcome that a leading politician is focusing on the issue. It's just a shame she has been attacked for it rather than applauded.