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The Underperformance of White Working-Class Students (4)

The principles of Equal Opportunities legislation and regulation in Britain are not necessarily clear to those concerned about the lot of the white working-class, especially when that is linked to prevailing “multiculturalist” policies. Such concern leans towards the notion that neglect of the white working-class stems from zealous attentiveness to the interests of other (minority) ethnicities, underpinned by the current Equal Opportunities regime. I am still not quibbling with the characterization of “white working-class” as an “ethnicity” – more on that in due course. For the moment, let’s go along with the dodgy notion that it is one, comparable to others like black, Asian, and so on (with or without “class” tacked on).  

So, a few notes on what Equal Opportunities mean in Britain, briefly stating the obvious that is not-necessarily-obvious – divided into sections for appropriate emphasis of noting.

[ I ]

In Pursuing Equal Opportunities (2004), liberal philosopher Lesley A. Jacobs gives the following familiar account before complicating it: “At the core of equality of opportunity, in my view, is the concept that in competitive procedures designed for the allocation of  scarce resources and the distribution of benefits and burdens of social life, these procedures should be governed by criteria that are relevant to the particular goods at stake in the competition and not by irrelevant considerations such as race, religion, class, gender, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or other factors that may hinder some of the competitors’ opportunities at success” (p.10). Jacobs goes on to outline grounds other than procedural fairness for Equal Opportunities, to do with background and stakes fairness – but it is procedural fairness that underpins policies in the UK.

Procedural principles in the British government’s Equal Opportunities policies work principally in either of two ways: (1) that benefits have to be distributed equally and to all, irrespective of the irrelevant considerations mentioned by Jacobs (e.g. all infants are entitled to free school meals); or (2) that benefits have to be targeted equally according to need (by some kind of Means Testing), irrespective of the irrelevant considerations (e.g. beyond infants, those who have demonstrable need are eligible for free school meals). These principles apply, depending on the kind of benefit or resource in question, either to all who are legally in domicile in the UK or to all citizens.

It is immediately obvious that these principles do not encourage resources to be directed towards any constituency because of ethnicity, race, gender, religion etc. (these are not Positive Discrimination or Affirmative Action principles). And yet, legislation on their basis is understood as anti-discrimination. That’s mainly in a passive rather than active sense: i.e. the leading idea is that if the opportunities for prejudice are minimised all persons should have equal opportunities to benefit in the competition for or distribution of resources. It would be apt to say that in Britain, given the context of these postings, Equal Opportunities apropos ethnicity mainly equate to the Reduction of Opportunities to Exercise Prejudice on the basis of ethnicity.

The reduction of opportunities to discriminate on the grounds of ethnicity is often given a positive air by being thought of as involving anti-discriminatory interventions which limit such opportunities, such as: laws criminalizing racially aggravated behaviour and actions, encouraging visibility for ethnic minorities amidst an overwhelming sway of majorities in all kinds of representation (from images in popular culture to membership in committees). These, however, need to be differentiated from equal opportunities interventions which tend to get conflated with the former, but which are in fact offered according to need and irrespective of ethnicity. So, it might seem that eligibility for free school meals (if considered an intervention) benefit certain ethnic minorities more than others (such as black or Bangladeshi). However, that’s because these minorities are particularly disadvantaged and therefore meet the eligibility requirements more often – not because these interventions are meant to serve them particularly.

In brief, there is little about the Equal Opportunities regime in the UK which actually directs resources or benefits to ethnic minorities at the expense of others.

Significantly for this series of postings, though, the above general principles of Equal Opportunities do leave a little space for flexibility, and school education is an area where this little space is exercised: there are some funded initiatives (interventions) which are directly targeted towards ethnic minorities. These are detailed in a Department of Education Research Report A compendium of evidence on ethnic minority resilience to the effects of deprivation on attainment  (Stokes et al, June 2015), pp.26-30. Most significant of those is the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant (EMAG), which started in 1999 and was ring-fenced till 2011/12, after which its use by local authorities has been decreasing. A number of smaller and more narrowly-targeted initiatives for black students and new immigrants also feature here. A key thrust of the EMAG was towards improving English language competence for those using another language at home. The record of the EMAG initiative is detailed in a NASUWT report Ethnic Minority Achievement  (April 2012).

[ II ]

We may think of the interventions outlined above as generally consisting in systemic adjustments which operate to effect a reduction of prejudicial procedures without directly advantaging ethnic minorities – i.e. by either applying to all or to those in demonstrable need. What disadvantaged ethnic groups Equal Opportunities Monitoring focuses on influence the kind of interventions that pass into policy, but the interventions are generally not designed to directly advantage those groups but rather to tangentially protect their interests against prejudice.

Here a question arises: how does this regime bear upon an ethnicity which is putatively subject to prejudice (and consequent disadvantages) but isn’t registered in Equal Opportunities Monitoring and therefore escapes the attention of those interventions? 

This is where the “white working class”, as an ethnicity, is often mooted – as one such invisible ethnic group which is subject to prejudice, which is however unregistered in Equal Opportunities Monitoring and therefore misses out on the kinds of interventions outlined above.

Before addressing this way of contemplating the lot of the white working class, let me pause on a more obvious example of invisible disadvantage – i.e. unregistered in Equal Opportunities Monitoring -- which frequently muddies the waters. Low-income categories, or the poor, are by definition subject to disadvantaged conditions; evidence of poverty in the behaviour or appearance of persons may well actuate systematic and widespread prejudice.

