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The surprising scale of educational inequality

Rakib’s Britain: Why have working-class white boys fallen behind?

Artillery Row

“The surprising scale of educational inequality” is the latest article in Rakib Ehsan’s online column for The Critic, “Rakib’s Britain”. The previous article, on family-centred policy, can be read here.


One of the most counterintuitive facts about modern Britain, especially for those with liberal temperaments, is that white working-class teenagers in England’s post-industrial towns, coastal communities and deprived rural areas are among the least likely to go to university.

Back in January 2021, Chris Millward, the OfS director of fair access and participation, bluntly described the way white working-class communities have missed out: “The expansion of educational opportunities, and the belief that equality of opportunity would flow from this, have not delivered for them,” he remarked. “So, they are less likely to see education as the way to improve their lives.”

Recently-published Department for Education (DfE) figures revealed striking ethno-racial disparities when it comes to progression rates into British universities. White pupils were the least likely to progress to higher education by nineteen years of age (39.7 per cent). The likelihood rises to 48.1 per cent for mixed race pupils, 62.1 per cent for black pupils, 65.7 per cent for Asian-origin pupils and 81.0 per cent for Chinese-heritage pupils. For white male pupils on free school meals (FSM), this figure crashed to just 13.6 per cent for 2020/21. 

Some white working-class boys feel forced to conceal their identity

It is safe to say that broader racial categories such as “white”, “black” and “Asian” are unhelpful as they mask notable ethnic-group differences based on educational performance. What is clear is that higher-education participation is relatively low among white working-class pupils — especially young boys. 

Of course, this should raise questions over the lack of impactful outreach work British universities are doing in white working-class communities. To what extent are universities engaging with young people in such communities — especially pupils who are academically bright but also uncertain over the value of higher education in the labour market? These students suffer from a lack of knowledge of relevant application and interview processes.

University leaders have all too often spoken the language of “diversity, equality and inclusion” — but have they acknowledged that some white working-class boys feel forced to conceal their identity in order to navigate the world of higher education? Another problem — which is often overlooked — is that further education apprenticeships in provincial working-class communities are failing to act as a springboard to higher education. 

It is also worth exploring the degree of educational underinvestment across coastal towns and deprived rural communities in the regions. England remains one of the most inter-regionally imbalanced nations in the industrialised world. 

Recent data analysis carried out by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) found that the four local authorities in England with the highest rates of “persistent absence” among schoolchildren were all in the South West of England: Devon, Cornwall, Plymouth and Torbay (which includes seaside towns such as Torquay, Paignton and Brixham). Meanwhile, white pupil performance by average Attainment 8 scores (pupils’ results across eight GCSE-level qualifications) is particularly poor in north-west English local authorities such as Knowsley, Blackpool and Salford (37.6, 41.3 and 44.2 out of 90 respectively). 

To put this in perspective, the average Attainment 8 score for pupils in England for 2020/21 was 50.9 out of 90.0. There is a swathe of predominantly-white communities in the regions which are being well and truly “left behind” in an educational sense. 

The structural disadvantage faced by young white pupils in left-behind communities needs to be recognised by politicians and policymakers — but we must guard against reaching simplistic system-blaming conclusions. Some of the explanations can be found in the home and the wider local community. 

There are myriad social and cultural factors that feed into educational outcomes in multi-ethnic England. This includes family structure, promotion of academic excellence in the household and markers of social status in local neighbourhoods. Parental monitoring of anti-study technological influences is certainly key in this context.

The socio-cultural dynamics within Britain’s high-flying Chinese-origin population is worthy of attention. Based on my experience of the Chinese-heritage community in my hometown of Luton, there is an exceptionally high value placed on education, including paying for supplementary tutoring (irrespective of financial barriers which have steadily reduced over time). That focus on schooling is complemented by a broader cultural emphasis on hard work and determination, combined with robust parental intervention and an unshakeable belief in social mobility. 

There is no magic bullet for educational outcomes

Here in the UK, there is a strong overlap between Britain’s Chinese-heritage and Indian-origin populations when it comes to family characteristics and cultural dynamics. Both feature well-ordered family units where high educational attainment is often viewed as the safest route towards economic self-sufficiency and long-term financial security.

For certain ethnic-minority groups which are residentially concentrated in a particular part of the country, improvements in institutional standards across a select number of schools can go a long way. Over the last two decades, there has been a serious jump in the level of school attainment among England-based pupils of Bangladeshi origin. Heavily concentrated in east London, much of this can be attributed to improvements in teaching supply across a string of schools in boroughs such as Tower Hamlets. Key interventions included the state-funded “London Challenge” scheme and sharpened forms of school governance fostered by the government’s academies programme. In addition to this, the “Teach First” programme provided a diverse pool of talented and idealistic new teachers to schools serving disadvantaged communities in traditionally poorer London boroughs. This has been transformative for Bangladeshi-heritage pupils in east London (who, when compared with their white British peers, have the added advantage of being relatively rooted in traditional family-oriented social structures).

What all of this shows is that there is no magic bullet when it comes to improving educational outcomes in modern-day Britain. A multitude of socio-cultural and socio-structural factors feed into school attainment and progression rates to university. Government intervention and university outreach work has its role to play in widening higher-education participation. As well as stepping up our efforts to tackle entrenched regional inequalities, there should be a wider discussion regarding family structure, the degree of parental optimism over the benefits of education, and the extent to which studying and performing well at school is valued in local communities. 

Only by rejecting reductive narratives and understanding the complex range of factors which shape educational outcomes, will we be able to create a more inclusive and participatory education system in 21st century Britain. 

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