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The Underperformance of White Working-Class Students (1)

A gradually intensifying concern has been rumbling in British news media since around 2010, to do with the underperformance of white working-class students compared to other ethnic groups in the same socio-economic category. Almost every broadsheet and tabloid and broadcaster, across the ideological spectrum, has addressed the issue, usually soon after GCSE or A-level results are announced, and sometimes in the interims. Such concern is backed up by statistical evidence, which is naturally summarised for clarity in news reports and refer to more detailed reports from various governmental bodies. It is evident that the problem has been fairly carefully investigated and discussed in governmental and other policy-determining circles. More detailed accounts than news reports offer are found in, to name a few: the Ofsted report 2013/14, and in every subsequent year; a House of Commons Education Committee Report of 2014-15; a Department of Education Research Report of June 2015; the CentreForum’s Annual Report on English Education 2016.

News reports, however, primarily set the tone of public concern, and insofar as these attend to statistical evidence an immediate reduction of complexity without sacrificing veracity is found. A typical way in which such evidence is cited would be with figures and/or graphic representation such as the following:

 

Percentage those on free school meals getting 5 GCSEs of C or above

From Tim Wigmore’s report in the New Statesman, 20 August 2015

 

The parameters of these figures seem immediately clear. They refer to GCSE grades (or from other national tests) as collated in January 2015 to gauge “performance”. Incidentally, in examining figures and what they mean in this and subsequent postings I focus on those given in 2015. Students entitled to and claiming free school meals translate to students from “working class” backgrounds. Occasionally, and more meaningfully, they have been characterised as the “poor” – but the characterization as “working class” is itself of interest, and worth bearing in mind. In 2015 students at primary level and above (all infants aged 4-7 were entitled to free school meals) from families claiming various benefits and generally with annual family incomes under £16,000 were entitled to free school meals (see entitlement criteria). “Ethnicity” refers to the confusing mixture of racial and geopolitical terms which are set for statistical purposes by British Equal Opportunities legislation and monitoring, and the above bar chart simplifies the gradations that are available – other reports often select more disaggregated or more consolidated figures. So, from the available statistical records it is easy to divide: “white” into “white British” and “white other”; “black” into “black Caribbean” and “black African”; “Asian” into “Indian”, “Pakistani”, “Bangladeshi”; and “mixed” into various combinations of those. “Chinese” usually stands indivisible, and other ethnicities can be tracked, such as Travellers and Gypsy or Arab.   

Beyond recognising these parameters and recording the figures, news reports almost never pause on their remit and interpretation. Such a presentation of statistical evidence immediately solidifies into a received truth-claim, acts as a rhetorical persuasion device, confirming that a problem has appeared: white working-class students are performing worse than their equivalents in other ethnic groups. The truth-claim doesn’t dispel scepticism, but scepticism thereafter tends not to attach to the statistical basis or method – if there is scepticism, it shifts the ground of argument elsewhere, at times to other received statistical truth-claims, more often to historical or cultural insight or polemics. More frequently, commentators simply go along with the truth-claim; that is, by not treating the identified problem as a received truth-claim but as a received truth that needs to be accepted and then addressed. That also takes easy recourse to historical or cultural insight or polemics. This is in fact also the case in the kind of policy-centred governmental and other reports cited above, though they are for smaller and more informed circulations, and present considerably more graded and nuanced levels of statistical information. But such reports are not designed for critical reading; they are designed to raise the problem with enough evidence so that the problem can be acted upon in an informed manner. They often come with recommendations and executive summaries which pre-empt the lines of pragmatic response. In policy circles the overwhelming questions are: what to do about this problem?; does anything need to be done about this problem?

News reports and features may have certain kinds of policy advocacy in view, but they also have a bit more purchase on expressing an opinion, wheeling out sceptical or dismissive or alarmist or whatever other notes are likely to appeal to their readers. So, while not examining the statistical basis whereby the problem is identified, a range of positions have been taken about this truth-claim in news outlets. Some have regarded this as predominantly to do with socio-economic class, and its characterization as “white” a meaningless distraction from that. In this strain, the timing of this problem seems of particular interest: since it has surfaced especially after the financial crisis of 2008 and amidst neoliberal austerity-led disinvestments and squeeze on public funding (not least on education), a connection is suspected.  Others take this as a matter of ethnicity and regard “white working class” as an apt description, and tend to contextualise in terms of British working-class history. The latter are apt to feel unhappy about the neglect that white working-class people in Britain have suffered since Margaret Thatcher’s tenure, particularly since the coal-miner’s strike of 1984-85, and feel correspondingly nostalgic about working-class lifestyle and collective pride before that (a white working-class “ethnicity” appears to make sense in looking back nostalgically). To the latter it sometimes seems meaningful to contrast such neglect (of a majority) with the policy-driven concern that ethnic minorities have putatively enjoyed since the 1980s; “multiculturalist policies” look like the shadowy other that defines the neglect that the white working-class has suffered of late. 

It is not my intention to immediately take a position on one or the other side of such arguments. The statistical indications noted above naturally need to be taken seriously, and carefully analysed and weighed, before anything like that is attempted. The connotations of thinking in terms of ethnicity and class, and the deployment of such terms in media and policy reports, call for considered pause. In fact, it seems to me that the news and policy reports mentioned above do not actually present a single problem but a constellation of intricately related problems, many of which are not quite what readers might take away from the aforementioned reports.

Subsequent postings with the same heading will be devoted to unpacking that constellation of problems surrounding evidence of underperformance of white working-class students in Britain.

My focus in the subsequent postings will be on the kinds of statistical figures cited already: around the parameters of ethnicity, eligibility for free school meals, and performance in national-level testing. This means that I will not be giving similarly detailed attention to another set of statistically informed truth-claims of closely related interest: the proportional under-representation of white working-class (and indeed white generally) students in British universities compared to equivalent categories from ethnic minority groups (for recent reports on that, check here and here).

Suman Gupta

May 2016