The standard Equal Opportunities Monitoring Form doesn’t track income levels, which means that affluence or poverty is not significantly factored into those anti-discrimination interventions. That doesn’t mean that income levels are not tracked at all – they are just not tracked in this sphere, for the purpose of checking the effect of anti-discrimination policies. They are tracked for other purposes though, which are kept at some distance from this sphere: in, for instance, data on consumption indexes (such as, household income, expenditure or borrowing). If statisticians put their minds to it, they could find correlations between existing data on income levels and, say, performance in national testing. But here’s a point where the purpose for which data is collected affects the range of statistical tabulation (contrary to using data which exists wherever it could be used): in tabulating performance in national testing it is simply easier and seems more relevant to correlate to the kind of data available through Equal Opportunities Monitoring. That’s also an underlying reason for the self-perpetuating way in which ethnicity tracking spreads.

So, when it comes to tracking income levels in relation to national school tests and ethnicity, the only parameter which seems relevant and easily available is eligibility for free school meals.

A simple argument against tracking income levels is that, unlike the other factors which are foregrounded for Equal Opportunities Monitoring (ethnicity, gender, religion etc.), income level can be and is subject to direct and targeted benefits and resources. It doesn’t need interventions; it is subject to direct compensations as a fundamental principle of liberal welfare government (albeit a principle that is now dying painfully). Income level is one of the key measurements of need, so that compensatory benefits can be given directly to those who are poor and whose need is established through Means Tests. Being disadvantaged through ethnicity does not mean that direct benefits are targeted to certain ethnic groups; but being registered as poor does mean that they are so targeted. The criteria determining eligibility for free school meals are effectively Means Tests for targeting resources directly to the poor.

[ III ]

It is obvious that those who are concerned about the lot of the white working class don’t think of this category as “the poor”, and don’t feel that putative neglect of the white working class is answered by compensation through Means Tests. They do rather feel that white working class is an ethnicity, subject to the kind of prejudice that appears on the basis of minority ethnicity/race; and, moreover, an ethnicity that is neglected because interventions to protect minority ethnicities do not extend to the white working class. Presumably, they would be happier if “white working class” appeared in Equal Opportunities Monitoring Forms and became a factor to bear in mind for those “multiculturalist” interventions – which, it is worth remembering, generally apply either universally or according to need, and do not direct resources specifically to disadvantaged minorities.

The question follows: where in the standard Equal Opportunities Monitoring Form should the white working class feature and what would its appearance there indicate? 

By being dubbed an “ethnicity” it seems to be mooted for inclusion among other ethnicities, amidst that confusing list of terms bringing together racial and geopolitical terms (black-African, black-Caribbean, Asian-Indian, Asian-Bangladeshi, Chinese etc.). Of course, “white” (British and other) features there already – and that tacitly contains “white working class”. The argument is that the prejudice that putatively attaches to the “white working class” is not so much due to perceived whiteness, as peculiarly due to the conjunction of that with working-classness, and is akin therefore to the prejudice that may attach to black or Asian. But if working-classness accentuates prejudice against white persons, it might do so also for black persons, Asian persons, and other minority ethnicities too. Being neither a racial nor a geopolitical term, the bearing of working-classness on all those minority ethnicity terms may well be uniform. The reasonable way to include it in the ethnicity columns of Equal Opportunities Monitoring Forms would be to have “white working class” under “white”, and correspondingly “black working class” under “black”, and so on. Perhaps then we can try to set up a hierarchy of degree of prejudice that accrues to each and then wonder about interventions that may address those -- without, of course, directly targeting distribution of benefits and resources.

We would then be treading a path of ludicrous obsessions with gradations of ethnicity tracking. The fact remains that, as the overwhelming majority of British working class, the white component therein is the norm – the, so to speak, default setting. Racist prejudice against black persons, for example, can be gauged by understanding that the default setting is such; otherwise the very recognition of such racist prejudice will disappear into a grid of fluid combinations of terms. 

The alternative might be to argue that the prejudice that attaches to the white working class is not comparable to that attached to the black (or other minority) working class; rather, it is a prejudice that is peculiar and particular unto itself, and more along the lines of the prejudice that are tracked for ethnicity in general, gender, sexual-orientation, disability, religion. That is, it should appear at the same level as those in the Equal Opportunities Monitoring Form, and not as a sub-category within “white” ethnicity.

But that would privilege attitudes to what’s perceived as whiteness unfairly against perceptions attached to ethnic minorities (and the majority whites) covered in the “ethnicity” column, won’t it? Seems even more preposterous a move.

Pushing such arguments to the limits of absurdity has a point. It makes us wonder what exactly is at stake for those concerned about the lot of “white working class” – rather than, say, the “British working class” or the “working class” itself or perhaps the “poor working class”? Why is “white working class” such a catch-phrase across the ideological spectrum, so glibly chucked around in the media, in government reports, in academic publications? I will have more to say on this in another posting.

At any rate, it seems that concern about the lot of the white working class cannot be reasonably factored into the existing “multiculturalist” Equal Opportunities regime and neither can it be reasonably cited to argue against that regime.

[ IV ]

But I seem to have strayed from the theme of these postings: concern about the underperformance of white working-class students. And I haven’t answered the question I raised in the previous posting, despite promising to: what bearing does disquiet about the underperformance of white working-class students have on Equal Opportunities principles, or, more precisely, on the monitoring thereof for schooling and education? The above notes set the ground to consider that question, and the next posting will do so.